How many lawyers does it take to look after the legal work for a leading ‘RFID’ provider? Just the one, thank you – so long as the lawyer in question understands what on earth RFID is. There aren’t many of them around, but Kerry Griffin, company solicitor at Innovision Research & Technology, is one.
Griffin is the sole lawyer at Innovision, a role she has occupied since September last year. She started her professional life as a biotechnologist, and her science background enables her to bandy around terms such as ‘RFID’, ‘ITSO’ and ‘ASIC’ with ease. So for starters, what is RFID?
“RFID stands for radio frequency identification,” explains Griffin.
“Put simply, RFID systems consist of tags and readers. Tags are small silicon chips that contain data. Readers are able to receive data from the tags and decode the data.” So far, so good, and all the more comprehensible when Griffin gives an everyday example of RFID technology: the Oyster cards used on the London underground. “The technology is contactless, and tags can be either ‘active’ or ‘passive’,” she says. “Active tags have their own power source, while passive tags derive power from the alternating magnetic field generated by a reader and do not need their own power source. RFID systems are becoming more and more apparent in various companies’ products.”
Her own employer, Innovision, was set up in 1994 and is now an AIM-listed company. Its head office is in the UK, although there are also offices in Hong Kong and the US. In its rarefied, specialist market – “the provision of customised solutions to meet clients’ requirements”, as Griffin puts it – Innovision operates at the cutting edge, with a series of remarkable, mind-boggling products. For example, there is the ‘Jewel’ chip. “In the silicon world, everything’s about size,” says Griffin. “For once, it’s a case of the smaller, the better. The Jewel chip is the world’s smallest – and lowest-cost – ticketing chip available.”
The chip is an RFID application designed for mass transit, consolidating a variety of payment methods such as coins, magnetic stripe tickets and tokens into a single ticketing medium. The benefits are tangible: the ability to pass through an access barrier without having to insert a ticket decreases operating costs and reduces queuing, and, for the transport operator, contactless ticketing removes the need for mechanical terminals. Moreover – and to the joy of commuters everywhere – the theory is that the way the chips provide advanced statistics on passenger movement will facilitate more efficient timetabling, reduce costs and delays and improve safety.
Innovision’s products are designed for a diverse number of sectors – not least logistics and medicine. An appealing piece of PR spin from Innovision has it that “Chips are good for your health”. Griffin explains that RFID is being developed as a means of tracking and identifying medical devices and pharmaceutical products. “This is one of the major areas we’re concentrating on,” she says – and again, size is everything: Innovision has produced a read-write RFID tag small and robust enough to be embedded covertly in almost any product or packaging. The intention is to help prevent mistakes, reduce costs and increase efficiency. The company’s work in the logistics market has been similarly fruitful: RFID ‘smart tags’ are added to products so that a tagged item knows electronically what it is, where it is and where it is going. Companies can thus keep track of products being shipped around the world 24 hours a day.
There is little doubt that it takes a certain kind of lawyer to handle the legal work flowing from a company such as Innovision.
Unquestionably, her affinity with science (she completed a degree in biotechnology at Imperial College before doing a law conversion course) has helped Griffin, who went on to qualify with Linklaters. “I was an IP lawyer as soon as I’d qualified,” says Griffin. “With my background in science, I was always drawn to this area of law. I love science but didn’t like the idea of dry academic research, and becoming an IP lawyer was a way of keeping up with the science side of things and learning about the outside world. You have to have a certain mentality and commitment to do scientific research and I didn’t have it.”
Scientific academia’s loss was the law’s gain. Griffin moved to Bird & Bird to gain greater litigation experience. She worked in the field of pharmaceutical litigation, but was also able to do “a fair bit” of commercial work, including advising on patents, a blend that stood her in good stead when the role at Innovision came along.
Griffin has managed to avoid the traditional in-house lawyer’s fare of becoming the equivalent of a high street practitioner, expected to take on anything that comes through the door. “I’ve been very lucky,” admits Griffin. “I came here as a specialist lawyer and there’s so much specialist work that I’ve been able to concentrate on my areas of expertise.”
Not for Griffin, then, the odd lease to renegotiate or a spot of employment law. Despite being a former litigator – or perhaps precisely because she is a former litigator – she avoids litigation “as much as possible”. What makes up her daily fare is “work with a high IP value – a lot of licensing agreements, development agreements and supply-and-manufacture agreements. Whenever you develop anything, there’ll be IP rights, either pre-existing or created, and Innovision has a number of patents that are integral to its business. I protect what Innovision creates, dealing with patents, copyright and topographic rights.”
Most people have an idea of copyrights and patents, but Griffin agrees that topographic rights are a little more obscure, although she has a ready and succinct explanation. “The layout of the silicon in a chip constitutes the topographic right,” she says. “This is separately recognised by the UK courts, although it’s not something that’s registered. It’s not a monopoly right like a patent.”
What, though, of those other acronyms – ‘ASIC’ and ‘ITSO’?
“Innovision has its own ‘application-specific integrated circuit’, or ASIC, design team,” says Griffin; while ITSO stands for integrated transport smartcard organisation. No doubt these are defined terms in the complex agreements Griffin drafts, and it is a tribute to her pragmatic nature that she manages to make them sound – for a minute or two, at least – a part of everyone’s lexicon.
Griffin obviously loves working at Innovision. “There’s a fabulous atmosphere here,” she says. “Everyone’s incredibly down-to-earth. When I arrived I couldn’t believe how friendly everyone was. It’s very different from private practice and has been a breath of fresh air. I can’t afford to be too ‘legal’ in my approach. I’m not sure it would suit everyone – you have to have a commercial bent. It suits me very well.”
Perhaps, though, the truth is that, for all that Griffin appears every inch the modest, eminently practical in-house lawyer, capable of explaining the most baffling of scientific concepts with ease, there really are very few lawyers capable of doing her job. After all, how many approachable, commercial boffins-turned-lawyers are there?
At Innovision, just the one – and she is doing very nicely.
Innovision Research & Technology plc
|Organisation||Innovision Research & Technology plc|
|Annual legal spend||£500,000|
|Company solicitor||Kerry Griffin|
|Reporting to||Managing director Marc Borrett and finance director Mike Rowe|
|Main law firms||Ashurst, Bird & Bird and the Waterfront Partnership|