Coming Full Circle

BP managing counsel George Jonas uses his engineering expertise to inform his company’s IP practice and education

George Jonas, BP

Much of what George Jonas applies in his professional life today can be traced back to his humble roots. As the grandchild of farmers, he spent his days tinkering with lawn mowers and watching his grandparents continually fix various pieces of equipment on the farm, which generated an ongoing passion for engineering and technology. “I was always interested in mechanical things,” Jonas recalls. Additionally, his father was a small-town lawyer with a diverse practice, which exposed Jonas to many different legal disciplines, including patent law. Being immersed in these two subjects and ways of life made an impression on the young Jonas.

Fast-forward thirty years, and you’ll find that Jonas continues to apply this marriage of engineering and law for one of the largest publicly traded integrated oil companies in the world, BP, as managing counsel for global patents and technology law in the company’s downstream segment. As one may imagine, BP’s intellectual property (IP) needs are considerable and complex. Jonas maintains a keen appreciation for the need for responsible, comprehensive IP management, which he has been working toward for the past four and a half years through innovative IP education and monetization. He has become passionate about the many ways to educate clients on IP strategies, including using technology to develop creatives ways of teaching technologists about IP management and how important it is for them to protect their ideas—both for themselves and for the company.

After earning his bachelor of science in engineering from Marquette University,  Jonas spent two years as an associate project engineer for Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in Chicago. It was there that he began to see patent law as a way to learn about interesting new products and technologies while engaging with their creators on a variety of levels. His responsibilities at UL included speaking with scientists and engineers about their products and conducting safety certification training. “Talking to people and getting them to talk about their great new product or idea and the excitement they have around it is really energizing,” Jonas says.

In his current position, Jonas draws on his prior work as an engineer to help bridge the divide that can exist between technologists and legal departments. Product innovation, development, marketing, and sales and the urgency of delivering results can sometimes be in tension with the need to protect the ideas behind the products. Jonas believes that understanding this tension can help deliver the right strategy for protecting and monetizing IP. “It’s not necessary that you are a practicing engineer before you go to law school, but I think it’s a useful experience to know how being an engineer in a company works,” Jonas says.

An important aspect of bridging the technologist-legal divide has been Jonas’s ongoing initiatives surrounding BP’s existing IP education programs to help the company’s technology team better understand and value IP management and strategy.

For the past two years, Jonas has been focused on intellectual-asset training, a project started by others that he is determined to carry forward. “There were obviously people whose shoulders I’ve stood on to help move this project forward, but it is something I’m incredibly passionate about,” Jonas says. “Engineers and technologists need to understand the day-to-day activities of their company as well as the strategies used to safeguard their products.”

Jonas’s process for IP education centers on a hybrid system of e-learning resources and in-person training. The real challenge, he says, is developing educational tools that are more valuable than just looking up the answers online. To achieve that, Jonas has been making use of Adobe Connect presentations, modularizing them to provide global access to on-demand educational resources. This has allowed for live Q&As, prescheduled working sessions, impromptu training sessions, and more. The result is a comprehensive, dynamic set of tools engineers and scientists can use to conduct fast, effective IP training anywhere in BP’s global jurisdiction.

In addition to improving BP’s IP education, another of Jonas’s primary goals has been to streamline the monetization of BP’s existing IP portfolio. He has spent the past year working with colleagues to develop a process for identifying intellectual assets that may be on the edge of commercialization but may not fit in the commercialization path of BP itself. Using a set of decision-making tools driven by stakeholders in BP, Jonas and his colleagues have developed a process for sifting through intellectual assets efficiently, distinguishing those that can be handled internally from those that should be developed with external brokers. For Jonas, the aim is to find the right resources to monetize assets.

Through all this, though, Jonas continues to fully embrace the challenges and opportunities that come with overseeing an IP team within an immense global company. “As you might expect, working in a huge multinational company with team members located in different parts of the world presents different types of challenges,” Jonas says.  “However, I find that the benefits of having access to such an immense amount of expertise, diversity of opinions and views, and workplace cultures far outweigh any challenges.”

But is there anything Jonas misses about being an engineer? “What I miss is that grease on your hands feeling,” Jonas says. However, he’s perfectly content with his current career in IP law and finds it even more rewarding to help his BP clients identify the right IP solutions and ultimately find the best way to bring them to life. It’s in IP law that he gets to bring together the worlds that inspired him growing up: his grandparent’s farm and his father’s law office. “I discovered long ago that I was better at drawing out others’ genius than trying to do it myself, and meanwhile, I get to ride along with the joy of their creative process,” he says.