February 19, 2019
European Patent Attorney Sini-Maaria Mikkilä steers Kolster’s Tampere office. She finds problem solving refreshing, enjoys close cooperation with customers, cherishes the spirit of the work community − and clears her mind by knitting.
“You have to have the skill to listen to others”
When I was young, I was sure I would not become an engineer. However, I wanted to have an education providing diverse challenges. I like to solve problems and find it endlessly interesting to discover how different things work. So a Master of Science (Tech) I became.
It was a coincidence 11 years ago that brought me to the IP sector when my husband spotted a job add in a newspaper. I had previously been working in quality management, operations development and software tools development, so starting work as a patent attorney with Kolster was a leap into something new.
I have never had second thoughts about the career change. My work is a versatile mix of engineering work, language skills, and knowledge of the law. In addition to systematic thinking and operating methods, you must be willing to listen to others, and seeing things through requires independence and determination. Language proficiency in its various forms comes in handy: inventors, patent attorneys, and patent office experts often refer to the same thing in different ways.
“Not everything needs to be solved alone”
I have headed the Tampere office of Kolster for about a year. Besides monitoring budgets and goals, the core of the work includes personnel and development matters. I want to find for everyone a role where they are able to utilize their own strengths, support the entity, and make sporadic popovers to the discomfort zone enable personal development. Process and tool development are close to my heart, whereby we have also refined the division of tasks, operating methods and processes to make working ever more smooth.
With my 11-year IP experience, I’m still a junior at our office where the patent attorneys are particularly skilled. We are an independently operating satellite unit with a strong team spirit. When a problem emerges, which cannot be solved alone, our mighty team processes the glitch together step by step towards a solution.
My work day is a combination of methodicalness and surprises. I process Office actions, draft new patent applications and meet with customers. Sometimes I assume the role of a detective and find out whether a competitor’s product infringes the customer’s rights, or whether a previous solution corresponds to that which we are now trying to protect. A customer can also suddenly require a quick solution to an acute problem, in which case I devote myself entirely to solving that problem.
“Difficult cases are refreshing”
I get excited about problems: I want to solve all of them and find ways to do things better. “Difficult cases are refreshing!” Technologies always need to be understood at a particular level so that a good patent application can be drafted. At times, the technology of an invention being patented is so difficult that the grey brain cells really need to work hard, or when I compile an opposition I have the chance to get to know the limits of my understanding analysing the patent and comparing it to prior art. The customer is usually at the top of development of its own area of technology, or the invention may be based on top research by a university. In these cases it is obvious that it is going to take a while, to put it mildly, to examine the case. Interpreting IP legislation is also interesting and challenging. Luckily I can turn to my knowledgeable colleagues to solve issues together.
Companies understand IP better than before, but some companies, including even some major ones, may still see IP as a cost item instead of a strategic investment. Some companies, in contrast, are very conscious with such a strong IP culture that each employee is able to think what is worth protecting and why.
It is awesome that Finnish companies protect their inventions as this also means Finnish work is protected too. It keeps the wheels of economy spinning when the amazing inventions made here are protected instead of just slipping for use by others around the world.
“I love working closely with customers”
The best part of my work is the cooperation with customers and colleagues. I highly appreciate our close customer relationships. Through them I can learn how our customers operate, what sort of problems they are faced with, and how we can best help them. From new customers and technologies strange to myself I yet again learn something new. Such tasks are the most unforgettable where I have been involved in a patenting process for a customer’s major invention from the start. When such an invention flies, I feel I have done something meaningful.
The scope of our tasks and the customers’ IP needs have diversified over the past decade. In the past, a large part of the work was of the same kind: we drafted a patent application and took care of its official processing both domestically and internationally. Now the needs of our customers are more varied. We may carry out individual searches, infringement analyses or follow-ups, draft just a patent application text for a customer, or be involved in strategic, long-term cooperation with the customer. More and more often, we engage in comprehensive IP strategy work, where we think about large IP entities and strategies together with the customer. I like the closer than before cooperation with the customer.
“I look forward to the potential brought about by the technological breakthrough”
User interfaces are becoming more common on conventional devices and machines, too, and they can be in the machine itself or further away in remote control solutions. They are also being protected more and more. At patent offices in Europe and the USA, new policies have been made on the protection potential that these have. When it comes to patenting, it is all about trying to score a moving goal: it may take ten years to have a patent granted, which means that the grounds for granting may change at the offices during the application process.
Because no additions can be made in a patent application after filing it, things may be lacking from the application, which at the filing time were not required to be mentioned. A patent office may, for example, end up considering a user interface solution a mere abstract idea that cannot be protected. It is difficult to predict changes in the interpretations by patent offices. The best way to navigate the changing conditions is to make the original patent application as high quality as possible and to focus on entering the invention in the application extensively and concretely.
I am eagerly looking forward to the effect of the current technological breakthrough on the IP sector: Is there going to be new technology to be protected, how will artificial intelligence change protection, and who has the rights to the ever increasing amount of data? The new technologies are also likely to affect the future policies of patent offices.
“Becoming inspired is fuel”
Continuous learning is not just a idle talk to me. I want to learn all kinds of things all the time. Lately, I downloaded an application on the mobile phone for learning the basics of Chinese. I also do a lot of handicrafts and suffer from a minor case of scarf madness: I’ve probably knitted more than a hundred scarves. I have passed them on because I can only wear one at a time. However, knitting acts as a fine counterbalance for demanding brain work.
Linguistic preciseness is an occupational disease which eats me on free time, too. I correct subject matter errors, impreciseness, and minor mistakes even when I’m reading a newspaper either alone or making comments to my spouse.
Even after a decade, I’m still genuinely excited about my work. Cycles in the IP sector are long, as it may take years from the filing of a patent application to the granting of the patent. The results of my work are, however, concrete. I get direct feedback from the cooperation and always new nuts to crack. Excitement is my fuel! In addition, helping others, cherishing joy, and communality are things I find important. I know that when we are seeking solutions we are in the same boat both in the work community and with our customers. We are rowing together in the same direction.