Creating Perfect Partnerships at Illumina

Roland Schwillinski and Jennifer Pascua have broken down barriers between the IP and litigation teams to encourage collaboration

In many places, the old ways still prevail: departments are siloed, and the in-house legal team has a reputation for being the “department of no” and stifling innovation. Thanks in large part to Roland Schwillinski, that’s not the case at Illumina, a developer, manufacturer, and marketer of life science tools and systems for the analysis of genetic variation and biological function.

Schwillinski, the vice president of global intellectual property and litigation at Illumina, has made the company’s IP team an active and ongoing resource for ideas and innovation. In partnership with Senior Director of Global Intellectual Property Jennifer Pascua, Schwillinski is setting a new standard for the role of IP professionals at Illumina.

Schwillinski initially came to Illumina in 2011 as senior director for the litigation team, but things were already changing back then. “Seventy percent of the litigation we deal with is patent related,” Schwillinski says. “In 2013, our general counsel at the time thought it may make sense to have both the IP groups and the litigation groups under one umbrella. There was so much dramatic overlapping of the work that was being done, it made sense.”

There was another reason as well. “It certainly wasn’t intentional, but I noticed that these two groups had become siloed,” Schwillinski says. “This is quite common. Even in the way our patent lawyers were focused on particular aspects of technology, it created that natural wall. So the idea became to increase coordination and communication between the groups.”

Pascua says the breaking down of barriers has been felt across both legal teams. “Oftentimes when you prosecute, you just throw the work over the fence to litigate both a trademark and a patent,” she says. “It’s been really helpful to have us all under Roland’s umbrella and to be able to work directly with his reports and also with the litigation team. We are now able to perform seamless prosecution.”

“When it comes to strategy, there are different schools of thought, but I tend to believe in quality over quantity.” —Roland Schwillinski

When it comes to IP, Schwillinski says, Illumina’s recent strategy has been to broaden and strengthen the company’s global filings. As a relatively young company, it previously spent its modest IP budget mainly on the US and major European markets. That has changed.

“As the company has continued to grow, our products are becoming available almost everywhere,” Schwillinski says. “Our overall strategy is to match filings with our commercial footprint. Jen and her colleagues have been a big part of making sure that happens.”

From Pascua’s vantage point, that has meant working side-by-side with research and development teams. Each project team has an IP liaison, ensuring that legal is involved with the research and development (R&D) team from the very beginning. “Not only do we have the opportunity to learn about what’s being developed, but where it’s going and what the long-term strategy is,” Pascua explains. “When it’s time to make the filing decision, we already have the background and context and can continue to coordinate with them during our review and decision processes.”

Developing a partnership with those creating new technologies at Illumina is a process that requires investment, Pascua says. IP education trainings conducted by the legal team are just a jumping-off point for that relationship. “But after just a few of those sessions, we have a bunch of people that know immediately when to come to us,” Pascua says. “They’ll proactively come and tell you about a project they’re just starting to work on and bring you up to speed. Building these relationships takes more time in the beginning, but it is really paying off.”

“I have to step in here and really commend Jen on that,” Schwillinski says. “She has been absolutely stellar in making those outreaches, educating the teams and hosting lunch-and-learns—it can be difficult to make that material engaging for nonlawyers.”

“Not only do we have the opportunity to learn about what’s being developed, but where it’s going and what the long-term strategy is.” —Jennifer Pascua

But it’s not just about training sessions; it’s about creating a real partnership. The IP lawyers engage in “harvesting” sessions with R&D teams to identify new potential within Illumina’s IP. “We want to make sure that no great idea is falling through the cracks,” Schwillinski explains.

“Roland is a fantastic partner who always inspires peak performance,” says Ed Reines, cohead of the patent litigation practice at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “I’m most impressed by his commitment to excellence. Roland’s strong leadership skills have helped him build a first-class team through and through.”

It’s rare for legal to be involved so early in the process, and both Pascua and Schwillinski say the partnership that has been forged with the R&D teams is a testament to shared ideals in the value of moving innovation ahead.

And while the enhanced collaboration has certainly ramped up new IP at Illumina, Schwillinski says the second part of his plan for the IP team is just as important as the first. “When it comes to strategy, there are different schools of thought, but I tend to believe in quality over quantity,” he says. “You could have ten patents get through the patent office. But if upon pressure testing, only two are going to withstand scrutiny, you’ve wasted a great deal of time and effort.”

“I’m happy to be able to affirm what Roland just said,” Pascua adds. “Our continuity both before and after filings have been made helps ensure that quality and that it aligns with our IP strategy. There’s no point in filing a patent just to get a patent.”

The IP team at Illumina has managed to work smarter—and more unified­—on all fronts since Schwillinski and Pascua joined forces. As both legal teams combine and share skillsets with not only each other but the company at large, they are proving that innovation occurs when no idea gets left behind.

Powell Gilbert is a specialist IP litigation firm that represents life sciences clients in the UK courts and assists in coordinating multi-jurisdictional patent disputes across Europe and beyond. We are proud of our long association with Illumina in a range of matters from prenatal testing to Illumina’s flagship DNA sequencing technology.