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Supporting RAFT’s groundbreaking scientific research

October 20, 2017

The Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust (RAFT), a UK-based charity set up by plastic surgeons to help rebuild the lives of those affected by accident, disease or birth defect, is a vocal critic of today’s prosthetic limbs. Most prostheses are so impractical, studies suggest, that 66% of amputees in Britain use their limbs for less than two hours a day; many give up altogether.

RAFT urgently needed to fund research into a revolutionary new technology. The charity had already agreed with University College London (UCL) to co-develop a pioneering technology for a new generation of prosthetics designed to work as effectively as the human arm. Yet uncertainty over rights to any new inventions developed through the collaboration remained an obstacle.

Cutting-edge technology

For a small charity, RAFT does some pretty big things. Its scientific advancements include the invention of the air mattress to reduce bed sores, the development of laser hair removal technology, the creation of anti-scarring agents for severe burns and of surgical nerve-repair techniques that allow Bells Palsy patients to smile again.

Dechert has a close relationship with the charity. Some years ago, an IP team from Dechert’s London office working pro bono guided RAFT through a fundraising exercise that paid for the clinical trial of SmartMatrix, an artificial skin scaffold used to accelerate recovery from severe burns and wounds. Dechert ultimately drafted the offering documentation, performed the verifications and devised a corporate structure enabling the charity to receive an ongoing royalty stream from its SmartMatrix patents.

The firm has gone on to help transform RAFT’s organisational and financial structure—all on a pro bono basis. Dechert lawyers helped RAFT find a way through some complex personnel issues that had deflected attention from its core scientific research. The firm also guided the charity as it sought to free itself from the time-consuming, energy-sapping toil of raising money, setting up a U.S.-domiciled fundraising vehicle that allows it to tap a wider pool of charitable contributors in the United States.

Dechert lawyers also carried out some employee benefits and reward structure work that allowed RAFT to recruit individuals well-versed in the preparation of grant proposals. The effect has been marked, both in the number and scope of successful applications: a structured, systematic approach to grant finding—and to the targeting of high net worth individuals—has set RAFT on a more solid, sustainable footing, allowing its researchers to focus less on money and more on science.

Turning ambitious research into proven products

The scientific research underpinning RAFT’s bionic limb project is focused on attaching electrodes directly to muscle tissue under the skin. It aims to make internal wiring in prosthetic limbs a thing of the past, underpinning a practical, affordable bionic arm that can work intuitively.

Like many charities working with cutting-edge science, however, RAFT faced a dilemma: should it protect the intellectual property underlying its scientific research or place it in the public domain? Both paths can produce tangible results. Gifting scientific advancements to the public good by publishing can boost to untold numbers of academic researchers all over the world, greatly increasing the possibility of a breakthrough. In the case of the prosthetic limb, however, RAFT ultimately decided that a faster route to the development of a product that would actually help amputees lay in protecting the IP and licensing it to a commercial enterprise.

Dechert thus helped RAFT establish an IP package that clarified the assignment of rights to products or processes developed via the RAFT/UCL collaboration. The package allowed RAFT, in turn, to reach agreement with several commercial entities holding technologies that will also be necessary in developing a new bionic limb.

“We owe a huge debt to all the team at Dechert, who continue to give us quality pro bono advice and support,” said Leonor Stjepic, RAFT’s CEO. “Only through Dechert’s work and commitment have we been able to make the necessary legal arrangements that enabled us to start the bionic limb project this year.”

Even better, Dechert’s solution to the bionic limb IP conundrum provides a model that can be replicated with other ground-breaking research projects. RAFT’s ambitious scientific program includes work on the use of 3D printing techniques to aid facial reconstruction, the adaptation of SmartMatrix to generate growth in bone tissues and the development of skin regeneration techniques that do away with grafts—all projects made possible by RAFT’s new-found ability to focus on what it does best: push back the frontiers of scientific discovery.

Recognition

Dechert’s wide-ranging support for RAFT was recognized when the firm was awarded the “Best Contribution by an International Firm” prize at LawWorks Pro Bono Awards 2016. The Financial Times granted it “Highly Commended” status in its European Innovative Lawyers Report 2016.

The firm was also a finalist for “CSR Programme of the Year” in the Legal Business Awards 2017 and in Legal Week's Innovation Awards 2017 and was shortlisted for “Best Pro Bono Initiative” in The Lawyer’s Business Leadership Awards 2016.