William K. Wells
Class of 1966, BS
When Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon, told him he owed him his life, William “Bill” Wells never forgot it.
Wells, along with other engineers at Hamilton Standard Division of United Aircraft Corporation, had designed and re-engineered a life-saving system that connected to the Apollo Project astronaut’s spacesuit. This Portable Life Support System provided breathable oxygen while removing contaminants, regulated suit pressure, contained a heart monitor, and had two-way voice communication. Wells had the opportunity to collaborate on the design of the backpack-like apparatus and the Lunar Excursion Module soon after college graduation.
Ironically, some 25 years later, Conrad retained Wells as his firm’s patent counsel and was able to personally express his gratitude. Turns out Wells had decided to go to law school only after practicing as an engineer for a few years.
Born into a military family during World War II, Wells’ father, an officer in the U.S. Navy, was stationed in Rhode Island. The family later moved to Petersburg, Virginia, where Wells was raised and participated on the high school golf team.
His father’s dedication to the service influenced him so much that he pondered a military career as well. For that reason and for its “superior engineering reputation,” Wells chose Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets for the first three years of college. In his senior year, he opted out of the Corps as he decided he was “more interested in a technical than a military career,” said Wells.
In 1966, Wells graduated with a mechanical engineering degree with an emphasis in rocket and jet propulsion and went to work with Hamilton Standard Division of United Aircraft Corporation (now United Technologies) as an engineer, designing and testing apparatus for the space program.
While at Hamilton, Wells had continuous interactions with its law division, working on securing patents for the company’s designs. “I didn’t see myself advancing on my engineering skills alone. I needed to combine them with something else,” reflected Wells. “The independent nature that the law side embodied appealed to my entrepreneurial side.”
So, he enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law and shortly after graduation Wells passed the bar and became a licensed lawyer in the state of New York. The fast paced environment and rigors of the New York lifestyle proved to be challenging. Putting in 70-hour work weeks as a lawyer at Pennie & Edmonds “was horrendous and pressure intensive,” said Wells.
A small medical device manufacturer (Baxter International) based in Chicago beckoned him to be a part of its legal team. The idea enticed Wells because during that time frame he met his wife Maryellen and began to focus on building a family. But, the move was shortlived as the corporate life was not for him, nor was the Chicago climate.
In 1977, Wells moved with his wife and first daughter to Washington D.C. in a return to private practice. The Wells family located in Northern Virginia where they raised their two daughters Mackenzie and Alexis. He eventually became a partner at Reed, Smith, Shaw, and McClay, a law firm specializing in complex litigation, high-stakes dispute strategic transactions, and crucial regulatory matters. Technology-related matters became the focus of Wells’ law practice. There, he developed licenses and enforced patent rights for clients in a wide range of technology areas.
Wells’ standing in the nation’s capital legal community brought him a partnership offer in 1989 from Kenyon & Kenyon, an intellectual property law powerhouse, one of the largest in the world, founded in 1879. He enthusiastically accepted, excited about the challenges ahead and the opportunity to be focused solely on technology-related subject matter. His technical engineering knowledge was embraced as most of the lawyers in the firm held graduate degrees in the sciences and engineering.
“Bill’s reputation and skills led Kenyon to bring him into the firm as the first lateral partner addition in over half a century … his education and experience encompassed a wide range of mechanical and electrical technologies in which he advised companies,” said Edward T. Colbert, the current managing partner at Kenyon & Kenyon’s Washington Office.
Because of his foresight, Wells was quickly tapped to serve on the firm’s executive committee, assisting to drive the strategic decisions of the overall firm and creating plans for the office that were instrumental in generating its International Trade Commission practice.
He chaired the Committee on Industrial Designs of the American Intellectual Property Association and served as the delegate at the World Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, alongside U.S. government officials, to arrive at an international treaty for protecting industrial designs. The treaty, the Hague Agreement, currently provides for worldwide protection of designs through an application process and approval from Geneva administration.
One of the most notable and fulfilling cases Wells worked on was representing SightSound Technologies, a small start-up, in patent litigation. In the mid 1980s, Arthur Hair invented an innovative procedure for the electronic sale of digital audio and video recordings. The entire recording industry, including BMG, one of the largest record labels in the world, and Napster, challenged the invention by SightSound’s co-founder as they thought the new way to distribute music and film would undermine the monopoly of profits reaped from sales.
“Midway through the titanic struggle of litigation, SightSound went bankrupt, but I convinced the firm to continue our representation,” said Wells of his determination and faith in SightSound’s principals. Several years and millions of dollars later, BMG dropped out of the lawsuit and Wells and his team defeated the record industry. Subsequently, Hair was awarded a patent for the way consumers download music and he sought to enforce that patent against infringers.
During his tenure at Kenyon, as senior partner, Wells managed the firm’s D.C. office. Under his leadership, Wells expanded its size tenfold. Over his 30-year career, he served high profile clients such as: Texas Instruments, Hitachi, Johnson and Johnson, eBay, Sprint International, Lockheed Martin, Toyota, and Gillette, to name a few in his extensive portfolio. During this time, he evaluated patent portfolios to determine their value in the marketplace, monetized telecommunication patents including cell phones, content download software coding of transmissions, video transmission techniques, as well as health care patents covering navigational surgery using CAT, PET, and MRI scans.
In the community, Wells has served as an advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Task Force on Intellectual Property and the Association of Small Business Engineering and Technology Companies.
Wells retired from Kenyon in 2006, a melancholy time for all he had affected in his professional career. His “retirement from the firm was a true loss for the firm and his intelligence, thoughtful guidance, and advice are missed,” said Colbert.
Currently, Wells manages his own business Cormorant Technologies, LLC, a patent licensing and investment company, investing and developing new technologies. One of Wells’ patents includes the development of a portable organic light emitting diode system (OLED), providing a low-voltage, energy efficient light source. The thin, portable light source uses a battery and circuitry that permits re-charging easily. The system is so light it does not substantially interfere with the activity of the user and is intended to be used by firemen, police officers, highway workers, bicyclers, and joggers at night. OLEDs are efficient in producing light from source that requires almost no space; they have numerous new applications that heretofore were impractical for lighting.
Wells’ company continues to develop new applications for OLED lighting and to seek funding to commercialize patented products.
Born in the smallest state, Wells is far from being small in accolades, achievements, and character. “When David squares off against Goliath in a patent battle of Biblical proportions, I can think of no better sling and five stones than Bill Wells,” said Scott Sander, President, CEO, and co-founder of SightSound Technologies. “His intellect, always sharp, launched from a sling of integrity, never failed to hit its mark.”
Class of: 1966
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015