Indigo’s Director of Intellectual Property, Nathan "The Patent Ninja" Billings, well knows that in the world of biotech, where new innovations seem to surface faster than you can say “CRISPR-Cas9,” it pays to be quick on your feet. Nathan’s nimble approach and ability to juggle a daunting calendar of bar dates and statutory deadlines earned him an apt nickname. As his colleagues on the Indigo legal team attest, “like a ninja, he uses the many weapons in his patent tool box to develop good systems to react and respond quickly to challenging tasks, while maintaining a zen-like calm.”
With World Intellectual Property Day (April 26)—an annual celebration of the role of IP in "encouraging innovation and creativity—having just passed, we heard from Nathan about his path to Indigo and how his team's work helps inform the direction of the business.
When pressed for details on Indigo's patent portfolio, all he would say was that it was "large and diverse," adding, with a wry smile, that "a ninja never gives away his secrets."
WHAT DREW YOU TO INDIGO?
I’ve taken a very serendipitous path to Indigo. I started college interested in finance. I took a couple of science courses and ended up graduating with an honor’s degree in biochemistry. That brought me to the Dana Farber here in Boston, where I worked as a research tech in the pediatric oncology group studying the molecular mechanisms of brain cancers. I worked there for a few years before applying to grad school, where I studied retinal development, which led me to patent law, of all things. I worked at two different law firms, and got a call about three years ago now, I guess, about the Indigo (or Symbiota, at the time) opportunity. Turns out, the company—Indigo—was leveraging microbiome technology to grow healthier plants, produce more yield, increase stress tolerances, all the while reducing fertilizer and nitrogen runoff into our freshwater supply. I was really impressed by the focus on completely upending agriculture for the positive. I was also at a point in my life where I needed to do something that was significant and meaningful, something that had the potential to leave a lasting, positive impact on the world around us for generations to come. It was that piece that brought me here more than anything—environmental sustainability.
HOW WAS THE TRANSITION TO AGRICULTURE FROM YOUR PRIOR WORK?
There are some things that are specific to the field of agriculture, which I’ve learned on the fly.
One of the things that actually led me to IP law in the first place is that I love learning about new science, I love thinking about science. When you work in a law firm, you have to do that all the time; you’ll be put on cases where you may not have the specific technical background, but you have to learn it very, very quickly. And so that steep learning curve was really attractive to me when considering this opportunity in agtech; it’s one of the things that I love about what I do.
"If you go home and you say, to your child, I’m helping farmers grow more food in a better way—or I’m helping the world be a healthier place—they get that, even at age four or five."
WHERE DOES YOU ROLE FIT IN WITH THE REST OF THE LEGAL TEAM AT INDIGO?
Our Legal team supports the business. Leading the IP group, I’m responsible for the strategic direction of the IP, so one of my responsibilities is to make sure that I understand where the business wants to go and provide the runway to do so from an intellectual property standpoint.
One of the most important jobs I have, aside from the intellectual property, is to make sure that my team is supported with their professional development—to make sure that their careers are progressing in the way that they want to develop. That’s something that’s really important to me, personally. We have an amazing team, and it's a privilege to work with such talented and fun colleagues every single day.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
No two days are alike. I think what we do is particularly interesting in the sense that there are certain statutory deadlines that we’ll face with respect to prosecuting patent applications. These are certain “due dates” that you need to take action by— or before—that date, or you lose all ability to pursue those patent applications. You can imagine that having these rigid deadlines mixed in with the vibrant energy that is Indigo, and all the different challenges that happen in real time that need to be addressed…that’s where the days become really, really interesting because you’re addressing challenges as they arise while keeping your eye on the clock for these stat deadlines.
YOU TOUCHED ON THIS A BIT ALREADY, BUT I WANTED TO GO DEEPER INTO WHY YOU CHOSE TO PURSUE IP IN BIOTECHNOLOGY, GIVEN THAT YOU COULD HAVE TAKEN YOUR EXPERTISE TO ANY NUMBER OF INDUSTRIES. WHAT MOTIVATED YOUR DECISION TO CONCENTRATE IN THIS AREA?
The biotech piece began back when I was in grad school earning my PhD, or actually even earlier, during my undergraduate studies. I have always had a deep love for science, and I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into one particular area. This is the opposite of graduate work, where the emphasis is to learn as much as possible about a very narrow subject area.
At the end of grad school, I was evaluating my options to understand where you can be exposed to lots and lots of different types of cutting-edge science, and really get into it very deeply. And there’s a couple of different ways that you can do that; patent law is one phenomenal way. The whole idea behind the patent system is to stimulate innovation. Inventors are persuaded to disclose their best and brightest ideas and make them public; and in exchange for making them public, which in turns stimulates innovation, the government provides a period of exclusivity.
And so patent law seemed like an awesome way to actually be able to get exposed to all these different, really cool areas of science that I’ve really come to love, without getting pigeonholed into one specialty area. And that’s why I was practicing mostly in the biotech area, because molecular biology is a universal piece.
Indigo really resonated with me for a couple of reasons. From a personal standpoint, I wanted to do something that was going to be impactful and make a difference around me, if that makes sense. My kids really didn’t understand what I did when I worked at a law firm, right? It’s very confusing for a four- or five-year old to understand that; but if you go home and you say, to your child, I’m helping farmers grow more food in a better way—or I’m helping the world be a healthier place—they get that, even at age four or five. For me, it will fundamentally make a difference.
YOU SPEND MUCH OF YOUR DAY IMMERSED IN A COMPLEX INTELLECTUAL REALM. WHAT SORTS OF "MINDLESS" ACTIVITIES DO YOU ENJOY WHEN YOU NEED A BREAK?
You mean outside of the office? I’ve got some crazy hobbies. I live north of the city on about two acres and have chickens. I pretend to be a “gentleman farmer,” so on the weekends I like taking the tractor out, splitting wood, mowing the lawn. So those are all mindless activities. I’m a bit of a gearhead, too, so I like working on the motorcycle or my truck. I’ve got a 1972 FJ-40 Toyota Landcruiser.
IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE ONE "SPIRIT CROP" OR SPECIALTY VEGETABLE THAT PERSONIFIES YOU, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Habaneros—I love spice. Habaneros are great because they’re just a little spicy, and they have a lot of flavor.