How Patents Protect Novo Nordisk’s Groundbreaking Innovations

Marc Began, assistant general counsel at Novo Nordisk, outlines how his background as an engineer has helped him build an efficient patent practice at the medical device giant

When Novo and Nordisk decided to merge in 1989, it set the tone for decades of mergers and acquisitions that led to a robust patent portfolio. Today, the company relies on the expertise of attorneys such as Marc Began, assistant general counsel.

Began brings a unique flavor of expert advice to the company. Before becoming a lawyer, he was an engineer at an environmental conservation. He graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in engineering in 1989, a time that he says wasn’t a great market for engineers. He took work as an incandescent lamp engineer at Durotest, creating specialty light bulbs for traffic signals and railroads. “Thomas Edison discovered everything there was to know about light bulbs,” Began says. “So, we were just refining the process.”

Shortly after, he received an offer from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. He worked on initiatives involving air resources, including implementing statewide emission testing, until 1997. Specifically, he worked on programs that involved recycling chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), commonly known by the brand name Freon. As an example of the department’s work, service stations now cannot vent CFCs into the atmosphere, and air conditioning units must recycle.

During his time there, Began noticed a divide between the legal and engineering sides of issues. The two groups worked independently and then only tried to bridge the gap when it was necessary to talk to one another. Began decided he wanted to cross that divide, so he applied to law school.

He studied at the Albany Law School at Union University part-time while continuing to work full-time as an engineer. “Law school was so much easier than engineering school. No math!” he says, laughing. “A lot of reading, but that’s way easier than solving equations.”

After school, his experience as an engineer and his high grades made him a highly sought-after recruit by New York City law firms. Began moved from Albany to take a position at Sullivan & Cromwell, where he worked in environmental law, focused on litigation, and soon discovered how much he enjoyed intellectual property (IP) law. “It blended technical and legal aspects, which is what I was looking for,” he explains.

Later, Began took a job with law firm White & Case, which eventually led him to Novo Nordisk. The company was a client of the firm, though Began didn’t work on Novo Nordisk’s cases. Still, he heard a lot about the company, and it sounded fascinating. “They blend different disciplines,” he says. “It was a medical device company, and they invented a pen syringe. The pen syringe was a revolutionary invention—an injector that looked like a ballpoint pen. It made a huge difference for people who needed insulin shots. Novo Nordisk is a pioneer in that space.”

“It’s like patenting the first iPhone versus the iPhone 7. The latter one is a vast improvement, but it’s based on the same design.”

Excited to work on a global company after focusing so heavily on US law, Began joined Novo Nordisk in 2002. “Novo Nordisk is headquartered in Copenhagen, so I helped educate the Denmark group about the function and law of patents and IP in the United States and how to blend them with Europe’s in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry,” he explains.

At the US affiliate of Novo Nordisk, Began’s background as an engineer was soon put to good use, as he built an in-house medical device patent practice by bringing patent prosecution matters in-house that had largely been outsourced to big law firms. Shortly after Began joined the company, Novo Nordisk obtained a device patent that its competitors had infringed upon. This gave him an opportunity, as a relatively junior employee, to meet with senior management and explain how Novo Nordisk’s IP could help the business overall. So, he worked on IP prosecution, then medical device IP enforcement, and eventually became the go-to person in the United States for IP litigation. In the same realm, he’s also had the chance to oversee some European litigation and work on international issues with Novo Nordisk’s teams abroad as well.

Began has had many rewarding opportunities at Novo Nordisk, both personally and professionally. For him, the ultimate goal is to provide value on any matter on which he works. “When I help achieve a good result that benefits our patients and the company as a whole, that is extremely rewarding,” he says. “If I can help bring a life-saving medicine to market by navigating around third-party patent rights, or when I’m sure that we can come up with a defensible patent strategy that allows us to recover the cost of research and development, that’s a good day.” Without a robust patent defense, companies in the life sciences space, like Novo Nordisk, wouldn’t be able to fund the research that makes them medical pioneers. Began knows his work keeps Novo Nordisk at the forefront and its medical innovations in the hands of those who need it most.

Going forward, Began says he expects patent defense to become more difficult. As therapies are continually improved, it becomes harder to defend an improvement than to defend a completely new drug. “As innovations become more evolutionary rather than revolutionary, it’s more difficult to defend the IP around that,” Began explains. “It’s like patenting the first iPhone versus the iPhone 7. The latter one is a vast improvement, but it’s based on the same design, so it’s harder to protect as a new product.

At the heart of Novo Nordisk—and Began’s career—is innovation. Being able to protect that innovation is of the utmost importance to Began and to his team. “We’re an innovative company, and we will continue to innovate and bring new products to market,” he says. “That’s why we’re here.”