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New WVU project to help students get patents

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Get ready to stand what you have thought about young people and innovation on its head.

Any notion that ideas are rare and mostly the province of adults, and that students have to be pushed and prodded and coddled to eke out concepts for viable new products, services or technologies, is just wrong.

"These students are brilliant," said Fonda Holehouse, a lawyer who teaches entrepreneurship at West Virginia University. "They're bursting with ideas."

When the university announced in March that it had received an $80,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to start a student intellectual property patent services, or SIPPS, project to help students that need patents, The State Journal called to ask: How often can a student really need a patent?

Turns out it's much more often than one might think.

"I have right now on the floor in my office business plans from nine different businesses, and eight have an intellectual property need," Holehouse said.

That may seem hard to believe, but think about this. Every year in the West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition run by WVU's College of Business and Economics, an outsize number of entries are for agriculture-related ideas: Artificial insemination of cattle. Equestrian outfitting. Hydroponics. Agrotourism.

That's largely because of Holehouse.

She started teaching entrepreneurship about six years ago in WVU's Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. A lot of those students come from entrepreneurial backgrounds, she said — that is, family farms — and they have ideas.

 "Leave this room"

Holehouse may have a particular talent for teaching entrepreneurship.

"The first day I say to the students, ‘Leave this room,'" she said. She tells them to wander campus, talk with strangers, ask them about their problems.

"Entrepreneurship is about solving problems — creating value," she said. "You would not believe how many ideas come out of simply looking at the problems in this world that need to be solved."

In another activity, she hands out cards with pictures of common items: a boot, a toothbrush.

"There are problems with just about anything out there," she said. "Tweak this. Innovate. Make it better."

The success of Holehouse's approach has grown enrollment in her class and spawned numerous Business Plan Competition entries; she coached both of last year's winners. It also led to a partnership with the College of Engineering on a new entrepreneurship class.

"The engineers have this amazing intellectual capital, but they're used to being put in a box and told, ‘If you make a mistake, planes fall out of the sky and buildings collapse,'" she said. "They work from a fear standpoint and you have to get them to relax."

Growing need for patents

As more students with different backgrounds take the class, as Holehouse's experience teaching it deepens, and as the services the university offers these students grow, the range of business ideas is expanding and becoming more sophisticated, she said.

She worked with the College of Engineering and other partners to create the West Virginia Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge, a technology-focused business plan competition. Now in its first year, the competition attracted 22 entries; 10 finalists will pitch their ideas to the state's venture capital community on April 27.

But funders want to see that an idea is already protected through a provisional application for a patent, Holehouse said — that's a simplified and less expensive application that provides one year of protection.

"The first question they're going to ask is, ‘Is this protected?'" she said. "We don't have any services for that on campus for the kids."

Patent services has emerged as the big gap between innovation and commercialization.

Shortage of patent attorneys

The WVU College of Law started its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic in 2008 to help entrepreneurs while giving students experience in such matters as business formation, contractor agreements and financing.

Around that time, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office established a new program enabling law schools to set up what it also calls clinics — in trademark law, patent law or both, according to entrepreneurship clinic director Patricia Lee.

The WVU entrepreneurship clinic set up a Trademark Clinic Pilot Project with the USPTO, Lee said, one of just 24 in the nation. But it hasn't set up a patent clinic, of which there are only 15 nationwide. That requires the supervision of an experienced patent attorney, and there's a shortage of those in West Virginia: 47 by Lee's count, compared with thousands in other states.

So while WVU offers patent services to faculty through its Office of Technology Transfer, each time a student needs patent protection, Holehouse pieces together pro bono work from attorneys in the state.

The SIPPS project grant will enable Lee's entrepreneurship law clinic to coordinate that network of willing attorneys, creating a pipeline from West Virginia to the USPTO with the goal of eventually establishing a Patent Clinic Pilot Project of the USPTO.

It also will provide funding for filing fees for the provisional applications for patents, which ranges up to $200.

Elite support for student innovation

The provisional applications for patent the SIPPS project will provide will help students with good ideas get second meetings with funders, Holehouse said, increasing the chances of commercialization.

Attorneys still will be needed to assist with provisional applications pro bono. But  Holehouse suggested arrangements might be made that, if venture funding comes, that will lead to paid work filing the full patent, helping to develop the attorneys' practices and expertise.

Patent experience could lead more law students over time into patent law, strengthening that piece of the state's growing innovation infrastructure.

The SIPPS project is good for law students and good for economic development, Lee said.

"When we inspire a population of students to think about ways they can innovate and now they have a patent … we're really excited about that," she said.

The project puts WVU on a level with the few universities that have this level of support for student innovation, Holehouse said.

"The ones that do — Carnegie Mellon, Rice University, Stanford — are the leaders in student innovation and student entrepreneurship."