Interview with Erica Lowthers, Patent Agent at Aird & McBurney LP
“I really loved science but I didn’t want to be the one doing the experiments”
- Please give us a little background about yourself, from your Bachelor’s degree to current position
I did my undergraduate degree in at Dalhousie University in Halifax, majoring in Microbiology and Immunology. At the time, I decided to continue my studies at Dalhousie, and did my PhD in Pharmacology. I learned a lot about pharmacology, oncology and biochemistry and graduated in 2007. At the time, I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia, so I started looking for a career outside of that. I stumbled across this line of work and I thought it sounded really interesting! I ended up doing a lot of cold calling to various firms, and managed to land an interview, and the rest is history!
- At what point did you realize you wanted to leave the bench and become a patent agent? What influenced this decision?
Towards the end of my PhD, when I was preparing for my thesis defence and thinking about what I wanted to do after, I realized the thought of doing a postdoc wasn’t appealing to me. I really loved science but I didn’t want to be the one doing the experiments. I think you’ll find that is a common theme in this line of work – that people became disenfranchised with bench work but still really wanted to have a foot in the science world. I started to look for a career capable of providing that and began to pursue other alternatives.
When I learned about the career of a patent agent, I could really see myself excelling in the role. It’s an interesting line of work and you see different science every day. In that way, it’s very unlike research because during your PhD or postdoc, you’re focused on one very small thing. For example, I spent my whole PhD obsessing over this one little receptor on a cancer cell. In patent work, I might be working on cancer cell receptors one day, and the next day I’ll be working on a treatment for diabetes, and the next day, a new inhaler. For me, it’s really great to have that diversity and learn about new and upcoming science every day. It’s also a very high-paced and busy career, which I personally like.
- What does your role as a Patent Agent entail? What is your day to day like?
A lot of what I do is reading, analyzing and writing. I correspond daily with the Patent Office, where I negotiate with the government to get patents issued for my clients. Another big part of my job is drafting patent applications. For example, someone will come to me with a new invention and I will have to write a patent application that describes what they’ve designed. To do this, I typically research the background of their product and its uses, make sure I completely understand it, and then write an application to get a patent filed for it. I help clients with patents all over the world – including in Canada, USA, Europe and Asia!
In my role, I mainly deal with scientific patents. We have several patent agents at our firm and we each have our own specialties. My specialty is pharmaceuticals and medical devices/biotechnology inventions. We have an organic chemist who deals with anything that relates to chemical structures or processes, such as new drugs. We have some engineers who focus on software or more physics-based equipment like MRI and X-Ray machines. However, we all have a basic understanding of mechanical inventions because that’s what we train on – to become a qualified agent, most of the initial training is focused on mechanical inventions such as pens and various household items.
My job does involve irregular hours which can be long and interfere with my personal life, so striking the right work-life balance is key. I work many evenings and weekends to meet deadlines. Vacations are never really vacations because due dates don’t pause while you’re away and you always need to be available by email and touch base with the office. However, I’m able to work from pretty much anywhere when I need to, which also helps.
- How does one go about getting their certification as a Patent Agent?
To become a patent agent, you first have to obtain a position as a Patent Agent Trainee. These positions are very competitive and are rarely advertised. To be a trainee at a patent firm, you generally need either a law degree or an advanced degree (usually PhD) in science or engineering. You have to train on the job for at least 2 years before you can write the patent agent qualifying exams, which are held every year in April. The training is all done on the job under the supervision of a qualified patent agent.
The patent agent qualifying exam is a series of four exams over four consecutive days. Each exam is four hours and consists of a different topic: patent drafting, patent validity, patent infringement, and patent office practice. These exams are extremely difficult and there is only about a 4% first-time pass rate. Usually it takes people a few years to pass all four exams so many people are ‘training’ for 4-5 years before becoming a qualified patent agent.
- What is your favourite part of your job? What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
My favourite part of my job is definitely meeting with inventors and talking to them about what they’ve designed, and learning about their products. It’s exciting to come up with a way to get them good coverage, and of course even more exciting when their patent gets approved! It’s great when I can see a product being sold and know that I was a part of it! I love seeing small companies doing well and I’m often able to form great personal relationships with my clients.
The most challenging part is probably the same thing in terms of managing our clients’ expectations. Patents are very expensive so sometimes the cost is prohibitive. Additionally, sometimes having multiple deadlines in the same day is hard to manage and requires many extra hours to make sure everything gets done.
- What is something that most people don’t know about patents in the life sciences?
That’s a great question. I think that a lot of people who work in the life sciences have misconceptions about patents. People who work in academia, or even just the general public, sometimes think that patents are evil and that big pharma companies charge too much for their drugs. In some cases, this may be true. But at the same time, there wouldn’t be any drugs without some form of protection. Patents are especially important in the life sciences because drugs and new technologies take so many years to develop and perfect, especially with clinical trials and the millions of dollars spent to get approval for the products. Without protection, there would be little incentive for innovation and discovery.
- What skills are necessary to be successful in a position such as yours?
The most important skills are probably time-management, the ability to multi-task, and a really good grasp of the English language. I spend a lot of time googling the exact definition of words, for example, prevent vs. inhibit (does this mean a partial or 100% halt). Every word you use in a patent application could be subject to litigation and a 12-person jury with varied education levels will be analyzing everything you write, so you need to be extremely clear.
Having a PhD is definitely helpful in this role. When I tell my clients that I have a PhD, they trust that I can understand their scientific inventions and represent them clearly. Oftentimes clients will specifically look for our credentials on our firm website and seek out those professionals with appropriate backgrounds to handle the work in question.
- What are things that a graduate student should be doing now if they want a role as a patent agent?
Networking is the most important thing to do if you want to get into this field. It is very difficult to find a position as a patent trainee because it is a very small field and you need to convince a patent agent to train you. I would recommend first finding out if it is something that you definitely want to do. We generally see that for every two or three trainees hired, only one will make it to becoming a certified patent agent for various reasons. Sometimes the trainee decides this career is not for her and sometimes the decision to terminate the relationship is made by the firm. There is a steep learning curve including having to learn basic law, learning how to write clearly, developing a high attention to details, and being able to work under pressure. So definitely make sure it’s something you really want to do before stepping into the field.
- What advice would you give to current graduate students who are trying to find the career right for them and/or job searching?
Be true to yourself and know what you really want and don’t be afraid to try something really different. There are so many careers that I’ve learned about as an adult that I had never heard of when I was student because I wasn’t exposed to them. Do some research and find a career that’s best suited for you.