Talk about a niche market. James Coburn’s Harbor Consulting IP Services deals only in IP related to DNA and proteins — and, within that universe, his firm handles just the sequence listing component of patent applications.
But if you’re thinking, “Now there’s a company that won’t last long,” think again: Coburn founded his company in 1995, and last year the five-person firm handled sequence listings for nearly 150 different clients.
Looking back at the 10-year anniversary of his firm, Coburn, now 39, recalls that things were not always so rosy. He actually started out, due to a bad economy, working in the mail room of DC law firm Foley & Lardner. After a few months, he managed to pick up odd jobs in different departments during his spare time and learned various pieces of patent law. Eventually, the head of the biotech group asked if he’d like to join his team, and Coburn jumped at the opportunity. “Over the next three years, I proceeded to learn patent law backwards,” he says. He started taking night classes to fill in the science and legal gaps: “I was doing it during the day and learning it at night. It was a really unique way of learning it.”
While in the biotech group at Foley, Coburn assumed responsibility for an arcane part of the patent process — sequence listings. “If a patent application discloses DNA or protein sequences,” he says, “there’s a set of rules … that have to be followed” and a separate sequence listing that must be filed. “Nine out of 10 times there’s some sort of a problem,” he adds. As he gained expertise in this field, Coburn realized that he had carved out his own fiefdom — however small — and eventually decided to start a service business doing sequence listings for anybody who needed them.
A friend got him in the door at Human Genome Sciences, which became Coburn’s first client. “I have their check on the wall,” he says. His former boss in the Foley biotech group contracted him to do their listings as well, and over time, Coburn says word of mouth led several other law firms to follow suit. “Nobody had ever really [outsourced patent work] before,” Coburn says. His early years were marked by the struggle of convincing clients that his service wouldn’t cause confidentiality or IP ownership problems.
Today, Coburn still believes specializing in this particular service is the way to go; attorneys often ask him to branch out, he says, but so far the only service he’s added has been sequence searching.
His client base is comprised largely of people who have tried this themselves and given up in exasperation. “They all try to do it because it appears relatively simple,” Coburn says. “The problem is, there’s so many land mines that can trip you up. It only takes one land mine to get one of these documents rejected.”
So what’s the secret? Attention to detail and knowledge of the system, it seems. Coburn says “not interpreting the rules correctly” and inadvertently putting information into the wrong fields are two of the most common mistakes people make.
— Meredith Salisbury