Bernice Chen – Synaptics
It was a project at a nuclear power plant in California that drove Bernice Chen from engineering to law. She had been working in industrial automation as an applications engineer, traveling 50 to 80 percent of the year, constantly called away from home to repair problems or start up control systems like the one at that plant.
On that assignment, Chen had been scheduled to stay for five weeks. Instead, she wound up staying five months—and being on call 24/7.
“When your dog doesn’t talk to you anymore, that’s a turning point,” she says.
So, she enrolled in law school, deciding to pursue patent law. That led to her current job at Synaptics, a San Jose-based AI-enhanced touch, display and Internet of Things technology company, which produces products such as the SmartBridgeTM automotive display and Triple ComboTM wireless devices.
As assistant general counsel for intellectual property, she leads a team of three intellectual property specialists—one in Bangalore, one in Tokyo and one in Shanghai. And she says she encourages everyone to pitch in on each other’s projects and share opinions about hurdles to overcome.
Her team’s mission is to help Synaptics with all things IP-related—everything from mergers and acquisitions due diligence to litigation support to optimizing the patent management system. Chen has also launched some more lighthearted, fun efforts. For example, her team runs programs to recognize inventors. And she and her teammates plan events, such as the celebration of World IP Day on April 26.
Through it all, Chen says, she’s focused on protecting the company first and foremost. Whatever the challenges surrounding IP, at the end of the day, this is the kind of work she went to law school to do.
Protecting proprietary software
As part of those IP protection efforts, Chen led the development of the company’s guidelines around open-source software. One danger of using open-source software is that it typically comes with requirements, some of which could potentially force Synaptics to open up proprietary software that uses the open-source code, putting that IP at risk.
So, Chen partnered with her coworkers in legal, IT and the business side to implement rules to reduce that risk and protect the company’s IP. They assembled stakeholders from each department and developed agreements around key principles.
Some pieces were easier to agree on than others, she says. For instance, selecting a tool for scanning software was a long-term project because legal had to coordinate with IT and other stakeholders to test various tools. They also needed to develop a ticketing system for license review requests.
Finally, Chen and her team made sure they identified gatekeepers from each of the business units to be responsible for scanning the products going out the door to ensure they’re in compliance.
“It definitely had its challenges,” Chen says. “It’s a lot of different moving pieces and getting a whole lot of people from different groups to agree and to execute based on the policy and the procedures that we put together.”
Bespoke patent protection incentives
Chen has also left her mark on patent protection. Synaptics already had an incentive program for patent protection when she arrived at the company in 2016, but Chen and her team revamped it shortly after she signed on. And they’ve been updating it ever since.
For example, they’ve done raffles to get people to submit invention disclosures. They pick the best invention disclosure that was submitted each month and then hold a quarterly raffle. They’ve also awarded prizes to inventors that include honorary plaques, dinners and luncheons.
“The incentive program is not a one-size-fits-all,” Chen says. “We actually have to have different programs that are tailored to various jurisdictions based on local legal requirements.”
That applies whether they’re operating in France, Germany or China, for example. And the incentive program seems to be working: Synaptics now has more than 2,500 patents worldwide.
Constantly evolving strategies
These days, Chen is busy updating IP strategies for each product line. She says her goal is to diversify and extract value from the company’s IP. This can involve partnering with the business units to update current strategies or building new strategies to protect products and identify monetization opportunities. Either way, it’s a nonstop, evolving process, she says.
The company’s offerings are also growing. For example, with one recent acquisition, Synaptics gained technology that connects any display to any computer with a USB port or Wi-Fi. With another, it got AI, voice, video and wireless chipset technology for converged communications (or the bundling together of different communications services like VoIP, video conferencing and telephony).
“With recent acquisitions like DisplayLink, DSP Group and Emza Visual Sense, Synaptics continues to update and expand its portfolios,” Chen says.
But whatever she’s doing, Chen is doing it with the help of her teammates, whom she credits with much of her success. She’s also indebted to her outside counsel partners, with whom she works closely.
“In a way I feel my biggest responsibility is to my team,” Chen says. “I want to be able to develop them, to prepare them for their next role, whether with the current company or branching out to a different space. I’ve always believed that if I provide them the right opportunities and guidance, they can shine not only as individuals, but they’ll make the team, our company and our industry partners look good as well.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer I 2023 Edition here.
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