Adam Neff Blends the Jobs He Loves

The Ruby Valley Resident is a Patent Agent, Japanese Translator & Rancher

By Dianna Troyer

A tractor cab sometimes doubles as an office for Adam Neff when he takes a Zoom call about a patent. “I don’t know of anyone else like me who has this particular combination of jobs—working as a rancher and a patent agent,” the 54-year-old Ruby Valley resident says with a laugh.

Since 1995, Adam has worked for a law firm, Oliff PLC in Alexandria, Virginia, where his unusual skillset is valued. He is fluent in Japanese and has a degree in civil and environmental engineering. He helps clients apply for patents and supervises the firm’s in-house Japanese translation department.

“I’m grateful to have the best of both worlds: helping my brother and dad on the ranch and working remotely on patents,” he says. “Patent law is complex and fascinating. We don’t really stop to think about how vital patented products and processes are and how they touch our lives—GPS systems in tractors or drones, medical devices and surgical instruments, or automotive and aerospace engine manufacturing.”

Knowing about patents can also be helpful in daily ranch life. While recently trying to repair an electric cattle prod, Adam looked up the patent on it to see how it was supposed to work.

He says his diverse career path has been an interesting one. He moved back to the valley temporarily during the summer of 2006 when his dad, John, had surgery and needed help.

“My wife, Lisi, and our kids liked it so much we moved here permanently in 2007,” Adam says.

Juggling his jobs, Adam generally does whatever is needed on the ranch during the day and devotes early mornings and evenings to patent work. He checks messages throughout the day to ensure any urgent patent matters on his docket are taken care of.

At the law firm, he has gained expertise in various technical fields, including the automotive, aerospace and metal fabricating industries. His work, however, has not been limited to those areas.

“I’ve helped clients with all kinds of products and processes—a pre-tied zipper necktie with a unique knot, a large hay bale stacking machine, and components of a color copier,” he says. “You don’t realize it, but when you’re making a color copy, there are patented components functioning with complex color calibration algorithms to ensure the correct color is produced.”

Adam Neff reads a Japanese patent for a satellite communication system. OPPOSITE PAGE: He works on patents in the morning and evening, saying it is a complex and fascinating job. During the day, he works on his family’s cattle ranch. Photos courtesy of Adam Neff

Path to Japan

While growing up in the valley, Adam assumed he would become an engineer and enrolled at Brigham Young University. But he was guided down another career path in 1988 when he was assigned to live in Japan to serve a 2-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The culture impressed me,” he says. “The Japanese are diligent, intelligent, polite, hard-working, and have a sense of societal obligation and responsibility. The crime rate is low.”

A senior partner at Adam’s firm tells a story that sums up some of these Japanese characteristics. Someone had forgotten to take their change at a vending machine, so the next person taped the coin to the machine with a note listing the date.

“The coin was worth about a dime, but no one took it,” Adam says. “Everyone assumed the person would come back to get it.”

When his mission ended, Adam continued studying engineering at BYU. He also kept thinking about Japan. He appreciated the Japanese culture’s depth, embodied by a favorite and famous Japanese haiku poem, “Tsuyu no Yo.”

“It means ‘The World of Dew’ and is a hauntingly beautiful poem that refers to the transience of life while also touching on very real and personal human emotions,” he says.

Wanting to learn more about Japan, Adam double majored at BYU.

“1 of my Japanese professors had a translation business on the side and hired me to work on projects,” he says. “1 of the clients happened to be the law firm I’m working for now. They wanted to meet the translators in person and offered me a job after college.”

In 1995, Adam graduated with degrees in Japanese and engineering. He moved to Virginia and began learning about patent law. Patent attorneys and patent agents help clients apply for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Examiners at the federal office decide whether to grant a patent. Utility patents can be granted for products or methods. Design patents can be granted for the ornamental appearance of objects.

The Patent Puzzle

Adam says helping a client obtain a patent is like solving a puzzle. “Writing the application is challenging and enjoyable,” he says. “There’s a proper format, description, verbiage and drawings to use. How do you describe the unique feature of a product or process in an understandable way and show how it’s different from what was known previously? What was already known, and what is an improvement worthy of a patent?”

After the application is submitted, the rejection rate is high. “9 out of 10 times the examiner will reject it, saying it isn’t unique,” he says. “Then the negotiation starts. Is the examiner’s analysis correct? If so, how should the claims be amended to overcome the rejection?”

Obtaining a patent can be a costly process, often $20,000 or more from start to finish

“Most people have sticker shock,” Adam says. “They also tend to think a patent automatically leads to money. I advise clients who want to earn an income from their patent to have a marketing plan. A patent simply acts as a tool to help stop anyone else from making, using or selling a product or process.”

Adam says he is happy to share his knowledge and help people understand and navigate the world of patents. At times, he travels to Virginia or Japan for his patent work. “It’s always good to come back home to Ruby Valley,” he says. “It’s been a great place to raise our 7 kids.”