Monday, December 18, 2017

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Lunch With:

Lila A. T. Akrad at Greenbriar

10/4/2017

Lila A. T. Akrad is a patent attorney, veterinarian, dog rescuer, jewelry designer and cancer survivor. She is also the granddaughter of Dr. William Lacy Brown, the legendary scientist who was the first PhD that Henry Wallace hired at Pioneer, in 1945. Brown would serve both as president and CEO of the company in his 39-year career there. Because of her fond memories of her grandfather, Akrad suggested lunch at one of his two favorite places — Trostel’s Greenbriar or Van Dee’s.

“Come to think of it, I am not sure I have had anything but ice cream, malts in particular, at Van Dee’s, so let’s try Greenbriar,” she decided.

Greenbriar is cut from another era, a steakhouse filled with masculine trappings and a menu with both European and local traditions.

We asked how close Akrad was to Brown.

“He was my mentor and my hero. My mother and I moved here (from the Netherlands) when I was 5, so I grew up a Pioneer girl. Henry Wallace provided a house for Oma and Opa (Dutch/German words for grandma and grandpa) on the company’s research farm grounds when they first arrived to Johnston,” she recalled.

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Did she take to the cornfields?

“Oh yes, everything I ever learned about science and corn I learned from long talks and walking cornfields with Opa. Working the cornfields was a mandatory part of growing up. Detasseling was not an optional activity, it was a requirement,” she said of the practice of removing the pollen-producing flowers from the top of a corn plant and placing them on the ground to cross pollinate, or hybridize, different varieties of corn plants. This practice, along with a robust research and development focus, assisted in making Pioneer successful and renowned in the Wallace and Brown eras.

How much of an influence was her grandfather on her career choices?

“I promised him I would work for Pioneer, so I became a patent attorney and joined the company in 2008. I was Senior Intellectual Property Counsel,” she recalled.

We asked her about what it takes to become a patent attorney.

“It requires a lot more than a law degree and passing the bar. It’s the only branch of the legal profession that requires one to have both a law degree, a degree in science and passing an additional bar examination given by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. After going to KU (Kansas University) undergraduate, I went to Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine. After working as a researcher on catfish farms in Texas, crawfish farms in Louisiana and assisting non-profits in those areas with marine mammals and turtles, I then went to law school in Vermont,” she explained.

Akrad told me that she still has trouble ordering some kinds of seafood.

“Yes, once you make eye contact with them, in their environment, you realize, too late, not to do that,” she said.
A background researching honey bees and prairie voles in undergrad and catfish and crawfish in vet school seemed to emulate her grandfather’s love of science. Brown had made important discoveries in corn breeding by researching Kentucky blue grasses (corn evolved from grass), Cherokee flour corn in Western Carolina, with the National Academy of Science’s maize collections in Bolivia and Chile, with primitive corns he found in the West Indies, and with his definitive book on “Northern Flint Corns and Southern Dent Corns,” which he published in 1947 and 1948 with his mentor Edgar Anderson.

“I always planned on coming to Pioneer, as I promised Opa. After law school, I worked as a patent attorney for McKee, Voorhees & Sease, PLC, with Pioneer being a significant client, and later at POET (the bioethanol giant). I always had Pioneer in my sights, though,” she said. Akrad worked in-house at Pioneer from 2008 till 2013. Soon after she landed her dream job, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She did not go into remission until the year after Pioneer was in her rearview mirror in 2014.

What does she think is the direction of the newly formed DowDuPont version of Pioneer?

“I think it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds and what the future focus of research and development will be. R&D built Pioneer. Without plant breeders and geneticists, there is no base. Opa greatly assisted in the company’s international breeding operations but today corn breeders are more scarce but invaluable to the industry. Without trained breeders, the base genetics of any crop will not be what it once was,” she observed.

Akrad’s path has now taken her to the national member-owned financial services provider and debit processor, SHAZAM-ITS Inc., where she is corporate attorney and IP counsel. She still does some work with agriculture, biotechnology and plant patents.

I asked about the differences between patents, trademarks and copyrights.

“Patents provide the grant of a property right to the inventor that allows the owner to stop others from making, using, selling or importing the patented invention. Trademarks are more typically a word, name, symbol or device that is used in trade to distinguish them from the goods of others. Copyrights are a form of protection provided to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ and are fast and inexpensive. Lots of people put a copyright symbol on a document without actually filing the paperwork to copyright the work. But all forms of IP have their distinct advantages over not filing at all. People often just figure a long, expensive effort at a patent is a waste of time because ‘someone else must have already thought of this.’ But you’d be surprised. Old patents covered much broader subject matter in a manner no one gets away with today. Nevertheless old patents are a lot of fun for patent attorneys to read,” she said.

We asked her about odd patents she has run across.

“Patent law is distinct; it’s hard to see how some things qualify. Yet, there they are. Somebody patented a ‘bloomin’ chicken.’ He copied the knife work on Outback’s ‘bloomin’ onion’ with a chicken breast and patented it. Someone else patented a way to cut a steak. There are some really strange patents in regards to manure spreading, or a face mask for beauty treatment that seems tortuous,” Akrad explained.

Does Akrad have any advice for cancer fighters?

“I don’t recommend it. It became very important to me to prove to myself I could live with treatment and still work. Otherwise the scare factor takes over. You will learn very quickly who your true friends are. That’s good because you can’t do it alone. You have two options, fight hard or give up. My Aunt Jo taught me to put a time limit on all breakdown moments. “I love Victor Frankl’s quote ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’ ” ♦

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