August 10, 2016 | ,

PATH’s chief lawyer on the art of the legal deal

Why a lifesaving mission goes hand in hand with managing risk and intellectual property deals.
Dan Laster and Steve Davis at a PATH event.
(Left) Dan Laster, PATH’s general counsel and VP, chats with Steve Davis, PATH president and CEO. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

Editor’s note: Laura Anderson recently sat down with Dan Laster, PATH’s general counsel and VP, to find out how intellectual property deals are often crucial to delivering the very best technologies to the people who need them most.

Q: What is your role at PATH?

I was originally hired to run the Legal department and support best practices at PATH, and to make sure we were getting good commitments for affordability and access for the products that we were partnering on. More recently, I also oversee a number of departments and review how we can make smarter and faster decisions across the organization.

So I wear a legal hat, I wear an operations hat, and I wear a hat related to our commercialization deals.

Q: What brought you to PATH?

I knew Steve Davis professionally when I was a law professor at University of Washington and he was on the board of PATH [before he was the president and CEO]. The board decided that PATH needed a general counsel, and Steve sent me the job listing, thinking that one of my students or colleagues might be interested. But when I read it I thought, “This is just too interesting to pass up.” I took the job.

Q: Did you have a specialty when you worked in law, prior to joining PATH?

I am an intellectual property specialist. I was the head of Microsoft’s trademark and copyright practice for ten years. So my 15-minute claim to fame is—do you know the word “Windows,” as in “Microsoft Windows”? I was hired to protect that word as a trademark.

Q: Can you explain how PATH works with intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) includes ideas or information PATH created or acquired and that we therefore have legal rights to. It might be something we hold the patent, copyright, or trademark for.

We really don’t make money on IP. If we can achieve our objective without IP—leaving everything in the public domain—that’s really our goal. Because then everybody can use our ideas to improve health and save lives.

But there are instances where, when you look at the problem we’re trying to solve or the disease we are targeting, to get the very best technology and the very best partners, we need to have some IP incentives to get them to partner with us.

Q: Can you give us an example of using IP to incentivize?

A woman's hands holding a SILCS diaphragm.
The SILCS diaphragm, marketed as the Caya contoured diaphragm, is a reusable one-size-fits-most contraceptive device that women helped to design. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

The archetypal example is a “dual-market” technology like the SILCS diaphragm: something that may benefit the market we want to serve—the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people—but also have value in Europe or the United States or another wealthier market.

Q: That seems like an art.

The interesting part is that there’s a sweet spot. You want to . . . maximize affordability and accessibility, but you don’t want to cut such a strong deal that it doesn’t create a sustainable market. We’re not really helping if we get somebody just to manufacture for three years but then they are losing their shirt so they won’t stay in the marketplace.

Q: I’ve heard that in your free time, you’re also an athlete?

Yes, I’m a marathon runner. I started running in high school. I was a wrestler, and I ran to stay in shape. I started running more in college. Then in my third year of law school, I bandited the Boston marathon.

Q: What does it mean to “bandit” a marathon?

That’s when you join a race without officially registering. It’s discouraged, and I don’t do it now, but it was a Boston marathon tradition for college students in the ’80s.

And then in my 20s I ran a number of marathons. And right around the time I turned 40, I wanted to start running the Boston marathon every year. I now have a 16-year streak of running the Boston marathon.

Q: What one thing would you like to share with our readers?

At PATH, part of our “secret sauce” is that we partner so well. It’s remarkable to me how many dedicated and talented people we have doing so many different things. Because what we do is really complicated and tough. Think about it! We have 1,400 people with a budget of US$300-plus million working with a multiplicity of donors touching more than 70 countries, developing all these different types of products and health system innovations. That is remarkable!

This interview originally appeared in Spotlight, PATH’s internal newsletter.

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