Building Bridges in Biotech

As a director of global IP for Illumina, Bruce Wu employs collaborative practices to engage both the business and R&D sides of the company as it invents new solutions for genetic research

Bruce Wu, Director of IP, Illumina

Growing up, Bruce Wu was always passionate about building things—and learning through the process of building. “I try to be intellectually curious,” he says. “By being self-critical and curious, you open yourself to creative solutions.”

Early on, this passion seemed to make him a natural fit for a career in engineering, and he eventually earned a master’s and a PhD in two different engineering fields at MIT. But, while in grad school, his experiences working in the field of negotiation and writing an advice column for the student newspaper helped him realize that he also enjoyed interacting with other people and having a role as a counselor. Believing that practicing intellectual property law would allow him to fuse his engineering expertise with such interactions, he earned his law degree from Georgetown while working at two international law firms and then became an in-house patent counsel at HP.

However, his true calling arrived in 2016, when he joined Illumina, a San Diego-based biotech company creating solutions for genetic research, as part of a team tasked with scaling up the business’s then nascent IP unit. “The role was to help build not only an IP team but an IP portfolio from the ground up,” says Wu, now one of the company’s directors of global IP. “It was an opportunity to learn and build at the same time.” He’s since tackled this project head on, encouraging a more holistic approach to Illumina’s management of IP.

From the beginning, Wu focused on making his process as transparent as possible. “I’ve always seen my in-house counsel role as that of a bridge and an interpreter,” Wu says. “I wanted to connect the executives with the scientists, since each group tends to have its own language and way of thinking. Even scientists from different disciplines don’t think the same way.” This was particularly true at Illumina, which, according to Wu, is both a biotechnology company and an engineering company. “Things here are being built, developed, and improved constantly, across all disciplines,” he says. “So we need to be able to speak a language that engages different parts of the organization.”

As Wu worked to lead Illumina’s IP strategy and initiatives in the engineering space, he engaged the company’s scientists as well as its executives. He facilitated brainstorming sessions with the scientists and checked in with them about factors involved in making strategic decisions: how a technology was being used, how detectable the technology was, and whether it was being used by a competitor. At the same time, he included the non-scientist stakeholders in the decision-making process so that both sides were kept informed.

As the company’s technical expertise continued to expand, Wu found that his collaborative approach also helped him arrive at creative solutions to challenges. “By being willing to ask questions and embrace different ideas, I realized that we could often find synergy in different teams’ efforts,” Wu says. “That’s when the ideas really began to flow. We were able to come up with solutions that would not have existed had we not been willing to learn from each other.”

Wu has continued to build on that synergy, developing a portfolio-building strategy that’s particularly suited to Illumina’s engineering technology. For example, his team protects Illumina’s innovations with both utility patents and design patents, and it tailors the patent-filing strategy to the company’s commercial activity. And, as Illumina expands, Wu is working with the team to address new legal challenges in order to protect Illumina’s technologies around the globe.

This customized approach, Wu points out, is one of the reasons why having in-house counsel is so vital. “We are at the table when strategic decisions are made,” Wu says. “We are the interpreter of what’s happening inside and outside the company so that it can take a holistic approach to decision-making.”

Wu also makes clear, though, that he did not do all this alone, and he consistently celebrates the important roles of everyone on the IP team. “I came to Illumina because I knew it would allow me to learn and build at the same time,” Wu says. “All of us are learning together and learning from one another to achieve a sum greater than its parts.  That has been an empowering experience.”

Photo by Michelle Berkowitz Photography