GC Fireside

TechGC chats with Allen Kuo, Director of Legal of Pivot Bio

Allen Kuo
February 17, 2022

Tell us about your background as a General Counsel and current career status...

I love it here at Pivot Bio.  We’re a late-stage ag-tech startup focused on replacing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer used by farmers to grow our food with a more efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable solution that leverages the natural ability of microbes that are abundant in the soil microbiome to fix atmospheric nitrogen and provide a consistent source of nitrogen to the plant.  

Before joining Pivot, I was in private practice at a well-respected regional civil litigation law firm.  In 2017, after 5 years in private practice, I was burned out with the law firm billable hours model and the adversarial nature of litigation.  I decided to take a big risk by leaving the firm without something else lined up.  My plan was to take time off to travel and pursue my dream of playing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.  About 7 months into my sabbatical, my roommate from law school (who I remain good friends with to this day) reached out to me asking if I was interested in an in-house position at a fast-growing startup that her father, through a VC group that he managed, has invested during the company’s seed and Series A rounds.  Pivot was at the stage where it needed its first in-house counsel, and I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.  

How does your industry help define your role as General Counsel?

The ag industry recognizes that the way we’ve grown food for the past 100 years since the Haber-Bosch process was developed is negatively impacting our environment.  As a result, there is so much new innovation being introduced in ag-tech today focused on sustainable farming that intersects with multiple areas of the law including IP, regulatory, and commercial.  

We are now seeing how synthetic biology can be leveraged to program the genetic regulatory pathways of soil microbes to do what we want them to do.  In our case, we program the microbes to fix nitrogen for cereal crops.  As our industry continues to innovate, there are many IP issues to consider from filing patent applications on new inventions, ensuring FTO, and maintaining a global perspective on where our IP will be the most impactful.  Within the regulatory framework, there are unique challenges and issues that we tackle at the state and federal level to receive commercial approval for our products.  Not to mention that outside of the U.S., the EU has an entirely different regulatory framework around GMO that requires us to develop EU compliant microbes.  

At Pivot, we aspire to launch a new product every 2 years.  By comparison, the incumbent ag leaders usually take anywhere between 5-7 years to launch a new product.  With the pace that we’ve set for ourselves, there is a constant need to ensure that our field trials and research programs proceed without issue.  This means that our agreements, whether research or commercial, need to be turned around a rapid pace and ensure that we have the appropriate protections built in.  When it comes to introducing a new product in the ag industry, you often only get one shot to get it right with the farmer due to a narrow planting window so every detail of what we do needs to be done right.

How do you feel the General Counsel should act as a business partner?

As with most in-house counsel, I consider myself a swiss army-knife of attorneys and wear many different hats.

As the first and only non-patent attorney, every non-patent related legal question makes its way to me.  Until I hire a second non-patent attorney (which I’m currently searching for of as I write this), I am also the responsible attorney for reviewing and/or drafting every legal agreement that our company enters into.  

That doesn’t mean that I’m not involved in our IP strategy.  For the first year at Pivot, before I hired our first in-house patent attorney, I was responsible for coordinating IP projects between our outside counsel and internal science teams.  It was during this time, when I soaked up basic patent law principles just enough for me to work in partnership with our outside patent counsel to advance our IP strategy.  Now with a team of two patent attorneys, it’s my role to ensure that our IP team has the resources it needs to function at a high level.  I’m in constant communication with our Director of IP who reports to me to make sure we execute on our global patent strategy.

As one of the longest tenured members of the senior leadership team that is composed primarily of C-suite and VPs, I am often tasked with wide variety of projects including but not limited to building out our legal operation functions, coordinating diligence during our financing rounds, and overseeing any internal investigations that may result in legal risk to the company.  

Being on senior leadership also means I have the broadest view of our Company’s strategic initiatives. It’s my responsibility to ensure that our legal department is performing at a high level so that our business can move quickly while minimizing liability and risk.  My philosophy for our legal team is that we are here to build gates, not fences.   It’s legal’s role to find ways for our business to swiftly operate within the legal framework to allow the rest of our team to focus on all of the non-legal matters that bring us closer to providing our farmers with a better and cleaner source of nitrogen.  

How do you see the professional growth trajectory as a General Counsel?

As a former litigator, my transition to an in-house role in a completely new industry was both incredibly exciting and daunting at the same time.  Truth be told, I had zero experience in the ag industry and I was stepping into a senior leadership role.  While I never lacked confidence in my ability to do my job well, I recognized early on that there was always something new to learn and continuous room for improvement both personally and professionally.  Whether it’s learning the basic principles of patent law so I can be well informed about our IP strategy, building a scaling our legal operations, to becoming a people manager, there was always room for new learnings and growth.  

It's tough for me to say right now whether I will always want to be a lawyer.   I love what I do now, but I could also see myself creating high value in other areas of the business.  I have always had an interest in solving complex problems, whether they are business challenges or human challenges. So, I could certainly see myself transitioning into a non-legal role that is focused on those high-value challenges that have a significant impact on the growth of our business.  In fact, I was recently asked whether I would be interested in serving as Chief of Staff to our CEO.  It’s a new C-suite position that we are considering where the right candidate would work in close partnership with our CEO to work in close collaboration with our C-suite and VPs to execute on key strategic initiatives at the direction of our CEO.  I haven’t quite made up my mind on this position yet, but it’s something I’ve recently started to consider with more interest. I’ll have to dig a bit deeper into what this potential new career path means for me before I make my decision.

What is the best advice you can give for In-House Counsel?

We lawyers have a negative stigma.  Break that stigma.  Be kind, be empathetic, and be a good person.  If you’ve made it through law school and passed the bar exam, it means you have the book smarts but don’t dismiss the human connections that are required to be successful.  Make sure you are networking and try to create high value relationships with your peers.  You never know who you might impress that will kick start your career.

As the hiring manager who is tasked with reviewing dozens of legal resumes of very well qualified lawyers, a well thought out cover letter, or a gentle nudge through a professional network like TechGC or LinkedIn always stands out to me.  It shows me that applicant is serious about their candidacy.  I am a firm believer that someone who is willing to spend the extra time and take the extra step during the application process will do the same in their careers.  

Once you’ve got your foot in the door, don’t get complacent.  Be curious.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions because you want to look smart.  It’s ok not to know the answer.  By asking questions, you demonstrate to others that you want to learn and aren’t afraid.   Make it a point to take on projects outside your comfort zone.  The more well-rounded you are in multiple areas of the law and the deeper understanding you have about the business itself makes you someone of high value that the executive team will eventually take notice of."

Allen Kuo
As Director of Legal, Allen negotiates Pivot Bio’s business and research agreements and establishes strong, vision-driven relationships. In addition to negotiating and drafting these critical contracts, he is also responsible for building out the company's legal team and operations, manages outside counsel, attends to BOD governance matters, and advises on company strategy, policy, and risk mitigation. Allen's motto to his legal team is "we are here to build gates, not fences." Allen views legal's role as an enabler to the rest of the organization, wanting to find simple and risk tolerant solutions to drive the business needs. Pivot Bio is transforming how the world grows food, and with such a critical mission, it’s imperative that legal works quickly and diligently to advance projects and partnerships and to ensure that legal isn’t (unduly) holding things up. Prior to joining Pivot Bio, Allen was a civil litigator at Murphy, Pearson, Bradley & Feeney in San Francisco with significant experience in law and motion practice, discovery, depositions, dispositive motion practice, mediation, trial and appeals. Allen is a proud UC Davis and USF School of Law alumni.