IPR people: Leena Contarino – HGF GmbH

1/2020 26.2.2020

In this article series IPR people tell about their careers. How they ended up working with IP, what they think about IPRs today and what do they do when they are not working.

Leena Contarino, Ph.D., J.D.


How Did I Become An IPR Lawyer?

The first time I realized my interest in IPR was at a two hour mini- seminar at Helsinki University led by a European patent attorney during my graduate studies at Leena Palotie’s lab. Having completed my Master of Science degree in biotechnology from what was then University of Kuopio, I was working towards my Ph.D. in biochemistry. After my dissertation I got an opportunity, and enough grant money, to move to Boston for a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, Department of Cell Biology. While there, I realized I am interested in too many areas of science to concentrate on just one to make a career as a scientist.

The Harvard Medical School seminar series “Alternative Careers for Ph.D.’s”, I knew where I belonged: at the interphase of science and law. I applied immediately for an open position at the EPO, but I got a polite letter refusing my application because I did not speak French – Finnish, English, German and Swedish were not good enough a combination. My logic being a bit skewed, instead of putting 6 months for some basic French language studies, I decided to seek for a job in Boston and embark on a four year evening law school “on the side”. My rudimentary internet search at lawyers.com, mind you, this was in 1998-1999, unearthed 35 law firms who had a bioscience patent law groups.  I composed an application letter for each one of them. Highlighting my excellent analytical, communication and research skills, I tried to minimize the fact that (1) I did not have a work permit (about $10k upfront expense to anyone wishing to hire me); and (2) I needed the employee to pay for my law school (about $20k expense per semester).

I got 6 interviews and 0 offers. Undeterred, I continued my search while running experiments in the lab. An article in the Boston Biotech Journal written by a business lawyer working for VCs investing in biotech companies peaked my interest. I had not thought about that angle. I proceeded to write and ask him he could use my skills. His response: come talk to us! Over lunch, the chemistry was immediate and I got an offer at the interview.

The team dispersed after the first and I landed through connections at Nixon Peabody, where I worked for over 16 years. First as a patent specialist, then after taking and passing the Patent Bar exam as a patent agent, and finally, after graduating from the Suffolk University Law School with a Juris Doctor degree and took the Massachusetts Bar Exam and was admitted to the bar, I continued as a patent attorney making a partner.  Then, my career life took yet another turn initiated by a random headhunter’s email: interested in a VP of IP post at a start-up pharma company headquartered in Basel, Switzerland? And so, 20 years and two months after I had landed in the United States with two suitcases in tow, I packed two houses, a dog, a cat and my husband and we flew to Basel, only to find out in a year that the newly minted GC wanted his lawyers in New York. In another fortunate twist resulting from relentless networking in Basel, a colleague asked me to join HGF as a partner in the Basel office. So, I continue to work in Basel, rebuilding my practice in Europe.  Bringing to my clients a coctail of science and law, with expertize in US and European patent law, served with a cultural understanding of Nordics and U.S., me being a Finnish and U.S. dual citizen, and a twist of knowledge of central European and British business cultures.

What Do I Do Outside the Office?

I love moving in nature, music and creating with my hands. Every morning I take Kofi, our 43 kg mutt dog resqued as a puppy from a shelter in Mississippi to wander through our village vineyards next door to our house. We listen to the soundtrack of birds. I love to cook drawing inspiration from Finnish, Italian, and lately also Indian, and Thai traditions. I play piano, I crochet and create mosaic works when inspiration calls. I meditate with Mr. Parker, our rescued cat. I find it sad that so many ”career” people report not having time to play.  Science is behind with me on this: having interests and time for other things than work is vital for stirring creative thoughts that are essential for any work.

Not Many People Know That…

I am living proof that a person with a chronic autoimmune disease can strive in a high powered international career. It will require one to learn how to set limits and breathe. I took my US patent bar exam with my earlobes lined with tiny acupressure bullets to help me with energy and concentration because I was at the time undergoing chemotherapy for a severe lupus relapse. I also became a certified yoga instructor in the process of learning to set limits. I rarely use an alarm clock so that my body gets the rest it needs.

Memorable Project

My very first due diligence project delving into a patent portfolio and landscape around biofilm-destroying bacteriophages and outling a business-strategy for the startup around it is just one example of the memorable projects I’ve been privileged to be part of. Interestingly, this work still forms part of my expertise and experience now that my team works with many clients in the area of therapeutic modifications of microbiomes.

A Shoutout To Colleague

During my time at the large U.S. law firm, I went through multiple leadership training modules where I learned my main strengths and areas where I need to muster extra effort to shine. I became aware of how to recognize personality traits of team members I should have around me. One of those is a person with endless energy to connect with people and connect people with people. I am fortunate to have found this energizer bunny – a shout out to my HGF colleague Craig Thomson, who has his fingers, and clients, all over the biotechnologies and the globe but with whom I am fortunate to work on both HGF’s MICROBIOME-IP and CRISPR-IP team.   He is U.K., Irish and European qualified with whom I share a passion to make IPR support and work for business.

I would Like To See…

Still more women promoting women in the IPR profession.  Any and all networks where women at various stages of careers share experiences, provide mentorship, and most importantly sponsor female colleagues up the various professional ladders.


Leena Contarino