One of the biggest obstacles startups face is protecting their intellectual property, but new law clinics at Southern University and Tulane University plan to change that by providing free legal help for patent and trademark applications.
"You have a lot of small businesses who end up running up against some type of legal barrier and they can't afford an attorney so they just give it up," said Mark Thurmon, a faculty member of Southern's law school and head of the SU Law Center's Technology and Entrepreneurship Clinic.
Both the Southern and Tulane clinics were certified this year through a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office program that allows law students, under an attorney's supervision, to file patent and trademark applications.
The law schools are among 25 nationwide certified to do both patent and trademark work. Some 29 schools have been certified for patent or trademark work. Altogether, more than 3,000 law students at participating schools have filed applications for 653 patents and 2,480 trademarks.
Thurmon said the Technology and Entrepreneurship Clinic fills a hole in the "entrepreneurial ecosystem."
The economic development strategy seeks to better align public policy, finance and support professions, among others, to support entrepreneurship. While LSU covers the cost of patent applications for students and faculty members' university-related research, the Baton Rouge and New Orleans ecosystems have been lacking the free legal support piece for the public.
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"First and foremost, technology is getting more and more complex on the legal side," said Byron Clayton, president and chief executive officer of Research Park Corp., a nonprofit created to accelerate the Baton Rouge area's tech industry.
For example, drones that fly overhead and apps that access information on consumers' smartphones both raise questions of privacy and infringement of consumers' rights, he said. Meanwhile, the Patent Office has recently made it much more difficult to secure software patents.
"There are lots of lawyers around, lots of lawyers you can talk to and get an hour consult free," Clayton said. "But the thing is do they know what they're talking about?"
It's important to find some who understand these sorts of issues, he said.
The Southern University Law Center established the Technology and Entrepreneurship Clinic a year ago while awaiting certification by the Patent Office. The clinic couldn't do the patent and trademark applications at the time, so Thurmon and his students offered entrepreneurs help with general small business issues, such as nondisclosure agreements, questions about forming a limited liability company or corporation, and business filings.
So far, the clinic has worked with about 15 clients, including the Bayou Classic BizTech Challenge. In the contest, students from historically black colleges and universities must solve practical challenges submitted by industry or submit their own projects.
Thurmon's students helped review contest rules and processes and offered legal support.
Thurmon and his students also are helping William Barrios, founder of Theatermaker, with patent and trademark help. Barrios' concept is a modern, durable toy theater called Tatro. Barrios compares the magnetic mix-and-match scenery and movable magnetic characters to Build-A-Bear for toy theaters.
Without the free legal help, Barrios said he would have had a hard time pursuing the patent for Tatro.
"I was telling them in our first meeting that they have an amazing thing going …. I think they have an opportunity to fill a very, very large gap in the state. And I mean the state, not just Baton Rouge," Barrios said.
Louisiana has a lot of amazing entrepreneurs with amazing ideas who need that kind of help to get off the ground, he said.
The clinic's mission is to serve clients who have a need but can't afford to hire a business attorney, Thurmon said. The clinic can save a company about $10,000 in attorney's fees for a patent application and $1,000 for a trademark application.
Clients are responsible for paying the application fees, Thurmon said. The patent filing fees run from about $700 to $1,000. The trademark filing fee is around $250.
"So it's a great service to the businesses and we hope we're doing something that helps with economic development in our region," Thurmon said. "But it's also great for students because the students are the ones who are actually doing the work under my supervision."
Jimmy Roussel, CEO of the New Orleans Startup Fund, a nonprofit that invests in early-stage companies, said almost all of the good candidates the fund sees have intellectual property-related needs.
Patents are an issue in more than half the discussions, he said. Trademarks come along a little later once the company has made some branding decisions.
"The bottom line is that we encourage young startups to try and develop a long-term, sustainable competitive advantage," Roussel said. "Oftentimes, that advantage is in the form of patent protection."
Thurmon said when he talked to local economic development groups about the clinic's services, they told him to be prepared for "a flood of folks."
"We're getting bits of that now. We're starting to get inquiries on a fairly regular basis," Thurmon said. "What is ultimately going to be limiting at this point, where we are right now, is going to be how much I can support."
As faculty supervisor, Thurmon has to directly oversee the law students' work, he said. The students can't meet with clients on their own and give them direct advice. Thurmon has to attend the meetings and review the students' work before it goes out.
While Thurmon can take on more work, the clinic will need additional help on the administrative side in order to grow, even if that's a part-time worker. The next step will be getting another attorney or attorneys to help supervise the students' work.
"We don't want to get to the point that we have to tell clients that it may be three months before we can get to them," Thurmon said.
He plans to seek grants to secure funding for the administrative help.
Thurmon practiced in Austin, Texas, in the early 1990s. The city had a volunteer lawyer group that counseled artists and emerging businesses.
Baton Rouge hasn't developed that type of support network yet, but Thurmon believes it is possible.