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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Francisco Castro, Ph.D., J.D. > IS IT SEMI OR IS IT BIO?

Francisco Castro
McAndrews, Held & Malloy

There is a growing overlap between semiconductor technologies and biotechnologies when dealing with nanometer-scale applications. The complexity that arises from this overlap can present challenges in the procurement of intellectual property rights.

May 2nd, 2012


At the 2012 Nanotechnology Commercialization Conference ( ), Dr. Philip Lippel, a well-known nanotechnology consultant, posed the following question as part of his presentation on nanomanufacturing: "Is it semi or is it bio?" Dr. Lippel was referring, of course, to the overlap that can occur between semiconductor technologies and biotechnologies when dealing with nanometer-scale applications. Answering that question can help determine many of the requirements - technical and otherwise - which are needed to successfully manufacture a product.

What happens then, when the answer is not that the product is "semi" or "bio," but both? In other words, what if integral to the design, manufacturing and operation of the product is the combined use of both semiconductor technologies and biotechnologies? In such cases, not only are the above-mentioned requirements more complex but so are many other issues related to the underlying technology of the product, including the procurement of intellectual property (IP) rights. Thus, IP practitioners can be presented with various challenges in obtaining the appropriate scope of IP protection when key aspects of the underlying technology are based on the combination of nanometer-scale features from both semiconductor technologies and biotechnologies.

One example of the challenges faced by IP practitioners is that there are few individuals with the skills, training and experience to handle the complex issues that arise when semiconductor devices or processes are combined with biological applications at the nanometer scale. In fact, teams of experts from multiple disciplines are generally needed to design, model and test such devices or processes. In contrast, IP lawyers and agents, as well as examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, typically work independently and handle cases or matters that fall within their particular area of technical expertise. As more developments take place where semiconductors and biological technologies are combined at the nanometer scale, there is going to be a growing need for IP practitioners to gain a better understanding of other technical disciplines or to work more closely with other practitioners in those disciplines.

The idea that more and more devices or processes will be based on the combination of nanometer-scale features that arise in both semiconductor technologies and biotechnologies is not a far-fetched one. For example, at a recent event sponsored by the IEEE Nanotechnology Council in Northern Virginia ( ), Dr. Jean-Pierre Leburton, a professor of electrical engineering and physics at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented a lecture titled "Merging Biology and Nanoelectronics: Can a semiconductor operate as a human cell?" The presentation highlighted the use of a semiconductor membrane that can perform tunable ion current rectification and filtering through a nanopore to electronically identify molecular (e.g., DNA) sequences. Dr. Leburton was clear to point out that the complexity of nanopore-based sequencing required a development team that included solid-state device experts as well as biophysicists. If large teams are needed to understand and develop a complex technology such as nanopore-based sequencing, it is not hard to see what a big challenge such technologies can be for individual IP practitioners to handle. Again, IP practitioners who want to successfully and effectively represent their clients in these types of technologies need to acquire a good understanding of those technical fields that are needed to complement their own.

Going back to Dr. Lippel's question: "Is it semi or is it bio?" It appears that in the future there will be a growing number of times when the answer to this question is "both," and IP practitioners need to be ready to handle that.

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