WSU’s Gateway to IP program leads STEM students into patent law careers

When Rob Gerlach joined the Office of Tech Transfer and Commercialization at Wichita State in 2018, he noticed a gaping hole in the community: For a city that prides itself on its entrepreneurial spirit, Wichita was severely lacking in people to protect and manage its innovations.   

In fact, a quick database search revealed that there were only a handful of patent practitioners in Wichita.   

“To my surprise, and somewhat horror, there were fewer than 10 of us, which is crazy,” said Gerlach, executive director of Technology Transfer and Commercialization (TTC).   

To put that into perspective, the law firm where Gerlach practiced patent law in St. Louis had around 20 registered patent attorneys and patent agents focused on intellectual property (IP), and the entire city of St. Louis has more than 200 patent practitioners.   

“That’s a problem,” he said. “We at Wichita State University need to try to help correct that problem.”  

So Gerlach created the Gateway to IP program “with the purpose being to increase Wichita’s IP IQ.” Through the program, Gerlach and his team in the TTC office mentor students and introduce them to the pathway to becoming a patent agent.   

“We’re trying to connect with students who have a hard science background: engineering, chemistry, biology — all those qualify. When a student gets their BS degree from WSU, they are then able to sit for what’s called the patent bar. If they pass the patent bar, at that point, they become what’s known as a patent agent,” he said.   

A patent agent is a professional who has passed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) registration exam and is licensed to practice before the USPTO. Patent agents are typically scientists or engineers with technical expertise in a particular field. They can prepare and prosecute patent applications, communicate with the USPTO regarding patent applications, and provide technical advice to inventors.  

While both patent agents and patent attorneys are qualified to assist inventors and companies with obtaining patents, patent attorneys have the added ability to provide legal advice and representation in litigation matters.  

“I thought if I can get them to work with an outside law firm to get them to understand what intellectual property is and understand how to put together patent applications, then I could grow a group of students who understand intellectual property and introduce them to a new career path,” Gerlach said.   

An alternate career path 

Emmalie Gulledge, who graduated from Wichita State in 2021 with a degree in biomedical engineering and a minor in mathematics, was one of the first students to work in the Gateway to IP program. She currently works as a registered patent agent at Stinson LLP in Wichita, while also pursuing a law degree to become a patent attorney.   

“I remember Rob mentioning that he had never read a patent until studying for the patent bar. He wanted to give students an opportunity to have this exposure early before the time and financial commitment of pursuing law school,” Gulledge said. “The Gateway to IP program definitely accomplishes that goal.”  

Gulledge said that even before starting with the program, she knew she wanted to go into patent law.   

“I chose engineering based on being able to fill the background education requirement to practice patent law prosecution,” she said. “Rob was eager to help give me exposure to patents as opportunities came up, which is what drew me to work with him.”  

Ashley Bland, a senior in biomedical engineering, hadn’t even considered a career in patent law until Gerlach spoke to her Introduction to Biodevices class.  

“I didn’t have an interest in patent law before beginning my work at Gateway to IP, as I wasn’t entirely aware of that option as a career path,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to own patents from an inventor’s perspective, though, so my interest in the program didn’t surprise me.”  

Since working in the TTC office, Bland said she plans to pursue a career in patent law after she graduates in December.   

“Initially, I plan to practice as a patent agent and patent engineer,” she said. “I love the variety in the work and types of inventions that I see on a daily basis. No two applications are 100% the same.”  

Zane Berry and Maria Jimenez, who both work in the TTC office, have used their patent training to secure internships at the largest IP boutique law firm in Houston, Patterson + Sheridan LLP.  

“I became interested in patent law after I took some philosophy courses my first year in college,” said Berry, who is a junior in aerospace engineering. “Those classes piqued my interest and I aimed to reconcile a law degree with my engineering degree. I plan to go to law school immediately after undergrad with hopes of being a patent attorney.”  

Jimenez, who is a senior in industrial engineering, learned about the Gateway to IP program through a LinkedIn post; and soon after, she interviewed with Gerlach.   

“I instantly appreciated his encouraging and knowledgeable manner,” she said. “I recognized a growth-oriented, supportive, fun and collaborative environment fostered by the entire Gateway to IP team. The program has allowed me to develop and expand my IP knowledge base as well as skillset, which has helped me prepare for my future career in IP.” 

‘We've been blown away by Wichita State students’  

Kyrie Cameron, a partner at Patterson + Sheridan LLP in Houston, has had several Wichita State students intern at her firm.  

“The interns we have worked with from Wichita State come into our office with great patent prosecution experience,” Cameron said. “They come in so prepared and so knowledgeable that we're always looking for ways to challenge them with unique projects.” 

She said that many of the firm’s summer interns spend much of their time learning the patent process.  

“But with Wichita State students, because they have that foundation by their experience in the office with Rob, we can introduce them to all kinds of things,” Cameron said. “We've been blown away by what Wichita State students can do, so they usually get exposure to litigation-related tasks — whether that's discovery reviews or helping prepare for hearings or portfolio reviews for clients.” 

Cameron, who has visited the Wichita State campus, said she’s impressed with the real-world applications and industry partnerships that WSU students are exposed to in their classes.  

“Their understanding of engineering principles related to commercial uses of those principles — like actual products and actual things that happen in the world — they're not reading it from a textbook,” she said. “They’re working on solving real world problems. They're capable of hearing what our clients' inventions are, how they're commercially relevant, and what problems in the world they're trying to solve with their invention. They're uniquely prepared to address problems.” 

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling almost 22,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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