The Life Sciences Lawyer

How general counsel Kerry Hillier’s biochemistry background made him perfect for patent work at fuel-cell firm Ballard Power Systems

Kerry Hillier stands in Ballard’s Burnaby, BC, headquarters, which houses the world’s most advanced proton-exchange membrane test and production facility.

It’s not common for a biochemist to be at the head of a corporate legal team, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when the company in question is a global leader in proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel-cell technology. Thanks to his background, Kerry Hillier, general counsel and corporate secretary for Ballard Power Systems Inc., not only understands the patent laws and risk management needed to protect the clean-energy products his employer offers; he also understands the sophisticated science behind the products themselves. The marriage is a happy one, and Hillier’s experience and knowledge now actively support Ballard’s contributions to the field of eco-friendly fuel-cell technology as, at the same time, the company’s constant push for innovation informs Hillier’s leadership approach.

5 Questions
with Kerry Hillier


1. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
A lot of companies used to suffer from “not invented here” syndrome. Now there’s a lot of in-house technology. The Internet and technology shared between competitors has really driven innovation.

2. What does innovation mean to your company?
We’re bringing a disruptive technology to the market, competing with technologies that customers know and use. We have to constantly use innovation to encourage our customers to switch from incumbent technologies to fuel cells.

3. How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
At Ballard, we have processes to support encouragement, recognition, and rewards. And our employees take pride in addressing important environmental concerns.  

4. Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
We focus on explaining benefits in the cost, durability, and reliability of fuel cells. When businesses learn that our customers have experienced a 60 percent reduction in costs since 2009, they listen. The environmental benefits and green technology are icing on the cake.

5. How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
We’re all scientists and engineers, so innovation is part of our culture and something we do every day. Innovation is at the core of what we do.

PEM fuel cells operate much like biological cells, turning hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy. Unlike older technologies such as alkaline fuel cells, which glow cherry red when they heat up and take a long time to cool down, PEM fuel cells operate at low temperatures and reach full power quickly and easily. After more than 25 years of research and development, Ballard has an unparalleled understanding of how to integrate this technology into various systems, having worked with such leading companies as Daimler, Ford, and Volkswagen. The company hosts one of the largest fuel-cell R&D facilities, and with Hillier’s oversight, it manages hundreds of patents that support its position as one of the leading providers of fuel-cell technology.

While studying biochemistry as an undergraduate, Hillier expected to go on to get his PhD. After starting his career, though, he discovered that there weren’t any patent lawyers in the field. “So, I decided to hop on a new horse and not fight the stream,” he says. Hillier is now in charge of all legal matters at Ballard, including board and management support, legal-risk assessment, commercial matters, mergers and acquisitions, financing activities, and litigation management.

“When I joined the patent group in ’99, Ballard Power Systems had about 300 employees and was hiring 50 people a month,” Hillier says. “My HR welcome package was essentially a pamphlet that said, ‘We appreciate self-starters and encourage you to seek out the resources you need for success.’” At that time, Ballard was entirely focused on automotive fuel-cell technology, but the company eventually found that it was expensive and not sustainable. Today, Ballard focuses on clean fuel-cell technology that helps companies arrive at more profitable solutions, including bus fleets with no greenhouse gas emissions, backup power systems, and efficient hydrogen-powered systems.

In 2004, Hillier became the manager of the intellectual property group, and in 2007, he became the manager of the legal function. Today, Ballard has more than 350 employees, and as part of its senior leadership team, Hillier helps the company make important decisions about revenue, sales, intellectual property law, compliance, corporate governance, and risk management. He meets with his legal team of three on a regular basis, making sure the company is aligned with its strategic vision and priorities. “With such a small team, you have to be able to roll up your sleeves and work with everyone else,” Hillier says. “Team is not just a word; we all have a part to play. When you get buy-in, then you get performance.” Hillier values the respect that team members give each other, but he also credits healthy competition as a breeder of innovation and accountability.

Hillier encourages his team to document and submit their innovations, and he also supports processes that encourage new ideas and recognizes and rewards hard work. In turn, his team members take pride in addressing environmental concerns and knowing that their ideas are contributing to clean solutions. “My job is to help our company achieve what they want to achieve,” Hillier says, “rather than telling them, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”