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March 5, 2007
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A chemist with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may not seem to have a lot in common with someone who has a double major in English and German from CalvinCollege, but both individuals are part of the emerging life sciences law community in West Michigan.

Patent attorney Jonathan O'Brien of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone and corporate attorney Pamela Emenheiser of Varnum Riddering Schmidt and Howlett represent two ends of the same life sciences law spectrum.

O'Brien said his background in chemistry is vital to his understanding of a company's intellectual property needs and goals in the life sciences sector. Emenheiser said she relies on her experience with corporate services to serve the needs of the life sciences industry as she would any company.

Emenheiser acknowledged she had to dust off the old scientific knowledge she learned in high school, but said life sciences law uses many of the same tools as other industries.

Varnum has started to meet the needs of the industry by pooling the resources of health care attorneys, corporate attorneys, and attorneys who have experience with licensing, regulations and intellectual property. Emenheiser said life sciences companies have the same needs as those in other industries, namely setting up businesses, licensing, tax issues and corporate transactions.

"We see life sciences as an industry, and we pull from our various practice areas," Emenheiser said. "It's an exciting, challenging undertaking."

As more life sciences companies, including bio-technology, bio-engineering and medical devices, come to West Michigan, and more partnerships grow between entities such as Michigan State University's medical school, Grand Valley State University and the Van Andel Institute, Emenheiser said the new opportunities that are created compare to those the automotive and furniture industries previously brought to the area — both for the law community and the community at large.

"It will create that same sort of knowledge and investment that we saw in the other industries," she said.

Emenheiser said she enjoys being part of Varnum's life sciences practice because of the challenge to develop new solutions to clients' problems.

"It's an area in which we thoroughly enjoy being creative," she said. "Clients are challenging the boundaries, so we can help them challenge the boundaries, as well, and make that easy for them."

To help meet the needs of those clients, the law firm is trying to stay ahead of their needs by learning more about the industry through organizations such as the American Health Lawyers Association. Varnum also has recently added attorneys with health experience and medical backgrounds to the firm, which Emenheiser said was an important step.

Miller Canfield also has recognized that step and has added five patent attorneys with biology and chemistry experience, four of whom have a Ph.D., O'Brien said. The firm also is reaching out to life sciences companies by offering some legal services for reduced fees, or even at no charge for some projects. The need is especially great now for scientists who have been displaced by companies such as Pfizer who are starting their own businesses and may not know how to organize the business from a legal perspective, O'Brien said.

"I think, at least here at Miller Canfield, we're trying to make the effort to assist in any way we can," he said.

O'Brien said he became interested in life sciences law when he considered the interface of the high technology sector, the legal aspects of intellectual property, and the need for people who could communicate with scientists and understand the technology with which they are dealing.

An attorney for only 18 months, O'Brien has been in the industry since 1997, first as a technology consultant and then as a patent agent. O'Brien said his background is useful in understanding scientists' needs and the scope of their intellectual property.

"That's one of the biggest challenges for a life sciences attorney: to have the experience of life sciences product development, which a lot of attorneys don't have," he said. "This experience really allows the patent attorney to understand what is involved in patent development."

O'Brien said another challenge unique to the life sciences industry is the amount of time that goes into product development, which can take from eight to 12 years compared to the few years it may take in the automotive industry. Understanding the time period, the requirements, legal and regulatory issues, marketing, sales and fundraising can be a challenge.

"Life sciences companies, unlike a lot of other technical sectors, if they're starting from ground zero, they take time," he said. "I think it's important for the state and all entities to be supportive and patient; hopefully, several of these companies will continue to flourish in the area."           LQX

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