Chyreene Truluck tried her hand at the science of genetics but soon found that the disappointment of failed experiments was a bit too much for her. Now, as a patent lawyer she advises those with agricultural inventions to keep two things in mind: novelty and inventiveness.
A patent lawyer with a Master’s degree in human genetics, Truluck’s work allows her front and centre access to the country’s biotechnology industry.
Truluck deals with a wide variety of patent claims, and not just those limited to agriculture. She says she often deals with plant-related biotechnological innovations.
“There can be improved methods for obtaining plants. There can be plants with improved properties, but that also extends to things like plant extracts and medicinal applications, plant extracts and then also moving more into the sort of human, and specifically, disease field. I deal with a lot of technologies related to biological pharmaceutical compounds and anything and everything in between that.”
In search of the right path
At first, Truluck started by doing her Bsc but she was looking for something more. “I did my BSc and I enjoyed it, but I thought that when I got to honours, I would maybe enjoy the practical side of science more. Then I did an honours degree and while I enjoyed the practical side, I didn’t love the trial and error.”
Truluck’s honours degree was in plant fungal genetics, so she thought that perhaps a change in majors would provide her with more satisfaction. “I decided to do a Master’s degree in human genetics, and then during my Master’s realised that, in fact, it was the disappointment of lab work that I didn’t particularly like.”
In search of a new career, Truluck decided that the patents industry was a logical choice. She was aware of the industry as a career field and knew they needed people with a background in science.
“At the time, there weren’t a lot of openings for biotech patent attorneys. And so what I did was, I got a job working for the then Innovation Fund, which was part of the department of science and technology. They were specifically looking for people who had a technical background, but who also had an interest in law. I [assessed] any funding applications that came in for patentability.”
Patent law and biotechnology
While at the Innovation Fund, Truluck started her law studies, and the job eventually helped her secure a role at Wits University as a technology transfer officer. She was responsible for protecting and commercialising the relevant research work done at the Johannesburg-based university.
“I was quite intimately involved in managing the intellect property coming out of this. And eventually I finished studying my law degree and decided that I needed to do my one-year articles in order to qualify as an attorney. [I had] very little intention of actually practising as a patent attorney.”
Almost as soon as she started doing her articles, Truluck realised that patent law is exactly where she wanted to be. She did her articles at Spoor & Fisher, the same intellectual property firm she still works at today.
The patent law industry in South Africa still has relatively small membership, says Truluck. To get into her specific field, you need have a law degree as well as a technical background.
A rewarding career
For Truluck, her foremost challenge whilst working as a patent lawyer is related to balancing her work. She explains that the job demands stringent planning but also flexibility.
“It’s a very deadline-driven field and patents have very specific deadlines attached to them; when certain things need to be done and are due. It’s quite hard to stay on top, being organised, and making all your deadlines, and being methodical and jogging from technology to technology on a daily basis while juggling those deadlines.”
When she first started, Truluck was relieved to find that she was still able to progress in her field, despite it being a male-dominated industry.
“It’s actually quite interesting being a female patent attorney in South Africa. It’s one of the challenges I haven’t really encountered, but would have expected to have encountered. [Patent law] is a male dominated field, [and I thought] it would be difficult to progress, but that certainly hasn’t happened. I found a very supportive environment, in fact, of diversity and specifically growing diversity in the field.”
One of the aspects of her work that Truluck really loves is the exposure to new biotechnologies. She says that some of the biotechnologies she is exposed to did not even exist when she was studying.
“One of the rewarding aspects is learning and understanding new technologies. Another rewarding aspect is the process of actually obtaining granted patent for a client, especially where there’s key to translating their invention into a commercial product. So there’s always quite the thrill when you get a patent granted in a difficult country to prosecute a patent application in where you’ve been struggling to convince an examiner and finally you succeed.”
Invention and innovation
In 2018, Truluck won an award for professional excellence in innovation management. She lists winning the award as one of her career highlights, as it was an acknowledgment from her peers for nearly all the work she did through her career.
“[The award] really recognised [my work], all the way from when I was managing intellectual property (IP) at a university through to becoming a patent attorney and managing IP on behalf of my client. [They recognised] the contribution that I had made to innovation management in South Africa.”
For those innovators wanting to get patents for their agricultural inventions, Truluck says the most important things to remember are two words: novelty and inventiveness.
“Basically, novelty just means that it must be new when compared to everything that came before it. So, it must not have been disclosed in a single document or in a single product anywhere else in the world, and that’s quite easy to determine.”
Inventiveness, she says, is harder to determine. It refers to whether or not a person with the same skills would have thought of the idea.
“The requirement means that an invention, if you look at everything that came before it, should not have been obvious to someone that has skill in that field. ”
To make a patent application more likely to be approved, her advice is to “actually try to understand what other similar inventions exist out there, focus on the differences between their technology and what already exists, and articulating why theirs is better.”
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