Daniela Combe – IBM
In 1981, IBM scientists Rangaswamy Srinivasan, James Wynne and Samuel Blum invented a process that became the foundation for LASIK and PRK surgery. Daniela Combe tells Vanguard this invention has improved the quality of countless lives to date—partly because IBM decided not to keep the process a secret.
Instead, IBM disclosed it in a patent, so others could learn from and improve it.
“When patents can enhance quality of life, deciding to make the information public is an easy decision,” says Combe, who adds that, as a general rule, most patent applications are made available to the public within 1 1/2 years of filing.
However, matters are a bit more complicated at an information technology services and consulting company that houses technologists, developers and engineers. That tightrope between trade secret and disclosure in a patent is one that Combe has been walking at IBM for decades.
After graduating from New York University School of Law in May 1989, she was hired as an IBM site counsel and started the same month. Since August 2009—after several promotions—she’s now vice president and assistant general counsel.
In her current role, she leads IBM’s global intellectual property team. As the head intellectual property lawyer, she’s guiding the company through its current transition away from heavy emphasis on patent grants, a process that started in 2020.
“We led the U.S. in patent issuances for 29 years straight, and we’ll remain an intellectual property powerhouse,” Combe says. “However, I’m leading the shift towards a more selective approach to patenting, so that we share important information with the world but also protect our trade secrets.”
Computing compatibility of copyrights and patents
Combe believes sharing information is the foundation of innovation, especially as the inventors, technologists, scientists and engineers at IBM work towards advancements and breakthroughs in hybrid cloud data storage and protection, artificial intelligence, automation, security, semiconductors and quantum computing.
So, she’s encouraging and making possible increased communications between teams—starting with her global team of 200. At the moment, the team’s focus is navigating IBM’s new approach to IP protection and patenting. She leads the team but together they decide on how to handle any new product, service, offering or invention and innovation within IBM.
Sometimes, they go ahead with a patent. However, if the product is something like a new security measure to protect data in the cloud and secure access to that data from a variety of devices—desktops, tablets and phones—they may decide to keep it a trade secret. In other instances, such as logos or certain software, Combe and her team may feel the best option is to rely on copyrights or even just the brand name and trademark.
She adds that this process of choosing is more complicated than it sounds. IBM is a global company, so she and her team have to think of the implications of their decisions not just within the U.S. but across the world.
That’s why she has her team talking to each other on a regular basis and educating one another. Laws around the world are constantly evolving, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence, cloud, security and software. According to her, for IBM and her team to be effective, they need to think about the business as well as what they can protect under copyrights, patents, trade secrets and trademarks in the different jurisdictions where IBM operates.
“We have incredibly talented lawyers and paralegals across the world, but we weren’t using that to our full advantage,” Combe says. “That’s why I put so much focus on creating a collaborative culture, so that we become one another’s resources, have a constant feedback loop and, through that, help the organization grow globally.”
The challenges of computers and careers
According to Combe, IBM’s shift away from being a leader in patent filings has come with many growing pains—but she’s always been fond of challenges and changes that lead to a new, brighter future.
In fact, she credits her success at IBM to her willingness to evolve and face challenges since the day she joined the company over 30 years ago. At the start, she wasn’t handling intellectual property matters but rather a little bit of everything. As the counsel for a site in Kingston, New York, she had to handle everything from contract writing and negotiations to human resources and even real estate matters.
A decade later, she moved over to microelectronics as a senior counsel and was able to be more specific with her work, becoming the head lawyer for that group in 2003. During this time, she also tackled transactional work around the world, including divestitures and acquisitions as well as intellectual property law.
“That’s how I ended up heading the systems and software technology groups and dealing with clients before moving on to handle IP and eventually the role I’m in now,” Combe recalls. “I’ve enjoyed every single role and responsibility I’ve tackled throughout the years at IBM.”
Her diverse experience within the company is also her superpower, she says. It allows her to share her experience and knowledge with others on her team and helps get everyone on the same page for decisions and solutions.
Although she worked as a litigation paralegal after graduating with her bachelor’s in arts from Dartmouth College, she wasn’t sure where to go next—even though her brother was working as an in-house lawyer at IBM.
Instead, it was a senior associate at the major Wall Street law firm where she worked who pushed her to take the LSATs and go to law school—and IBM recruited her directly from there.
“It’s been an amazing journey working with a company that’s been around for over a century—and to be helping it navigate a new future in technology is incredible,” Combe says. “Technology is really foundational to everything in the world, and I’m excited to be at the forefront of that with IBM.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring III 2023 Edition here.
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