Andrei Iancu, Irell & Manella
Andrei Iancu, Irell & Manella ()

President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is two-thirds of the way to being uncontroversial.

Irell & Manella managing partner Andrei Iancu got support over the weekend from the Innovation Alliance, a lobbying group that generally supports patent holder rights, and on Monday from United for Patent Reform, whose membership includes many big tech industry players that usually prefer more limited patent rights.

That leaves the biotech and pharmaceutical sector, where Iancu may have to smooth over some unease based on his role last year in a case that resulted in a Federal Circuit decision that was favorable for his client but deeply unpopular with biotech firms.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said it hasn’t decided yet, and the Pharmaceuticals trade group PhRMA had not put a formal statement on its website as of late Monday. “We’re glad that the administration is moving forward with filling this important position, and congratulations to Mr. Iancu,” BIO deputy counsel Hans Sauer said. “We look forward to meeting him and learning more about him during the confirmation process.”

Iancu helped persuade the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to hold a fetal diagnostic test ineligible under Section 101 of the Patent Act. The ruling, a win for Iancu’s client Ariosa Diagnostics, was a cause celebre within the biotech bar, with much of the industry trying unsuccessfully to get the U.S. Supreme Court to flip it. 

Organized opposition, if it materializes, could slow down the confirmation process even if it doesn’t ultimately derail it. Dozens of judicial and executive branch nominations are already pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  At this stage of the calendar, chances for a new nominee to get confirmed this year are dwindling, and would probably require they be considered uncontroversial, said Vincent Eng, a lobbyist who specializes in Senate confirmations. “Otherwise, next spring is a more likely scenario.” 

Litigators who know Iancu say there’s not much reason to think he’d bring advocacy positions with him to the PTO. Knobbe Martens partner Brenton Babcock described Iancu as someone with a hard-core patent background who, from his work at Irell, would be sensitive to the issues facing both patent owners and accused infringers. Iancu, he said, has “worked on both sides of the v.”

Latham & Watkins partner Robert Steinberg said Iancu brings not only a background in high-stakes litigation, but also some work in technology transactions and running 120-lawyer Irell for the last five years. “He’s not only well-versed in the law but business-minded,” Steinberg said.

“He’s very diligent and committed to his clients,” said Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partner Keith Slenkovich, who works for Ariosa parent company Roche Molecular Diagnostics. 

Diligence and commitment are words that come up often. Iancu, 49, teaches a 14-week seminar on patent strategy at University of California, Los Angeles each spring. He takes new admittees to dinner to talk with them about building challenging, worthwhile lives in the profession, says UCLA professor Douglas Lichtman. He flies in week after week from Texas or wherever else he might be litigating to conduct class. And he’s always ready to advise new graduates about their careers. “Andrei is a great partner in the richest sense of the word,” Lichtman says.

Lichtman also notes that Iancu has spearheaded the endowment program at Sinai Akiba Academy, a Jewish elementary school in Westwood. “His kids have long since outgrown elementary school, and there is very little publicity behind good deeds like this one,” Lichtman says. “But Andrei believes in education, and he believes that religion can help people live meaningful lives. And Andrei, more so than almost anyone I know, puts his heart, his money, his time and his voice behind those beliefs.”