Nurturing STEM Programs Creates Benefits For All

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 10:32

The Editor interviews Rebecca J. (Becky) Kaufman, Partner in the Atlanta office of King & Spalding LLP.

Editor: Please tell us about your professional background.

Kaufman: I am a partner in King & Spalding’s intellectual property group in Atlanta, where I’ve spent 11 years of my almost 20-year career. As a patent lawyer, I help clients obtain patents from countries around the world, as well as acquire or sell rights in patents or patent-based companies that further business objectives. Before joining King & Spalding, I spent several years working for a university-based biotechnology incubator and for an early-stage life sciences venture capital fund.

Editor: Why is your background in biology of importance to you as a lawyer?

Kaufman: It’s a requirement for my practice, because it helps me communicate effectively with scientists or with business people and investors about the science and technology that forms the basis for their companies. For the same reasons, my scientific background was a requirement for my work in technology commercialization and venture capital. It’s hard to be strategic when you don’t have ready command of the basic vocabulary and concepts of the scientific discipline. Of course, sometimes I still have to ask questions, but I find that most clients I work with really enjoy explaining their technology. People who are passionate about science enjoy like-minded beings, it seems.  

Editor: I was intrigued to learn that you worked in Robert Gallo’s lab. How did that pique your interest in patent law?

Kaufman: In high school, I won a scientific internship that led to the opportunity to work in Dr. Gallo’s lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was the late 1980s, when the Gallo lab had just established HIV as the cause of AIDS. My project involved further characterizing the viral surface for purposes of designing a vaccine. The U.S. and French governments became involved in a heated dispute as to whether Dr. Gallo or a French researcher, a long-time collaborator of Dr. Gallo’s, had actually discovered HIV. It was a high-profile case, with lawyers traipsing through the labs with briefcases and tape recorders and ABC’s Sam Donaldson knocking on the lab door. It was a turning point for me, prompting me to become a patent lawyer. Almost 25 years later, I am now representing a clinical-stage company, GeoVax, that is pursuing a therapeutic vaccine for HIV; I never would have thought that problem would be so difficult or that I’d have the opportunity to be involved in it from such different vantage points over time.

Editor: Please share with our readers your experience at the Georgia Tech/Emory University biotechnology incubator, EmTechBio.

Kaufman: The mission of the incubator was to form successful new life sciences companies from promising university research, which I helped to identify and move forward. When Georgia Tech hired me, I was a mid-level associate and had been working with young life sciences companies several years post-formation. EmTechBio afforded me the chance to help these newly formed companies avoid common mistakes relating to structure, licensing, patent rights and financing. I helped create new companies that I could easily represent as a lawyer.

It also exposed me to the many constituents involved in bringing a young company forward – academics, who create most of the early technology; early management, which runs the company day to day and tries to engage potential investors and partners; and investors, who write the checks. I learned that I’m more inclined to see things from the perspective of an investor – in part because investors can make things happen quickly. So from Georgia Tech, I went to work for an early-stage life sciences venture capital fund.

Editor: It’s interesting how a science background can lead to so many career options.

Kaufman: Yes, although I didn’t know any of those opportunities existed until well into my undergraduate years. Even now, well into my career, I still learn of new ways someone with my educational background could put that to work professionally.

Editor: Why is it important that the U.S. remain competitive in fields that depend upon innovation?

Kaufman: Our economy will stagnate if we don’t foster innovation in the life sciences, computer technology and engineering. It’s also important on an individual level, since statistics show that people with a STEM education earn more than their non-STEM counterparts. That’s particularly true for women: there’s a well-documented wage gap between men and women, but less of one for women with a STEM education. In a country where more and more households are led by women, STEM education can be key to helping families and creating a next generation of educated and successful professionals.

Editor: How might business partner with educational institutions to incentivize students to pursue a degree in the STEM disciplines? Should government play a role?

Kaufman: The importance of this issue is seemingly well-recognized at this point, with only five or six percent of U.S. undergrads majoring in STEM disciplines. But increasing the number of students in STEM majors is also a complex problem. To move the needle on STEM education, government, business and academia will have to collaborate over a sustained time period. Examples of active efforts on both the national and local levels – including in Georgia, where I live – are numerous, but there’s a lot of work ahead. That’s particularly true when you consider efforts to increase the number of women and other diverse individuals in STEM education and careers.

Editor: Is the reputation of the U.S. as a leader in innovation being challenged by increased global competition from countries where greater emphasis is put on STEM disciplines? What can be done?

Kaufman: It’s definitely the case that the U.S. reputation as a leader in innovation is being challenged by other countries, particularly China and Japan. In contrast to the United States, nearly 40 percent of undergraduates in China are majoring in STEM disciplines. In fact, the U.S. is ranked 20th in the world, far behind most major economies. Worse, many U.S. students who begin their education in a STEM discipline often switch to another major.

The first challenge is to get kids – particularly diverse students – interested in science when they are very young. The second is to adequately prepare them for a STEM education. One theory as to why the numbers are so small is that students arrive at college without the skills to successfully participate over time. It’s critical both to interest students early and to get them truly ready so that they don’t opt out at the first difficult moment.

Editor: How do you think STEM education could be encouraged at the high school level?

Kaufman: As I said earlier, one of the things I didn’t understand early on was the relationship between my interest in science and the many job opportunities that would be available to me. My exposure to patent law as a high school student was really a coincidence, but critically important in exciting and engaging me in a way that working in the lab otherwise may not have, over time. Certainly, there are amazing opportunities to put a STEM education to work, but no one learns that from the frog you dissect in your junior high school lab or from a six-year-old textbook. STEM-educated professionals can engage and excite, to create a sense of possibility for students. Otherwise, for many students, science can be a little dry.

It’s especially meaningful if that message can come from a STEM-educated professional that students can relate to, someone who looks like them and talks like them. This is particularly true for diverse students, so it makes sense for women and other diverse professionals in STEM-related careers to get engaged with students. Recently, the women partners in the Intellectual Property group at King & Spalding organized to get more involved in our community, with efforts ranging from judging science fairs to funding scientific scholarships. We feel a responsibility to increase the number of young women in the pipeline, but we’re also a bit self-interested, as we continue to need professionals with STEM educations in our practice, both lawyers and patent agents.

Editor: Have you noticed a shift in the ratio of U.S. to foreign entities in terms of patent filings? Have you observed a similar shift in your venture capital practice?

Kaufman: While it’s true that patent filings in the U.S. are being surpassed by patent filings in China and Japan, I would caution against making too much of that. Anyone who has worked in the profession understands that not all patents are created equal, and it’s possible to play the numbers game without achieving much else. The statistics on STEM education in those countries remain the more important metric.

The economic downturn really stressed traditional business models, prompting emerging biotechnology companies and established venture capital funds based in the United States to look overseas for capital or other new opportunities.

Editor: Please tell us about Southeast BIO (SEBIO), with which you have been involved for many years.

Kaufman: Two geographic areas – Boston and Northern California – have historically dominated the U.S. biotechnology industry, which is now nearly 40 years old. What sets those areas apart, at least now, is resident venture capital and experienced company management. The Southeast, similar to many areas of the country, is relatively underfunded and lacks second- and third-generation management teams. SEBIO was formed 15 years ago to attract venture capitalists from outside the region to see the best deals available in the Southeast, with the goal of creating a critical mass of successful young companies. It’s an effort that involves nearly every constituency I’ve worked with in my career – research universities, investors, company management, lawyers and economic development groups. In this case, people who are passionate about growing the life sciences industry also clearly enjoy like-minded beings; I myself have developed numerous relationships, including client relationships, through SEBIO.

SEBIO also tries to foster interest in the life sciences industry among students in the region, recognizing students as being critical to sustaining our efforts long-term. SEBIO offers internships to high school or college students almost every summer. We also fund a scholarship each year to permit a student from the local community to attend our annual investor forum, which rotates through major cities in the region. Getting a job right out of college can be a great challenge, but our goal is to help these students open doors for careers that are purely scientific or in businesses or institutions based in science.

Please email the interviewee at bkaufman@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.