The Innovation Practice Institute: The Vision

This is the next in a series of occasional posts about my day job and what, through that job, I hope to have in store for Pittsburgh.  The first post, here, described the Innovation Practice Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where I am now the Faculty Director.

I'll continue to work from the broad to the specific.  Today:  What's the vision? 

The vision is that the legal profession in the Pittsburgh region can do more -- a lot more -- to add value to the area's innovation-based economy, and to a much greater extent than it does today.

Right now, in popular or general business understanding, law and lawyers are -- mostly -- the "necessary evil" of innovation and entrepreneurship.  Experienced and sophisticated businesspeople (innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, managers) know that's not true; a productive working relationship with lawyers who understand the needs of innovators and entrepreneurs and the dynamics of an innovation-basesd economy is critical to the success of a new company and to the vibrancy of the economy as a whole.

Why?  Well-trained lawyers are perfectly situated to appreciate and help their clients navigate the interrelationships of the overlapping regulatory and business frameworks that innovators and entrepreneurs need to deal with -- intellectual property law, corporate law, securities law, tax law, immigration law, employment law, commercial law, and (increasingly) complex regulatory environments (FDA, telecomm, and so on).

In addition, in mature innovation economies, lawyers often play essential roles in "brokering" relationships among innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, real estate developers, key managers, underwriters, accountants, and so on.  When I was practicing law in the Silicon Valley, the paradigmatic Stanford or Berkeley grad student who wanted to start a company would get referred to one of a number of well-known "dealmaking" corporate lawyers, who would broker introductions to the many other professionals who could help move the student's idea from concept to operating business.

In Pittsburgh today, there are relatively few lawyers who are really highly skilled at the first function (interdisciplinary business counseling for innovators and entrepreneurs), and fewer still who fill the second role (deal-brokering).  That's not to say that neither of these things happen.  There are lawyers in Pittsburgh who "get" entrepreneurship and innovation -- but their numbers are small, they haven't coalesced into a well-recognized community of practice, and only recently have the most skilled of them offered discounted or cheap services to the most entry-level/early stage startups.  And there is a lot of deal-brokering in Pittsburgh -- performed, on the whole, by successful shops like Innovation Works and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.  But the deal-brokering shops will tell you -- they've told me -- that their long-term goal is to succeed their way (mostly) out of business.  A big enough and successful enough innovation environment doesn't need as much "incubating" as Pittsburgh gets today.  A big and successful innovation environment can support and prosper in a market without the kinds of subsidies that help enterprises like IW and PLSG.

Achieving that kind of innovation marketplace is a long way off, and it may never happen at all.  In the meantime, the IPI hopes to partner with IW and PLSG and other, similar or related organizations, to help our Pitt Law students get the kind of real-world experience during and soon after their legal education that 21st century innovation lawyers need to succeed.  (What's good for the regional economy should be good for the innovation-oriented students at our law school, and vice versa.)  That means innovation inside the standard, traditional law school curriculum.  We also hope to help identify and convene a visible community of innovation practitioners.  That means programming designed to reach out to Pittsburgh's many, related innovation communities and to help them learn about the role of law and lawyers in achieving success.   And in time, we want to include and offer research on innovation and entrepreneurship, which means not only collaborating with other universities and schools in Pittsburgh who have strong, existing interests in innovation and entrepreneurship but also partnering with innovators and innovation researchers outside of Pittsburgh -- bringing them to Pittsburgh, for example -- so that the several parts of Pittsburgh today can learn what Pittsburgh knows (in other words:  the IPI can be a kind of hub for information and policy development in the innovation space, which is currently pretty fragmented), and so that Pittsburgh can build on the best of what other regions know, too.

[For on the thinking that is going into the IPI, read this post about lawyers and "the entrepreneurship commons.]

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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