Within the past year and a half, Christian Resiak taught himself how to stitch leather, and began designing and making briefcases, purses and wallets. He opened a storefront to produce and sell his accessories and marketed his handcrafted wares at fashion shows.
He did register his business, Howl and Hide Supply Co. LLC, with the Indiana Secretary of State in February 2015, but he never trademarked the name. With an estimated 60 percent of all orders coming from outside Indiana, the brand he worked hard to establish might be at risk.
However, Riley Area Development Corp., an Indianapolis nonprofit with a focus on economic development and housing, has pointed Resiak to the Indiana University Maurer School of Law Intellectual Property Law Clinic. The entrepreneur first connected with the clinic in the spring and is awaiting the start of the fall semester to resume the work to get his company’s name trademarked.
“They were great,” Resiak said of the law students working in the IP clinic. He noted having to devote so much of his time to running his business, he appreciated that the clinic undertook a lot of the work to file for trademark protection. “It was nice to know a team was doing this work and I didn’t necessarily have to be in the mix.”
For the IP clinic, Resiak is the type of client it wants to serve.
Launched in January 2015, the intellectual property clinic is part of the law school’s Center for Intellectual Property Research. It has offered pro bono legal services to more than 80 inventors, entrepreneurs and small businesses with roughly half the work related to patents. Finding clients has not been difficult because the service is free, said clinic director Norman Hedges, but not all those who come are able to be helped.
As Hedges explained, people sometimes contact the clinic thinking that because they have an idea for a product, they can get a patent and watch the money roll in. People like Resiak who have invested in their idea by making a product and creating a business are the type of clients the clinic wants.
The clinic is now working with its partners throughout the state to identify those who have the greatest potential to benefit from patent, trademark or copyright protection. The University of Southern Indiana Center for Applied Research, the Purdue Foundry and Riley are some of the nonprofits directing promising innovators.
“Trying to be a little more selective in the clients we serve is going to allow us to focus our effort on the entrepreneurs who actually stand the best chance of being successful,” Hedges said.
Often entrepreneurs like Resiak get so focused on their craft that they don’t realize business functions, such as getting patents or trademarks, are important to their future success. Emily Scott, development director for Riley, has seen this among people who use the development corporation’s mini maker-space as a work area to start their endeavors.
“A lot of intellectual property tends to be a little cloudy and a little scary,” Scott said.
Working with the IP clinic and getting a tangible result will not only protect their innovation and product but, Scott explained, will also give the entrepreneurs confidence to tackle other business needs. Sometimes innovators can become intimidated and not show up for meetings with banks and financial professionals. They might overcome that fear through their experience at the clinic.
The clinic has started to hold educational events around the state to reach potential clients as well as help people just starting to develop their ideas. Sessions at Purdue and in Evansville have highlighted the process to get a patent and provide an opportunity for networking.
Mark Janis, director of the Center for IP Research, emphasized the goal of the clinic is to work with serious clients who have some financial means to cover the cost of filing the patent and the patience to work for approval. The demand for IP services is high and the clinic is relying on its partners to help keep the priority on people who have a chance at commercializing their invention.
“We don’t want to be just running around the state perpetuating the myth that a patent is like a lottery ticket and we’re giving away lottery tickets,” Janis said.
In addition to helping entrepreneurs through the clinic, the IP Center is planning to expand its services offered through its patent hub. The initiative, PatentConnect for Hoosiers, and its corresponding website, patentconnect.org, were launched in September as part of an effort by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to establish hubs around the country.
The website helps connect garage inventors and start-up companies with intellectual property attorneys who are offering their services pro bono. Hedges said the hub is seeing clients who need wrap-around services. Along with getting help with patents and trademarks, many individuals need assistance with the other legal matters that arise when starting a business, such as labor and employment matters.
Already the hub has pool of nearly 20 attorney volunteers. Hedges hopes to be able to increase the network of pro bono lawyers within the next year so the website’s clients can have access to these wrap-around services.
West Layfette IP attorney Cedric D’Hue has advised a handful of clients coming through the hub. Primarily he has done patent searches and written patentability opinions about whether the innovations or parts of the innovations can be protected.
“It does give me a different set of clients to work with,” D’Hue said, noting many of the hub referrals are small-shop inventors who have developed consumer products. “It is something I enjoy. I can see the benefit to doing it.”
D’Hue echoed Hedges and Janis in pointing out that clients have to realize while the legal help is free, getting a patent does not ensure financial security. Those best situated for success have a connection to the industry that their innovation would serve or have something to give them a competitive advantage.
For the clinic and the hub, the next big challenge is securing outside funding to make both programs sustainable. As a law professor, Janis admitted he is not used to fundraising, but the costs of operating both are pushing him to look for long-term support.
Although PatentConnect is currently funded by the USPTO, the plan calls for that support to drop and the hubs around the country to find ways to support themselves. The clinic would be able to use additional funding to expand, bringing more resources to help garage inventors.
Janis sees the potential to get funding from the state, business and financial sectors, corporate foundations and, hopefully, the venture capital community. A key to the appeal for help will be showing the value the clinic and hub provide to the state is about double the cost of operating the two entities.
“We have to hope we can find a way to keep the hub going until that happy day occurs when a client we help really hits it big and says, ‘Well, now I can write you a check,’” Janis said.•