Sowing the Seeds of Innovation

By Harris Meyer

Seed IP Law Group Members
Seed IP attorneys: (L to R) Matthew L. Barker, Jared M. Barrett, Richard G. Sharkey, Lorraine Linford, William O. Ferron, Jr., James Fearon Brown, Eric A. Harwood
Photo credit: Kerry Dahlen

When you walk into the the Seed Intellectual Property Law Group office, on the 54th floor of the Columbia Center Building in downtown Seattle, it looks much like other corporate law firms. What makes it very different is that most of its attorneys are engineers or scientists – chemists, biologists, physicists, geneticists, and physiologists – many with doctorates and post-doctoral research experience.

Ten of them are UW Law graduates, some of whom also have undergraduate or graduate training in engineering or science from UW.

Seed IP, founded in 1962 by Richard W. Seed and Benjamin F. Berry as Seed & Berry, has grown into a firm of more than 40 attorneys and 70-plus staff. It provides comprehensive services to help solo inventors, startup companies, mid-size firms, and multinational corporations protect their valuable intellectual property. Its work includes patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, unfair competition, licensing, enforcement, litigation, and mediation.

UW Law alumnus Richard G. Sharkey ’87 fondly recalls working as a new associate with the late founders Seed and Berry, who strongly believed in democratic governance and egalitarianism at the firm. “I had the same number of votes as Dick Seed, which was intimidating,” Sharkey says with a laugh. He also remembers that the firm got a lot of phone calls asking whether it sold seeds.

Seed IP managing partner Karl R. Hermanns says his firm prefers to hire UW Law graduates and other qualified local attorneys. He says it’s challenging to find attorneys with the appropriate technical background for IP work plus good communications and writing skills. But UW Law, he adds, has done an excellent job beefing up its IP law program under the leadership of faculty members Toshiko Takenaka and Robert Gomulkiewicz.

Hermanns and another Seed IP partner, David V. Carlson, started teaching a patent prosecution course at UW Law nearly a dozen years ago. They used to do it every other year but now offer it yearly because more students are interested in IP law. Their last course had nearly 20 students.

Seed IP is one of a dwindling number of IP boutique firms in the Northwest and across the country. Many were acquired by general practice law firms eager for a piece of this lucrative practice field. Hermanns and the other UW Law alumni stress the advantages of working in a specialty shop with deeply experienced IP attorneys. “We focus on the one thing we do very well,” Hermanns says. “We’re solely devoted to providing a platform for attorneys to do excellent intellectual property work for our clients.”

Unlike some other fields of legal practice, which have been hit hard by the bad economy of the last few years, the IP law business has remained relatively stable and Seed IP attorneys are busy, Hermanns says. This is a particularly hectic and challenging time, because the America Invents Act, passed by Congress in 2011, took effect March 16 of this year. That law, which Hermanns calls the largest statutory change in patent law in more than half a century, dramatically shifts the U.S. ground rules from a first-to-invent system of awarding patents to a first-to-file system, which is the standard in Europe.

“Everyone is trying to figure out the new landscape for that,” says Seed IP senior partner and UW Law alumnus William O. Ferron Jr.  ’81. “We’re trying to get word out to clients so they understand how the importance of how the new first-to-file regime might affect their rights.”

What follows are profiles of eight UW Law graduates working at Seed IP, some of whom started as summer clerks during law school.  Ferron and Sharkey have been there the longest, arriving in 1979 and 1986, respectively. Lorraine Linford joined in 1991. Qing (Becky) Lin and Hai Han came on in the early 2000s, while Jared M. Barrett, Eric A. Harwood, and Matthew L. Barker arrived more recently. Two other UW Law alumni, Shoko I. Leek and James Fearon Brown, were not available for interviews.

All the UW Law alumni at Seed IP stress that intellectual property practice is a high-stakes field. That’s because clients’ intellectual property is their most valuable asset -- and the attorneys feel intense pressure to win legal protections for those inventions.

Despite the pressure, they express a passion for the work, which lets them combine their love for science with the law. They enjoy developing long-term relationships with inventors and client companies. And they take pride in helping clients protect and spread brilliant new technologies that improve the health and well-being of people around the world.

William O. Ferron Jr. ’81

Seed IP senior partner William O. Ferron Jr. laughs when asked why he decided to switch from engineering to law. “One day after getting my engineering diploma, I was ankle deep in concrete pouring a highway bridge deck. Five months later I went to law school.”

When he started at Seed & Berry as a law clerk in 1979, the firm had only seven attorneys. Graduating from UW Law in 1981, he joined Seed & Berry as an attorney at a seminal moment in technology development. He soon found himself sitting next to Bill Gates and going over the first version of Microsoft Windows. When Apple claimed in 1988 that Microsoft Windows 2 infringed its copyright with the overlapping windows design, Ferron served as copyright attorney on the legal team that eventually won a summary judgment for Microsoft. To this day he continues to do copyright and trademark work for the software giant.

A past president of the Washington State Patent Law Association, Ferron has built many long-term client relationships counseling leading Northwest companies on patent, trademark, and copyright issues. “When you represent a company for 30 years over the course of different issues, you feel like you contribute to their success,” he says. “It’s very satisfying.”

More recently he has developed new areas of practice. He has begun serving as an expert witness on intellectual property matters, sometimes on behalf of attorneys facing malpractice claims. He recently helped favorably resolve a case filed against a deceased attorney’s estate. “This allows me to draw on my experience and bring perspective to what’s going on when people are angry or upset,” he says. “That’s rewarding.”

He’s also started serving as a certified mediator in domestic and international trademark disputes. “U.S. trademark rights are different from European rights, and it’s hard for courts to get a good result. A negotiated agreement between the parties can often be the best solution.”

As for Seed IP itself, Ferron, who formerly served as managing partner, says he’s most proud of how the firm has remained very collegial even as it’s grown and changed. “People are here because they want to be here, working cooperatively, treating everyone well,” he says. “That makes it a satisfying spot to show up every day.”

Richard G. Sharkey ’87

Richard G. Sharkey was a Ph.D. research biochemist who wanted to practice environmental law and chose to attend UW Law. He wanted an environmental law clerkship. But due to federal funding cutbacks for such positions in 1986, he instead accepted a patent law clerkship at Seed & Berry. Knowing nothing about patent law, he was assigned to read and report back on a scientific journal article for a case in which UW scientists were seeking to patent their method of making oysters edible all year round.

His technical analysis of the article aided in Seed’s prosecution of the oyster case, which on appeal became Ex parte Allen. While no patent was ever granted, the case concluded with the U.S. Patent Office Board of Appeals issuing a momentous ruling that genetically engineered animals are patentable subject matter. “It was fortuitous that I was involved in that,” he says.

Since graduating from UW Law in 1987, Sharkey has been involved in other important technological advances as a patent attorney at Seed IP, where he has served on the management committee and is now a senior partner. He represented Maryland-based GlycoMimetics, which is in the latter stages of FDA clinical trials of a product that relieves the tremendous pain suffered by sickle cell anemia patients from abnormal red blood cells getting stuck in capillaries. He represented the firm in signing a partnership agreement with Pfizer for the drug. The technology, he says, may have applications in other clinical areas, including cancer and inflammation.

He also won patent protection for a sexual lubricant called Pre-Seed, developed by two female reproductive physiologists at Washington State University, which appears to assist sperm in fertilizing eggs. The product is now sold at major pharmacies. Some couples have offered testimonials saying the product helped them conceive a child. Sharkey says he feels good about both the clients’ success, the blessed results for customers, and his role. “There are children who have been born who may not have been without this discovery,” he says.

More recently, he and his Seed IP colleagues started working with a Mill Creek-based company, NanoICE,, that has developed a form of ice with a different molecular composition. It provides faster cooling and doesn’t melt as quickly a regular ice, enabling people to preserve perishable foods and medicines better. The company’s chief, Craig Rominger, has launched a nonprofit arm to work on world hunger issues. Sharkey and his colleagues have filed pending patent applications for the company and have also provided trademark representation.

As a former scientist, Sharkey says he greatly enjoys learning about and being involved with such valuable, cutting-edge research and development work. “I’m in complete awe about the creativity and hard work,” he says. “I know how many experiments fail. So I understand when an inventor comes to me, I’m not seeing the tons of failed experiments that the inventor worked through to come up with this great invention.”

Lorraine Linford ’91

Lorraine Linford was in her last year of studying aeronautical and astronautical engineering at UW when she decided that while she enjoyed that field, law would be more interesting over a lifetime of work. One of her professors suggested patent law. So she went straight to UW Law, clerking for two years at Seed, and joining the firm as an associate when she graduated in 1991.

   Now a Seed IP partner, she helps clients obtain and enforce patents in the mechanical and aeronautical fields, and helps obtain and enforce trademarks in markets ranging from consumer goods to medical devices. Beyond that, her favorite part of the job is advising clients on strategic planning. After grasping their business goals, she uses tools from intellectual property law to achieve those goals while also addressing broader practical and business issues.

“Our clients are releasing products on tight timelines, and I work with them on real-world solutions for marketing, enforcement, and licensing of their intellectual property,” Linford says. “A lot of times there is a pure legal answer to a question. It’s more helpful to clients if you don’t just answer the legal question but also the help them make a decision that takes account of all the issues affecting their competitive advantage.”

One of her primary and longest-standing patent clients is Kent-based Flow International Corp., which produces ultrahigh-pressure waterjet cutting systems used in many industries. Linford and Seed helped Flow obtain and enforce patents and trademarks around the world for the company’s Dynamic Waterjet ©   technology, a major advance allowing manufacturers to cut parts with significantly increased accuracy.

Competitors have tried to use both the technology and the name “dynamic” in various forms, but Seed IP has protected Flow from infringement. “I’m glad we were able to help them protect their brand and protect a significant advance in their field that they should be proud of,” she says.

She’s also pleased to have worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect its innovations in hydraulic hybrid vehicles, a clean technology invented by the agency’s own engineers. That technology increases gas mileage and avoids the problem of disposing of toxic electric batteries. The EPA has worked with private industry partners to bring it to market, and United Parcel Service has adopted it in some of its delivery trucks. “That has huge potential in the auto industry,” she says.

Linford says she loves her work at Seed IP. She left the fold once, for a job at a California law firm in 1997, but came back in 1999. “I like our singular focus on IP law, I like our philosophy, and I like the culture, where people bounce ideas off each other,” she says. “But at the core I like the people. They are my friends.”

Qing (Becky) Lin ’00

Even though Qing (Becky) Lin did many years of research in biological sciences, earning a doctorate in molecular biology and doing post-doctor work, she says she lacked the patience to do lab research. So she decided to switch to law, choosing UW Law partly because it was located in a coastal city like her hometown in China. Both UW and her subsequent career in patent law “turned out to be a really good choice,” she says.

Graduating with honors from UW Law in 2000, having served as an editor on the law review, she joined Seed IP, where she had worked as a summer associate. She was impressed with Seed IP’s large, experienced team of attorneys in the biotechnology and chemistry practice, and thought she could get solid training.

Lin, now a Seed IP partner, helps U.S. and international companies get patent protection for their technologies and minimize patent infringement risks. In addition, her research and analysis enables companies to decide what patented technologies they need to license or what patent-holding companies they need to collaborate with, acquire, or merge with to move forward with their business goals.

One of her favorite and longest-standing clients is a large provider of bio-sampling technologies. Lin was involved in analyzing personalized medicine technologies -- methods of determining, for instance, whether a person’s genetic background will make a particular drug treatment effective or not – to counsel this company on whether it needed to pursue partnerships or acquisitions. She says her analysis influenced the client’s decision to acquire other companies. “It was just one factor, but it made a difference and furthered their business goal,” she says. “That was satisfying.”

She also enjoys the writing and analytic work, and the opportunity to learn about exciting new technologies -- without have to do the research herself.

With her colleague Hai Han, Lin has traveled to China several times a year since 2004 to develop biotechnology and pharmaceutical clients there and educate them about the importance of patent protection. She and Han have led seminars at the Chinese Intellectual Property Training Center in Beijing. Attendees tell her it’s much easier for them to understand their presentations in Chinese compared with other attorneys’ presentations done in English.

She also taught an IP class in Chinese at UW Law last summer for Chinese attorneys, professors, and law students, as part of UW Law’s Center for Advanced Study & Research on Intellectual Property.

Lin is upbeat about the future of IP law and practice in China, and wants herself and Seed IP to continue to be part of it. “Companies are becoming more aware of the importance of intellectual property,” she says. “They’re more interested in protecting their own property and in respecting other companies’ property.”

Hai Han ’03

When she arrived in Seattle with her husband, whose work brought them to the city in 1998, Hai Han saw going to UW Law School as an opportunity to transcend the narrow science career path she started on as a student in Beijing, China. Following that path, she had gotten a PhD in organic chemistry at Brown University in 1997 and done post-doctoral research at Northwestern University.

But, she says, “my research work seemed less alluring. You dig yourself in deeper and deeper, and the only people who care about your stuff are other academics.” In contrast, going to law school “was a really fun experience for me.” She knew she would practice intellectual property law but enjoyed studying other areas of law as well.

She clerked at Seed IP both summers in law school, graduated in 2003, and immediately joined the firm. While Han, an of counsel attorney,  specializes in chemical and pharmaceutical patents, her broad science training and eclectic interests have enabled her to work on other types of patents as well. One of her favorite clients is a Silicon Valley startup firm that developed a cheaper, flexible material for large-format electronic display screens. Since it’s not rigid like glass, users can curl up their touch screen and carry it away.

To do this client’s patent work, she’s had to brush up and learn more about material science, optics, and electronics, which she enjoys. “They continue to improve their technology and tie it to real-life innovation, and that’s exhilarating,” she marvels. Due to the ongoing innovations, it’s challenging for her to show patentable improvements over the company’s own previous technological advances. “It’s really rewarding to watch the company grow and to see our firm’s contribution in obtaining patent protection worldwide.”

Han and her colleague, Becky Lin, also are working with pharmaceutical clients in their native China, developing business for Seed IP in that burgeoning economy. While Seed IP, unlike larger law firms, lacks an office in China, flying there from Seattle is relatively easy and there’s some overlap in the time zones. More importantly, Han and Lin have both Chinese language fluency and expertise in science and U.S. patent law. “People like us are still rare, and we want to get in at the early stage,” she says.

She’s a bit frustrated with the layers of corporate bureaucracy she finds in China, and the reluctance to invest in research and development on new drugs rather than just generics. But she expects that to change as the Chinese learn more about the U.S. market and regulations, and as profits thin on generic products. “We’re seeing very encouraging signs,” she says.

Jared M. Barrett ’07

Jared M. Barrett was working as a mechanical engineer in Redmond when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks triggered an economic downturn at his company. He started looking for a new direction. His neighbor, a patent attorney, suggested patent law. As a Washington native and UW engineering graduate, Barrett chose to study intellectual property law at UW Law.

During law school, he worked part-time for Seed IP partner William O. Ferron Jr. on projects, and joined Seed IP full-time after graduating from UW Law in 2007. Now Barrett, a newly named partner at Seed IP, works on mechanical patent prosecution and trademark registration and also is active in Internet domain name disputes.

While his client base includes mid-size and large companies, some of his most memorable clients have been smaller firms and solo inventors. “There’s a greater level of excitement with the solo inventors,” he says. “They call you frequently for status updates on their patent applications.”

Under Ferron’s leadership, he’s worked with Ferndale-based Superfeet, a designer of premium footwear insoles founded by two podiatrists. He recently obtained a patent for Superfeet’s new open sandal equipped with an inconspicuous orthotic insert that supports the foot.

“I had to immerse myself in the physiology and structure of the foot,” he says. “It’s a fun company to work with, and it’s exciting to see them move into a new area that allows them to grow and diversify.”

Barrett also keeps busy fending off cybersquatter efforts to register Internet domain names that seek to exploit his clients’ brand names, such as Nordstrom. It takes detective work to identify the cybersquatters and what their motives are.

The challenge is greater now that country-level domain names can be registered with each country, and all have somewhat different procedures. He recently worked with an attorney in Africa to resolve a dispute involving a Cameroon domain name. There was a flurry of activity last year when the .xxx domain was established and pornography operators tried to appropriate famous brand names for their .xxx Web sites.

But he wouldn’t go back to turning a wrench. “There are aspects I miss of being an engineer, such as building physical things,” Barrett says. “But in a sense I still get to build and create.” He also feels fortunate having joined Seed IP. “I see law school friends I graduated with moving among different jobs. It’s rare to stick with one firm right out of the gate. Seed is a great group of people in a great field of law.”

Eric A. Harwood ’09

Seed IP associate Eric A. Harwood says it’s more stressful being a patent attorney than a scientist. “There are a lot more deadlines, and the companies we work for have millions of dollars at stake,” he says. “So the consequences of mistakes are more significant.”

After working for years as a UW-trained, Ph.D. organic chemist developing pharmaceutical products, Harwood decided to go to UW Law School to become a patent attorney. Thanks to sitting in on Seed IP managing partner Karl Hermanns’ Intellectual Property for Scientists class, he started working at Seed IP prior to entering law school, and received his J.D. in 2009.

Some of his most satisfying law work has been with smaller clients. He and his colleagues have helped Redmond-based Micronics Inc. obtain a number of patents for fast, point-of-care diagnostic tests. “These products help ensure that people get treated for the right infection as fast as possible, and could save a lot of lives and produce substantial cost savings,” he says.

Another exciting young company he works with is San Francisco-based Siluria Technologies, which is developing a catalyst to convert natural gas into plastic and other valuable petrochemical products.

But he’s currently fretting over a patent re-examination case for a Washington state-based company that won a valuable patent for an important agricultural method, giving it a 20-year monopoly on the technology.

But the patent was challenged by a competitor, and the company hired Seed IP to defend the patent before the U.S. Patent Office. Harwood went before four patent examiners and explained why his client’s method was distinct from other patented methods. He had to overcome prior published references which the examiners believed rendered his client’s patent invalid. In some ways, he says, it was more difficult than defending his PhD dissertation. “The examiners know their stuff,” he says. “It’s a tough case.” The matter is pending.

He still misses working in the lab making compounds and drugs and seeing an end product. “But I get the same satisfaction out of patent law,” he says. “A lot of people, even most scientists, don’t appreciate how valuable patents are.”

Matthew L. Barker LL.M. ’10

Matthew L. Barker, who specializes in patent work for mechanical engineering clients, likes to work on “foundational” patents – inventions that can fundamentally change an industry, launch new companies, create lots of new jobs, and earn fortunes for the inventors.

With Seed IP partner Lorraine Linford, Barker currently does patent and trademark work for one such client, Enumclaw-based Fence Genius, whose new technologies could dramatically advance the commercial and residential fencing and rail industry. Seed IP already has obtained some broad foundational patents for the company, and more applications either are pending or about to be filed.

The company’s president, Eric Knudsen, developed a system for laying out fence lines -- and measuring, designing, and manufacturing all the fence panels and posts -- remotely through computer software and automation. Consumers can shop on their home computers for fence products, visualizing their precise fence line three dimensionally. Then suppliers can tailor-make the entire fence system and ship it to the site, without workers having to visit first to measure elevation changes, rotation, and spacing for posts.

“Once your property has been measured for fencing utilizing Eric’s system, you will be able to see the entire fence layout on a computer, order custom fence components, and have them installed quickly and accurately,” Barker marvels. “It’s a revolutionary way of constructing massive fence lines, and it cuts labor costs at least by half.”

Returning the compliment, Knudsen says Seed IP will be his intellectual property law firm for many years to come. “I trust them implicitly with the information I give them, and I trust them for guidance,” says the inventor, whose growing firm, which also produces wood products for big retailers such as Home Depot, currently has 80 employees and revenues of about $10 million.

Barker, who has a B.S. in engineering, received his LL.M. in IP law and policy from UW Law in 2010 after transferring to UW Law from another school for his third year and getting his J.D. in 2009. He served as copyright and trademark manager at the UW Center for Commercialization, where he managed IP rights in various technologies and worked with researchers and startup companies on commercializing UW innovations.

Tapping UW Law and Seed IP contacts, he landed as an associate at Seed IP last year, where he appreciates the valuable advice he gets from the firm’s veteran patent attorneys. “When I’m confronted with a new client situation or a complex issue during prosecution of a patent application, I know I can go to them and they’ll sit down with me and say, ‘Let’s try this strategy,’ or 'Try proposing this to the client.’”

Barker also has stayed close to UW Law, serving as a part-time lecturer on technology transfer and as a guest lecturer at the UW Center for Advanced Study & Research on Intellectual Property.

Meanwhile, working closely with inventors and their exciting innovations makes Barker eager to try his own hand at developing a patentable technology. “I have ideas I’d like to pursue someday,” he says. “That’s probably true for a lot of patent attorneys. Whether they’re viable or anyone would ever license them, that’s the question.”

 

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Last updated 7/25/2013