University of Michigan’s Legal Clinic Helps Student Innovators

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Jeff Plott loves making complicated things simple. A doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan with a focus in plastics and silicone design, Jeff has designed and optimized consumer, automotive, medical, and aerospace products. One night in 2013 Jeff and his brother Chris (the father of three young children) began thinking about how a better baby bottle design could make the constant washing easier and safer.

They started working on the idea and before long had a prototype of a reusable bottle that flips inside-out for easy cleaning, called ‘Flipsi’. Their advisors at the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship saw that the product had promise and suggested they contact the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law Clinic (ZEAL) at U-M’s Law School.  

“There are a whole lot of legal things you have to go through to protect yourself most people don’t realize,” says Plott. “The first thing we did was incorporate, but there was a lot more than that.”

According to law professor and ZEAL director Dana Thompson, the vast majority of the clinic’s clients seek help to set up a legal business entity, such as incorporating, which sets the venture apart from the individuals who founded it. In the fast changing start-up world this is a crucial first step, especially when intellectual property is involved.

“Many students come to us knowing they should set up some kind of entity but not knowing how or what to do next. We help them ask and answer fundamental questions for their own protection as they are setting up their company,” says Thompson.

How it works: student attorneys guide student entrepreneurs as they navigate the legal complexities of setting up a business or commercializing their ideas. Supervised by law faculty, the law students help founders of promising student ventures iron out the business formation, trademark, finance, patent, regulatory, and other issues that can complicate the establishment of any entrepreneurial business.

With the rise in popularity, ZEAL has also begun offering office hours at the Law School and other locations across campus, including the TechArb Student Incubator, Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and Center for Entrepreneurship. To date, advisors have provided over 300 hours of consultation services across campus.

The clinic is part of the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law at program at U-M’s Law School, which provides law students interested in entrepreneurship with opportunities to engage in the field through coursework, internships, venture capital labs, and more — a practice at the heart of the school’s philosophy of joining the practical with the purely academic.

The Flipsi team relied on ZEAL’s expertise for contractor agreements, trademark work, and more. “It’s a great resource for students who are beyond the idea phase and it’s starting to look like they might actually have something,” says Plott, noting the main benefit is the ZEAL clinic’s pro bono service offerings. “Ventures just starting out want to put all their funding into creating a minimum viable product,” he says. They don’t want to burn through capital on legal fees without being able to accelerate the product.”

Since launching in 2012 the ZEAL clinic has helped 80 student ventures from 16 of the university’s 19 schools and colleges focus on their product or service, instead of amassing legal bills that could make it more difficult to get their ventures off the ground. Nearly 380 ventures have applied since the clinic’s inception, and over 150 companies or projects are currently on the waitlist.

One of the first of its kind, the need for law clinics like U-M’s ZEAL has increased in recent years as technological advances, and a growing interest in entrepreneurship on college campuses, have made it possible for students to push the boundaries of exploration and innovation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Meanwhile, with more teams entering high profile competitions, pitch contests, and hackathons across campus, ventures are receiving even greater visibility.

One such all-female team, Skillet, sought out legal advice after winning one of the top prizes at the School of Public Health’s Innovation in Action competition.

”The legal issues were somewhat in the background, we didn’t know that was so involved,” says Skillet co-founder Lily Hamburger. “When we won the money [from Innovation in Action] we started thinking seriously about launching our business and knew we had to do something. Some of our team wanted to continue and some did not. We had to be thoughtful and careful that everyone was treated fairly and the outside council was important for that.”

The program has broad implications for both students and the economy.

In 2012,U-M alumni Grant Hughes and Cavan Canavan developed Focus Solutions, a wearable device and app system that records? and coaches users during their workouts. The device automatically identifies the type of exercise being done, such as push-ups, crunches, or squats; records the workout details including sets, repetitions, and rest periods; and provides real-time audio or visual feedback using a smartphone.

The team credits the clinic for valuable legal advice early on, which helped to lay the foundation for Focus’s early success. “What I love about the clinic is that the law students and entrepreneurs are learning together,” Hughes said, “and that the clinic is investing in U-M students in order to build businesses and advise entrepreneurs. I can’t quantify how much it would have cost us to do what the clinic has done, but I know it’s a substantial amount.”

Today, Hughes and Canavan are using the data they collected for Focus Solutions as a foundation for a new fitness startup.

Thompson says the program benefits both law students and the student body across campus. ”Law students didn’t have a significant opportunity to be involved in the greater entrepreneurial ecosystem at the university before the ZEAL program was started. This experience gives them the specific skills they need to represent startups and an in depth understanding of the rapidly growing areas of law impacting startups.”

For students across campus, having access to the law clinic helps to break down the barriers to entry in entrepreneurship. “It helps other students see that the law is not such a scary thing. Lawyers can be collaborative and valued members of the team, and getting this trusted advice early on is really important,” says Thompson.

The law clinic’s services are in high demand, especially with the university’s increased activity in entrepreneurship and breadth of resources available to students through the campus-wide minor in entrepreneurship, courses, 30+ entrepreneurial student organizations, incubators and accelerators.

The clinic is essentially protecting the ability of students to innovate, create and explore.

“Having people who know what things you should be doing so you don’t screw up early on is really beneficial,” says Jeff Plott. For Flipsi, it’s allowed the team to move through the paces more efficiently. The team is poised to seek its first round of venture funding for Flipsibaby this year.

“Michigan has a legacy of providing the educational foundation to the great innovators of our time like Larry Page, co-founder of Google, Eric Lefkofsky, co-founder of Groupon and Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, among many others.  These examples of globally recognized innovators who graduated from the University of Michigan illustrate the potential of Michigan students to become great innovators. This is why it is important for Michigan students to be able to innovate and to believe that they can make an impact, without having to invest the much-needed early capital into the legal process, and the law clinic is helping them achieve these goals.” says Thompson.

 

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About The ZEAL Clinic: The Entrepreneurship Clinic, a part of Michigan Law’s Zell Entrepreneurship and Law (ZEAL) Program, is a clinical law program focusing on advising U-M student entrepreneurial ventures. The first of its kind in the United States, the clinic provides law students with unique, real-world experience in representing early-stage ventures while offering valuable legal services to the University entrepreneurial ecosystem. The clinic has provided no-cost legal services to a significant number of student-led startups since its inception in 2012, meets with hundreds of student entrepreneurs each year, and has provided hundreds of hours of legal information to individuals and organizations throughout the U-M community.

 

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