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Washington–In April 1998, lawyers at the D.C. office of Foley & Lardner landed the firm’s first nanotechnology client–a division of the Eastman Kodak Co. called NanoSystems. NanoSystems sought advice on patents covering its groundbreaking microscopic technique for converting drugs into more soluble and easily taken forms. Since then, Foley & Lardner and other firms have sought to establish themselves as the go-to firms for nanotechnology, the science of building structures from molecular-sized particles measuring one-billionth of a meter. Lawyers predict the technology will rival the semiconductor, the Internet and biotechnology in significance. It’s not the first time law firms have hyped the next big thing–remember Y2K? But if nanotechnology delivers on even a fraction of its promise–and the National Science Foundation envisions a $1 trillion market for products incorporating nanotechnology in a little over a decade–firms will likely be well served by establishing their expertise early. “We’re looking at nanotechnology as the next big wave,” said Charles Wieland, a partner at Alexandria, Va.’s Burns, Doane, Swecker & Mathis who heads the firm’s nanotechnology practice. Governmental challenge At the same time, the rise of nanotechnology is presenting the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with new challenges as the agency grapples with the best way to handle a growing number of patents in diverse fields. Other government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are also keeping an eye on nanotechnology, wary of impeding innovation and economic growth, but still uncertain about potential side effects from the technology. Nanotechnology products already exist in the market. Some people may already be sporting stain-resistant Dockers pants created with nanosized materials or be swinging tennis rackets containing nanoparticles said to make the rackets stronger. Two pharmaceutical products on the market already use NanoSystems’ drug-delivery technology, and more are on the way. Indeed, the relationship with NanoSystems has paid off for Foley & Lardner. In 1998, Eastman Kodak sold NanoSystems to the pharmaceutical company Elan Corp., which has retained Foley as intellectual property counsel. And the firm continues to amass nanotechnology clients, offering advice on IP and other legal matters emerging out of the rapidly growing field. Other IP firms such as Washington’s Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner have formed specialized practice groups and are positioning themselves to attract potential clients. Finnegan started its 10-lawyer nanotechnology group about 18 months ago, mainly to advise clients on patent issues, said partner Ronald Bleeker. Sterne Kessler’s nanotechnology clients include Nanosys Inc., which develops nanostructures for a range of industries, including life sciences, information technology, renewable energy and communications. Partner Donald Featherstone predicts nanotechnology is “just going to permeate” all these industries. The technology has the potential to reach across all areas of the commercial landscape, including chemicals, clothing, food, drugs and computer equipment, he said. But for many nanotechnology start-ups, products exist only in the realm of possibility. So law firms are helping their clients while they work on what’s to come. “The first thing they have to do is protect their property,” Foley partner Stephen Maebius said. Much of the work involves helping start-ups file patent applications, conduct searches or obtain licenses for existing patents. Corporate lawyers are also being hired to organize the new companies. But venture capital tends to be scarce. Many investors are still sitting on the sidelines waiting for the big nanotechnology product, Maebius said. “There is a reservation or skepticism coming off of the dot-com bust,” acknowledges Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at New York-based venture capital firm Lux Capital, which focuses on early-stage investments in nanotechnology. Some D.C. lawyers are lobbying on behalf of nanotechnology clients. Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds partner Daniel Ritter and associate Paul Stimers have been retained by the NanoBusiness Alliance to help secure passage of legislation authorizing almost $1 billion for research on the new technology to be spread across many federal agencies. If passed, the new law would formalize the $849 million set aside by the Bush administration for fiscal year 2004. The House recently passed the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, and a vote on a similar Senate bill is imminent. “The bill is vitally important to the U.S. nanotechnology industry,” said Stimers. “We expect [it] to pass by unanimous consent.”

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