Vance Van Drake
Ulmer is one of the Midwest’s leading law firms with attorneys in Ohio’s three major cities, as well as Chicago and Boca Raton, Florida. Ulmer is a long-time supporter of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem with attorneys volunteering time at the University of Cincinnati, Miami University (Ohio), Northern Kentucky University and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. The firm is active participants in time and sponsorship investments at most early stage activities around Cincinnati, and its attorneys are frequent speakers and panelists at local start-up conferences and events. Recently, The Halo Effect (THE) caught up with Vance VanDrake, an intellectual property, patent and venture attorney in the firm’s Cincinnati office. Vance is also the President of the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association, was appointed by the Mayor of Cincinnati to the Small Business Advisory Committee and was recognized as one of Cincinnati’s “Top 40 under 40” by the Cincinnati Business Courier.
THE: Why is it important for Ulmer to be involved in the start-up community?
VanDrake: Ulmer is supportive of the community at large and we recognize how important entrepreneurship is to this area. The start-up ecosystem has become a more vibrant and intricate part of Cincinnati, especially in the last 5-10 years, and as a tech-focused law firm, it’s important for us to see and experience the next big thing before it becomes the next big thing. Within the Cincinnati office, there are 10-12 attorneys who are actively involved in our tech and early-stage practice. We have broad experience across patent, copyright, trademark and open source, as well as immigration and the role it plays with talent and ownership.
THE: What makes Ulmer stand out from other law firms in the area?
VanDrake: Ulmer, especially here in Cincinnati, is uniquely suited to support the needs of emerging tech business. Three-quarters of our attorneys have tech degrees, with a focus on IP and pharma. I have co-founded three companies myself, so we understand that entrepreneurs and start-ups operate a little differently than a Fortune 500 company. Most importantly, we take time to understand the people behind the business.
When it comes to practicing law among start-ups and entrepreneurs, I liken it to fantasy football. If you play fantasy football to win money, you probably shouldn’t play. Lots of attorneys talk about supporting start-up business, but the financial rewards are definitely different than other areas of law. You play in the start-up space for the community and because you like the people involved. There is a lot of trendiness, but most people don’t realize what it takes to fully commit to the space.
THE: Describe the relationship between Ulmer and QCA and the value that the firm receives in being a QCA partner
VanDrake: We’ve been a long-time supporter and sponsor of QCA, and recognize the good work that they do in the community to help promising tech companies move to the next level. We have been involved in QCA’s Morning Mentoring program, supported companies that they fund in deals, and most recently, helped with QCA’s trademark and Startup College.
QCA plays an invaluable role in our local ecosystem. There are only a couple of options locally for seed-based funding, so without QCA, we would lose companies and entrepreneurs to the coasts. Having such a large group of local investors helps keep our best companies and people here. There are so many promising business ideas that come out of P&G, and high quality entrepreneurs that are affiliated with other Fortune 500 companies. QCA’s presence and activity gives them incentive to build their ideas and companies in Cincinnati.
THE: Considering IP, what are 1-3 things you have learned, from a legal perspective that can help young companies when it comes protecting their IP?
VanDrake: First, every company has IP of some kind, whether it is patents, trademarks or trade secrets. The higher the business IP IQ, the better off the company will be. Second, IP has a reputation for being really expensive, which doesn’t have to be the case. Companies that pursue IP protection can maximize the value at every step. Finally, fear with software/tech companies that think they don’t have any IP or can’t protect it. This is wrong. There is a misconception that to do anything is really expensive. Lots of companies throw up their hands, and don’t do anything, or don’t educate themselves about the options. That approach ends up hurting the valuation of the company.
THE: What are the more common misconceptions about IP and IP attorneys?
VanDrake: Unfortunately, many of the misconceptions are true. There is a perception that IP attorneys have very low business acumen and are more focused on the nuts and bolts of prosecution; not necessarily driving value for the business as a whole.
Start-ups and their founders should ask IP attorneys, “How often do you work with early stage companies?” “How many other startups have you helped and how much success have you had?” The right IP attorney for Fortune 50 company, with an unlimited budget, might not understand the needs of early stage businesses.
THE: What do you enjoy about working with startups and entrepreneurs?
VanDrake: I like to be around people who are smarter than me. Every day, I get to be involved and play a small role in something that has the potential to benefit the city or change the world. I get to work with brilliant, quirky startup founders, which is not for everyone, but it’s why I love to come to work everyday.
THE: Why is Cincinnati the right place to build a business?
VanDrake: It’s our Midwest mentality. Everyone is about the rising tide. Everyone is wiling to have coffee or a meeting for free. For the most part, people are trying to find a way to give first in most situations, which is an incredible asset for entrepreneurs. We also have a wealth of knowledge from universities and big companies. In most cases, if you ask for help, you will get it. This support system makes the city special and helps the ecosystem in an ongoing way. Those that have struggled here have not been willing to ask.
THE: What can Cincinnati do in the short-term/long-term to improve as a place to do business?
VanDrake: The city and region needs to continue to support the best entrepreneurs, and encourage people to go out and do their own thing. Some of the best that have started companies are those that have worked at P&G, Children’s Hospital and GE. We need more of them to take a chance on themselves and their ideas. They need to know that on boarding into the startup community is not jumping off a cliff for their careers.
THE: As you have seen the startup/entrepreneurial community grow, what stands out to you?
VanDrake: The community has truly mirrored Over-the-Rhine. What was once brave and edgy is now for everyone. We have a community that is a place for everyone to get involved. We have a much more established community, and the past 10 years of growth is unrecognizable.
THE: Are there companies or organizations you look to as an example of doing things the right way?
VanDrake: I admire companies and organizations that are looking to collaborate. We are too small of a city, and our resources too limited to compete amongst ourselves to play politics. The companies and organizations that work to include people, and work with one another, are doing it the right way. Reaching out within our region is our best chance for success.
Each city in our region has a core competency that is a magnet for talent in that space. In P&G, we draw certain kind of talent, which wouldn’t be here if not for them. If we make connections, build startups, and leverage the strengths of other Midwest communities, we will all do better.