Growing up in the Bay Area during the dot-com boom era, it was almost predestined that John Tsai would wind up working in the tech industry—and he’s worked at some of the biggest companies in the field, including Facebook, PayPal, and IBM.
“I always felt a connection to technology. My dad was an engineer at Cisco, so it lent itself kind of naturally to my tinkering with technology,” he explains. “I graduated high school in 2000, and I was one of those kids who used to build their own computers and worked with a bunch of friends at school who were really into technology.”
That interest followed Tsai to college, where he majored in computer science. His studies, in turn, led to a job as a software engineer for IBM. It was after dealing with some open-source problems and realizing the attorneys involved weren’t taking the time to deal with the technical aspects that he decided to go to law school to pursue IP.
“I felt there was a good opportunity for someone with a technical background to bring that to bear with a legal education to better advise engineers on all sorts of things, open source included,” Tsai recounts. “I wanted to be part of the bridge between engineering and legal.”
He graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law in 2009, and his first job out of college was as a patent litigator for Kirkland & Ellis.
“Initially, I wanted to work on an area that was pretty technical, and it came to be that patent litigation was really a good way to do that and to leverage my technical expertise to really help,” Tsai shares. “I had spent time at Kirkland Ellis during one of my summers, and that’s where I went back to as an associate in the fall of 2009.”
That was when smartphone patent battles were going on, and Tsai enjoyed seeing the dynamics driving the litigation strategies, even becoming second chair during key witness testimony in one of the main trials involved.
“In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to go in-house,” he recalls. After all, wanting to be close to the business was his impetus for going to law school.
That’s when he made the jump to a smaller boutique, Bridges and Mavrakakis, comprising mostly patent litigators with technical degrees. Over four years, he built up expertise in IP licensing and litigation for major tech companies.
Those experiences led to the aforementioned tech giants, Facebook and PayPal. Then Stripe, a tech company that builds payment infrastructure for the internet, came calling in 2018 by way of a former colleague Tsai had worked with at PayPal.
“What really appealed to me about Stripe was the opportunity to join the vision of building a world-class IP program at a company with the ambitious goal of increasing the GDP of the internet,” Tsai notes. “At PayPal and Facebook, both those companies were more established, and obviously I was able to contribute meaningfully while I was there. But being able to join Stripe at the earliest stages to build on this vision was really appealing to me.”
As in-house IP counsel for Stripe, Tsai handles all patent-related issues, embracing the company’s core philosophy of “efficiency is leverage” and using technology to help scale Stripe’s growth. He works collaboratively with a team of three, handling all IP issues for the company.
“I am in charge of our patent portfolio, and I set the strategy and manage prosecution of our patent portfolio,” he explains. “I also manage our patent and vendor program—how we cultivate innovation, how we successfully protect the company against patent risks by filing patents, and by looking ahead to future technologies and trying to make sure we kind of look around the corner to see what’s coming.”
“I wanted to be part of the bridge between engineering and legal.”
Additionally, he is charge of handling all IP litigation and serves as both a legal and business partner to Stripe’s open-source team.
The thing he’s most proud of from his time with the company is designing and implementing Stripe’s organic patent filing program, including its patent incentive program. As Tsai shares: “Coming up with what a process looks like and when something needs to be patented—how do we get that in the door? How do we triage and review the ideas and prioritize them to pursue? And then how do we execute on contacting the inventors and working with our outside counsel to get the patent idea down, written, reviewed, and filed?”
Tsai has also onboarded a new IP management system, consistent with Stripe’s philosophy of using technology to increase efficiency. The system has allowed Stripe to get full visibility into its patent portfolio, which has been a game changer, creating a one-stop shop of accountability.
Throughout his career, Tsai has been a strong advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in his roles. “We have a diversity group within legal itself, and the goal is to drive more diversity in our outside counsel,” he says. “We want to increase underrepresented minorities, both at the associate and partnership levels.”
Tsai is also working on increasing diversity in the inventor ranks. He has taken part in such initiatives since his days at Facebook.
“If you look at patent inventors, they’re overwhelmingly male, and we want to increase not just female but other underrepresented minorities in patent inventor representation,” he explains. “I’m thinking about initiatives to increase diversity within the inventor community at Stripe and the broader in-house community at other companies as well. It’s something we can make a meaningful impact on.”