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Close-up: Ned Israelsen

Top IP attorney fosters growth of San Diego startups

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As intellectual property rights become increasingly important around the globe, Ned Israelsen, IP attorney and managing partner of Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear's San Diego office, is poised to provide expert guidance to emerging companies in the San Diego region and beyond.

"There is much more uniformity in global patent systems today," Israelsen said. "It's already happening to some extent with the U.S., Europe and Japan all moving toward more similar patent systems. But that move will accelerate. I see countries who are on the fringes of intellectual property like China, Russia and India moving more to the mainstream to give solid IP protection and enforcing patents."

Israelsen believes San Diego will be a key epicenter of the intellectual property field as this expansion happens. He also sees the city's stronghold in biotech and pharmaceuticals, at the research and commercial levels, making San Diego what he calls a "real hub of life science innovation."

"I think the role of IP in business decisions, company formation and funding will become even more important. Even more people will want to be IP lawyers, and San Diego in particular is already one of the top five IP areas in the country," Israelsen said. "I expect we'll be one of the top three, second only to, say, Boston and the Bay area. So these are exciting times. I'm not pessimistic about our future; '09 may be a slow year, but I don't see significant downturn in IP-related work."

Yet the IP industry hasn't been immune to the effects of the current economic environment. As Israelsen discusses, startup companies are facing increasing pressure to launch products with a high probability that their timeline to profitability be relatively short. This can shut out some of the riskier -- but potentially highest-impact products -- especially in the pharmaceutical field.

"San Diego is a marvelous community in life science because of our research institutions that really plant the seeds from which all the biotech companies spring," said Israelsen. "But with venture capitalists investing more conservatively, they're looking to eliminate the scientific risk that early-stage tech has. This is a shame, really, because we need brand new drugs that will cure heart disease or any of the other major health problems we have -- but those kinds of inventions take lot of time and lot of money."

Because only few of those companies that start out will make it, Israelsen said, the risk is often too great for the current venture capital model. So while there are a lot of promising research findings happening in the area at universities and institutions like Scripps, it's even more difficult now for an idea to move from the research phase to the incubation stage, to the final stage as a private company.

Organizations like Tech Coast Angels, which provides funding for early-stage companies in the San Diego area, strive to help bridge that gap by linking the venture capital money with fledgling startups. CONNECT, which also provides support for entrepreneurs, helps emerging businesses develop good business plans, put together a solid management team and connect with appropriate funding sources. Israelsen has been involved with CONNECT since its inception two decades ago via sponsoring some of the companies that come through.

"Through CONNECT, companies can have the resources to collaborate with others in similar situations or with entrepreneurs who've successfully taken companies from idea through exit," Israelsen said. "And it's been a marvelous program for the community. The Springboard program, one aspect of CONNECT, takes budding entrepreneurs with great ideas and helps them become ready for prime time -- ready for outside investment."

With an undergraduate degree in chemistry, Israelsen enjoys the fact that his role as IP attorney lets him meld his interest in science with a passion and expertise for helping companies succeed, primarily those in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical areas.

"I love the entrepreneurial process, and I love science. And my career puts me right in the middle of both of those things," he said. "Part of the reason, probably, that I became a private investor through Tech Coast Angels and others is because I love new companies. In a few words, being an IP attorney is a way to stay on top of all areas of science and to see the world -- not being stuck in a lab mixing toxic chemicals, but being at the forefront of something that's exciting and global."

Israelsen is also affiliated with several other industry groups, such as the California Healthcare Institute and Athena, which grew out of the CONNECT program and works to empower women in science, health care and technology. Israelsen also garners accolades in the industry: He was recently selected by his peers for inclusion in "The Best Lawyers in America 2009" within the field of intellectual property. And he's almost as passionate about his interests outside the office, which take him to the back yard -- or to the sky.

"I'm a little bit of a farmer at heart. I have a hundred different kinds of fruit trees at my house in Escondido and a ranch on Mount Laguna where I've spent the past eight years building a fantasy log cabin," Israelsen said. "I have a bulldozer, two tractors and a skid steer loader, so when I buy toys it's usually for heavy construction. I spend most weekends at the ranch -- if I'm not paragliding. After a stressful day of pushing paper and negotiating with the patent office and writing contracts, it really does get your head straight. It's a very good way to relax."

Blackford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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