The Village That Jack Built

Jack rudnick walking down a bright hallway with students

It’s not just the law that draws students to the Innovation Law Center (ILC) at the College of Law. It’s the chance to apply the law to help others bring transformative ideas and inventions to life. “You’re working to create value for a company, for people, for yourself,” says Jack Rudnick L’73 who recently retired after directing the ILC for more than a decade. 

Founded more than 30 years ago, the ILC was among the first experiential learning programs in the nation to teach intellectual property law by providing students opportunities to work with clients bringing a new technology to market. The commercialization process requires an innovation ecosystem, and students in the ILC become part of it, says Molly C. Zimmermann, managing director of the ILC-affiliated New York State Science & Technology Law Center.

“Technology commercialization takes a village. In addition to applying the law, you have to learn to make connections and access resources. Jack was all about that. He showed his students how to become part of the village to move a great idea from invention to innovation.” 

“Innovation is not invention,” says Rudnick. “People misuse those terms all the time. Innovation is taking an invention and commercializing it, making money on it.”  That process requires an understanding of the law and how to practice it in real life. And that’s what Jack Rudnick brought to the ILC when he started teaching and ultimately directing the program in 2013. “It was very academic at the time,” says Rudnick, who had taken his law degree from Syracuse in 1973 and spent four decades advising inventive companies like Welch Allyn and Blue Highway. When Rudnick signed on to teach at his alma mater, he became a most practical Professor of Practice.

The ILC program, which was first known as the Technology Commercialization Law Program, was founded in 1990 by Professor Ted Hagelin, a widely respected thought leader in the field. “Jack would say ‘Ted wrote the book, I lived the book,’” says Zimmermann. With decades of field experience under his belt, Rudnick shaped the ILC program to become a world-class resource for start-ups throughout the state of New York and beyond, with students helping hundreds of companies move through the commercialization process. 

“We went from six projects to 60 projects that first year,” recalls Rudnick of the year he took the helm. “I wanted to show the students what it was really like in real life to multi-task and work hard and help people turn ideas into marketable and beneficial products.”

“Jack’s major contribution—and it’s a very significant one—was the change in the focus of the center,” says Christian “Chris” Day, professor of law emeritus. “He came with so much practical experience and it tremendously enhanced the student experience.”  

Together, Day and Rudnick taught a first-of-its-kind general counsel course which was also steeped in practical learning. “We brought in a real galaxy of corporate attorneys to teach the course and challenge the students to come up with solutions to real-life problems faced by general counsels: employment problems, technology problems, intellectual property problems, and HR problems. The solutions are not just legal solutions.”  

Similarly, Rudnick brought in an eclectic group of adjuncts to teach in the ILC, including scientists and engineers, a “wonderful mix of talent and a real gift to the law school,” says Day.

One of them is Dominick Danna ’67, ’71, who graduated from Syracuse University with degrees in chemistry and electrical engineering and brought decades of engineering experience in which he earned 36 patents to the classroom. Danna’s credentials are stellar and unique: He was a 1994 recipient of the prestigious Holley Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) awarded for “outstanding and unique act(s) of an engineering nature, accomplishing a noteworthy and timely public benefit.”

Danna and Rudnick met at Welch Allyn. Danna was in research and development. Rudnick was the corporate lawyer. They interfaced on lawsuits, taking on international companies to protect their inventions and figuring out creative ways to patent ideas for multiple uses and diverse industries. Today, Danna not only teaches in the law school; he teaches a course in the engineering school. “When I first started working as an engineer, I knew nothing about patents and contracts. I wish I did have that knowledge. It’s essential to know about ethics and contracts and patents and intellectual property.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the technology commercialization process is what attracts students from diverse backgrounds to the ILC. “Currently, one of our students is a French major; another is political science; they come from all over the country, and what they learn is to not be afraid of technology,” says Danna. 

“The ILC worked for me because I was always a bit of a square peg in a round hole,” says Garin Murphy, who graduated in 2015 and is now Chief Business Officer and General Counsel at Orange Grove Bio, an early-stage biotech company creation and venture capital firm. “I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My father was an engineer who became an entrepreneur, so I entered the law school with a business-focused lens, thinking I could focus on this skillset from the outset,” says Murphy. “Honestly, law school was initially disappointing because you were required to take a lot of courses as an entry point to the law, like torts and criminal law. During my 1L year, I questioned whether I should even be there. Then I met Jack and the light bulb went on. He changed the entire trajectory of my experience.”

Murphy says the normal course of law school studies can be a rather lonely experience for many students: “You’re very much on your own.”  Zimmermann agrees: “A lot of law students find the experience isolating. Jack brought the ILC students on field trips, introduced them to experts, and organized social events which built connections. Learning from others—that’s Jack’s legacy. It was really energizing for them.”  

Kaitlin Crobar L’21 recalls feeling bad for one of her law school peers who “just studied, studied, studied and didn’t even watch TV” whereas she, as an ILC student “worked with 20 different companies, engaging with other students and people outside the law school. We had so many more opportunities than other students because of Jack’s connections and approach.”

Rudnick truly took a personal interest in the success of his students and, for some, that was critical to building their confidence, a necessary quality for getting through law school and beyond. 

“I was a non-traditional law student and had a rough time my first year,” says Heather Roark-Parker L’16, who came into law school with a background in biology and biotechnology. “Science came easy to me, but this was a whole new thing. Jack gave me the confidence that even though I might not excel in an academic area of the law, he knew what I needed to excel in the practical world. He basically convinced me that I wasn’t wasting three years of my life in law school!”

Though certainly the ILC students master the relevant legal knowledge governing patents and intellectual property, they also become incredibly proficient at researching, marketing, business writing, and communicating—factors critical to commercializing a product. 

“You need that 360-degree approach in business, covering intellectual property, financing, market research, customer analysis,” says Murphy. “Ideas are a dime a dozen, but it’s the ability to execute on the idea that determines success. Many scientists and academics aren’t skilled at explaining exactly what they do. They like to live in that comfortable space in their head where the idea sits. That space between vision and reality is dangerous.” 

Rudnick taught his students how to build that bridge between vision and reality for clients. They did the research and the work to determine if there was a market for their idea, what the competition was, how to explain it to potential funders in simple terms, and how to pivot from one idea to another if necessary.

“Nobody wants to hear their (tech) baby’s ugly or that their dog won’t hunt,” says Murphy, citing what his students call “Jackisms.”  

“There was a lot of conversation when we had to tell clients their invention wasn’t likely to work, either because there were already active patents,  or the regulatory requirements were prohibitive,” says Roark-Parker. “Jack encouraged us to confront the client with all the hurdles they would face, along with the opportunities.”

“When you deliver any message, it’s 10% the message, 50% body language, and the rest is in your tone,” says Murphy. “Jack taught us how to deliver a message in a palatable way.”

Rudnick says ILC graduates are “excellent communicators who form great interpersonal relationships. They can work with anybody and everybody. We had several individuals and companies come to us with a great idea. We showed them why it wouldn’t work, and how to pivot and move their invention forward in a different way.”

Crobar says she uses these skills daily as Innovation Commercialization Manager at the Zucker Institute for Innovation Commercialization in Charleston, SC. “We have researchers that do amazing work but if they publish early—and there’s intense pressure in academia to publish—they risk losing the chance to patent it. We help them figure out how to structure their research around ‘prior art,’ determine when to file for a patent, assist in obtaining monetary grants and investment to help pay for their research, and build a commercial plan that helps create value in their research innovations. And if we have to tell them ‘their baby is ugly,’ we explain the how, what, where, when, and why. Why there is no commercial path forward. How can we create value from where we are now? What can we find that they didn’t disclose in their published research or can we patent it for another disease or indication?”

ILC students are taught to figure out how to support inventors to succeed in the innovation ecosystem rather than “saying ‘no’.” “Jack was always client first,” says Roark-Parker. “He would go above and beyond for clients and remind us that no matter how much time it took, we should do it to benefit the clients.”  

“A lawyer should avoid saying no,” says Danna. “In the engineering world, if you say you can’t do something, you won’t last long.” Rudnick taught his students how to “de-risk” ideas and be creative.

“You don’t do this alone. You do it together as a team with inventors, engineers, and others,” says Rudnick. “You will not be the sales prevention department. You’re not going to say ‘no.’  You’re going to say ‘how.’”  

In cases where the students determined that a great idea just couldn’t be commercialized, Rudnick taught them how to help the clients “pivot and take inventions on a different path.”  He recalls the case of an inventor who developed software for a drone to assess weather-related damage to roofing. The ILC students determined through a patent search that other companies had active patents and contracts with insurance companies to do the same thing. He recalled that when the students delivered the news, the client was bereft. But two weeks later, she came back with a new idea—to use the software for the placement of solar panels. 

The invention became a successful innovation and spawned a company that is still in business today.

Rudnick’s kindness and generosity of time and spirit are cited by colleagues and students alike. “Commercialization can be cutthroat and competitive,” says Danna. “Under Jack’s leadership, I’ve never seen a dissatisfied client, even when we give them bad news.”  “Jack is a very honest and honorable man,” says Day. “He’s a good model of what a good lawyer should be.”  

“Not only did Jack help prepare students for the practice of law, but he mentored them to be good people,” says Brian Gerling L’99, who was invited by Rudnick to be an adjunct professor in the ILC and to succeed him as executive director in 2021. Gerling brought decades of experience in private practice in commercial and intellectual litigation to the classroom.

“Jack was a great steward of the program, particularly when it came to the resources provided to the program by New York State. I have big shoes to fill succeeding Jack, but he was a great mentor to me as well. Jack also taught that it wasn’t enough to be a good lawyer, and he gave his students advice on how to marry those two concepts—good lawyer and good people—imparting social and moral responsibilities to the students. They graduate inspired to make the world a better place.”   

Brian Gerling L’99

And they graduate with jobs—even before diplomas are in hand or the bar exam is passed. ILC students have a 100% job placement rate in the very careers they dreamed about. Sometimes career connections were made because of Rudnick’s vast network. Sometimes it was simply the reputation of the ILC. Danna recalls one student who was competing with students from Harvard and MIT for a job at a prominent Boston hospital. “The interviewer just wanted to know about the ILC coursework,” says Danna. The student got the job and started working before he took his bar exam. 

“It’s a job course,” says Rudnick (another Jackism!). “When you come out of this course, you’re going to get a job. My students are really hard-working. They are smart, practical, and willing-to-dig-in-and-get-dirty-kids.”

And when they become successful, they pay it forward and reach back to help other students in the ILC. “I hire almost exclusively out of the program,” says Murphy. “I like to get interns or externs to engage with the management team, and I seek out the top students to work for my company. They’ve all been taught how to think differently, and that’s really important.”  

Though retired as its director, Rudnick remains a senior advisor to the ILC, still connecting students to potential job opportunities, consulting with start-up companies, and contributing to the innovation ecosystem, ensuring that the “village that Jack built” is continuously expanding to help inventors, entrepreneurs, and companies turn ideas into solutions and accelerate innovation.

Jack Rudnick, left, received the George R. Burman Award for Entrepreneurial Leadership from the Whitman School of Management in 2016. Terry Brown, executive director of the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship, presented him with the award.