Patent attor­ney and Zell Entre­pre­neur­ship Clin­ic advis­er Kris­ten Wolff joins Michi­gan Law fac­ul­ty full time.

Kris­ten Wolff, a patent attor­ney, joins Michi­gan Law’s fac­ul­ty as a clin­i­cal assis­tant pro­fes­sor of law, after spend­ing the past year as a vis­it­ing clin­i­cal assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Zell Entre­pre­neur­ship Clinic. 

Wolff has found that when peo­ple dis­cov­er she is a patent attor­ney, they often tell her about their ideas for inven­tions. But very few are able to pur­sue the patents that might help turn their inspi­ra­tion into a business.

The patenting process is so expensive that, for most people, pursuing a patent is just not possible. And yet, in many industries, a patent is critical to entrepreneurial success. So what I’m really interested in is figuring out, how do we remove barriers to patenting?

Peo­ple of so many dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences have good ideas,” said Wolff.

I talk with peo­ple that I meet, and they’ll say, Oh, I had an idea for an inven­tion once!’ And they’ll tell me a lit­tle about it. But the patent­ing process is so expen­sive that, for most peo­ple, pur­su­ing a patent is just not pos­si­ble. And yet, in many indus­tries, a patent is crit­i­cal to entre­pre­neur­ial suc­cess. So what I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in is fig­ur­ing out, how do we remove bar­ri­ers to patenting?”

The main issue, Wolff said, is the cost of a patent attor­ney, whose job is to help an inven­tor pre­pare and file a patent appli­ca­tion, as well as to rep­re­sent their client through the patent exam­i­na­tion process with the U.S. Patent and Trade­mark Office.

Mak­ing patent law acces­si­ble for inven­tors and student-entrepreneurs

In 2013, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma signed a series of exec­u­tive actions to lev­el the play­ing field for inno­va­tors,” includ­ing by expand­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of pro bono intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion and by pro­vid­ing new resources to inven­tors look­ing to rep­re­sent themselves. 

At Michi­gan Law, Wolff plans to research the impact of these pro­grams, and she also hopes to cre­ate learn­ing mod­ules that can help inven­tors bet­ter under­stand patent law and patent draft­ing, so peo­ple with more imag­i­na­tion than mon­ey can nav­i­gate the patent­ing process on their own.

Inven­tors are smart,” she said. Can we teach them how to draft effec­tive, suc­cess­ful patent appli­ca­tions them­selves, so that those who can’t afford an attor­ney can still pro­tect their ideas and pur­sue their entre­pre­neur­ial dreams? Can we make the inno­va­tion ecosys­tem more inclusive?”

Wolff, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan before going on to law school at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, spent six years as a patent strate­gist and attor­ney at firms in California.

In her prac­tice, she helped biotech and med­ical device star­tups pro­tect their intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty (one high­light was a com­pa­ny that devel­oped one of the first at-home mol­e­c­u­lar test kits now used for rapid COVID-19 test­ing).

She returned to Ann Arbor in 2017 as asso­ciate direc­tor of licens­ing at U‑M’s Office of Tech­nol­o­gy Trans­fer, a role that led to fre­quent guest lec­tures at Michi­gan Law and at the Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing on top­ics such as patent search­ing and intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty strategy.

Last year, as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Michi­gan Law, she also super­vised stu­dent-attor­neys as they gave pro bono legal advice to local entre­pre­neurs, includ­ing student-entrepreneurs. 

So many stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan are entre­pre­neur­ial,” she said. Engi­neer­ing stu­dents are a real­ly fun group to give patent sem­i­nars to because this infor­ma­tion is imme­di­ate­ly prac­ti­cal and rel­e­vant to them. I think it’s impor­tant for every engi­neer to at least have a basic under­stand­ing of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty law, whether it’s so they can under­stand their employ­ers’ IP poli­cies, or to help their own tech­nol­o­gy busi­ness­es succeed.”

Bring­ing engi­neer­ing and law train­ing and expe­ri­ence to the clin­ic and classroom

While Wolff knew she want­ed to be an attor­ney from a young age, her engi­neer­ing expe­ri­ence pro­vid­ed her with the tech­ni­cal exper­tise required of a patent lawyer, as well as an appre­ci­a­tion for the thrill of innovation.

It’s grat­i­fy­ing, she said, when her lec­tures and advice inspire aspir­ing entrepreneurs.

I often assign stu­dents to do a patent search for their ideas, and it’s empow­er­ing when they real­ize, No, actu­al­ly, no one has thought of this before,’” she said. Or some­times they’ll find some­thing sim­i­lar and they come to class dis­cour­aged, and I help them ana­lyze it and fig­ure out that there’s some nugget of nov­el­ty that no one’s thought of before.” 

These stu­dents’ enthu­si­asm also dri­ves home for Wolff the impor­tance of remov­ing the obsta­cles that can put entre­pre­neur­ship out of reach.

Often stu­dents are very sur­prised, and some­times quite dis­cour­aged, to hear just how long the process takes and how expen­sive it can be,” she said. These are real­ly smart stu­dents who are good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing, good at writ­ing. They invent­ed their own technologies.

They should be able to write their own effec­tive patent appli­ca­tions. I think they could with the right tools, and that’s what I hope to create.”

Amy Craw­ford