In Service of Discovery

At The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Ama Romaine ensures innovators know the rules of the road as they achieve impact

When Ama Romaine walked out of her local movie theater in Washington, DC, she spotted a girl wearing a T-shirt with the first two letters of the word “Impossible” crossed out. The logo and accompanying tagline (“Disrupt the Future”) caught her attention, and she discovered that it was apparel from her own company, The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). At that moment, Romaine realized that her interests and abilities as a legal leader were truly in the right place, at a hub where science and technology take center stage.

“That shirt spoke so powerfully to me by underscoring that anything is possible when you’re disrupting and innovating,” Romaine says. “Accepting the status quo is no longer good enough for any organization.”

For seventy-five years, the nonprofit research center affiliated with Johns Hopkins University has invented game-changing solutions for the nation. Its technological advances include the world’s first satellite navigation system—the precursor to today’s GPS—as well as one of the preeminent space research programs in the United States.

Prior to joining APL as general counsel in June 2016, Romaine worked for a couple of large law firms both in the United States and Trinidad, where she represented lenders on a broad range of financial transactions. She also accrued a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. Romaine first went in-house as senior counsel at Choice Hotels in 2007 and then Hilton in 2009, where she was promoted to vice president.

As she became more integrated with her business partners, Romaine observed the growing trend of online businesses that were disrupting traditional business models by giving the customer more agency. Netflix overthrew Blockbuster, Airbnb challenged the hospitality space, Amazon is evolving the retail experience, and Uber is changing the way travelers use taxis. She recalls spending time contemplating how these companies were becoming disruptors, and when the opportunity appeared to work for a research center that focuses on that very thing, she couldn’t let it pass her by.

“I was really intrigued by the idea of working in an environment that was completely different from anything that I’d ever done before, largely because I felt that science and research was a little bit of a blind spot for me,” says Romaine, who admits she only took one or two computer science classes in high school. “I wanted to understand the role that science and technology plays in helping companies to evolve.”

Romaine began her legal career in finance after graduating from the Howard University School of Law, which she credits with providing a solid foundation for and broad understanding of commercial transactions. In addition, Romaine grew up in Trinidad and went to school in Canada, which she says gave her an appreciation for diverse perspectives—a mind-set that, along with her commercial expertise, she brought to her role at APL.

The greatest risk to innovation is the “echo chamber,” according to Romaine. She adds that one of the major benefits she brings to APL is her breadth of experience, and that she encourages her team to use a similar approach as they provide advice and counsel. APL’s strategic focus on fostering an environment where diversity of thought flourishes also aligns nicely with Romaine’s own approach. “Staying in one industry has some benefits, but the greatest risk is losing the ability to take a step back and view things from a completely different perspective,” Romaine says. “That’s the danger of having too much depth in one organization or area. You start thinking that the way you do things and the way you see the world is the only way. I’m able to look at issues from a different perspective when I am not in the weeds.”

One of the first changes Romaine made as APL’s general counsel was evolving the legal team structure. Previously, everyone was organized by practice areas. Instead, Romaine focused on integrating the attorneys further into the organization by aligning each of them with APL’s various sectors. Each lawyer wears two hats, acting as a liaison to each sector and a subject-matter expert.

“I had that light bulb moment—I was asking them to be a general counsel for their sector,” Romaine says about her lawyers adjusting to their new roles. “It’s a mind-set shift in the way that we provide legal service. It shouldn’t be difficult for folks to figure out who to call in the legal department. We really want to embed the legal philosophy in the organization in a way that it just feels very natural for people to just check in and engage with their lawyers, particularly when they are working in uncharted territory.”

“We need that integration so we are able to anticipate what might go wrong and where we might be needed,” Romaine continues. “We need to be at the point where we are understanding what keeps our innovators up at night when they’re wondering about their next creation. If we’re not connected in that way, we’re never going to able to shape innovation that comes out of the law.”

Now Romaine and her team are shaping the legal strategy around APL’s intellectual property (IP). It’s one of the most important roles of her legal team, she says, especially when APL scientists innovate constantly within twelve mission areas: Air and Missile Defense, Civil Space, Cyber Operations, Homeland Protection, National Health, National Security Analysis, National Security Space, Precision Strike, Research and Exploratory Development, Sea Control, Special Operations, and Strategic Deterrence.

Recently, APL held a symposium on the Intelligence System Center (ISC), a laboratory and test facility focused on creating autonomous and intelligent machines. Romaine and her IP team attended the event to gain insight into the realms of robotics, neuroscience, and machine learning that go into creating the autonomous systems, because law and ethics are also necessary to ensure smart technology is used appropriately. From the military increasingly using unmanned missile systems to the future of healthcare’s surgical tools, the ISC is exploring exciting new territory, and Romaine wants legal to be at the forefront as well. Established in 2016, her legal team is helping to shape artificial intelligence technologies not only for APL, but also for its partners in academia and industry.

One of these strategic partners is Facebook, and Romaine’s legal team played a crucial role in negotiating the contract. APL is involved in Facebook’s Sponsored Academic Research, which aims to develop a silent speech interface. The technology will allow users to type one hundred words per minute using only their thoughts—a method five times faster than using a smartphone.

APL’s role in brain computer interfaces stems from its work on the DARPA Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which creates advanced, neurally controlled artificial limbs that allow amputees to regain dexterity and a sense of touch.

“This partnership underscores that it isn’t possible to innovate in isolation,” Romaine explains. “We are continually seeking to collaborate with the goal of having an impact for the nation with the research that we do.”

Although there are some limitations for her legal team because much of APL’s development is classified, she enjoys working with the innovators, whom she says engage with her differently on legal issues. For example, they are very comfortable reading a contract from beginning to end, and they engage with the lawyers more fulsomely on legal issues .

“That’s one of things that is beautiful about working in an environment where we’re very different,” says Romaine, who has been innovative herself in her career across industries. “It helps me remember that the world is made of all different kinds of people. I’m learning every single day, and that has been just another wonderful gift.”

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Hogan Lovells:

“We feel privileged to work with Ama Romaine and her team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. She is a very talented lawyer who brings collaborative solutions to difficult problems. We are proud to support Ama in her efforts.”

—Eve N. Howard, Regional Managing Partner

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Miles & Stockbridge:

“Ama is a leader who always asks ‘why’ in order to learn ‘how can we do this better?’ in the spirit of bringing about positive change. Her efforts raise the bar for everyone around her.”

—Kirsten Eriksson, Principal