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By Lori AthertonFeb. 20, 2014
If you've ever reached for your headphones only to find they were a tangled mess, you're not alone. Nick Turnbull and Paul Schrems experienced this frustrating problem one too many times, and set out to remedy it with some good old-fashioned ingenuity.
The result is TurtleCell, a protective smartphone case that contains built-in retractable earbuds that won't tangle.
"We set out to solve the frustration of untangling headphones and found that we solved another problem of not losing or breaking them," said Turnbull, of TurtleCell's design. The University of Michigan engineering student, who is taking a break from classes, is TurtleCell's cofounder/CEO.
TurtleCell's design was finalized last December and the product made its January debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It is expected to begin selling in summer 2014.
Before Turnbull and Schrems, the other cofounder of TurtleCell and a U-M engineering graduate, could reach this milestone, however, they needed some help from Michigan Law's Entrepreneurship Clinic. The pair had been accepted into TechArb, the University's student startup accelerator, in summer 2012, and quickly realized there was more to their venture than they had anticipated.
"We had no idea about the legal aspects of starting a business," Turnbull said. "We immediately made an appointment with the clinic [which provides no-cost legal services to U-M student entrepreneurs], and Prof. Bryce Pilz talked us through the big and small picture of what we needed to know."
At the top of the list was developing an intellectual property strategy to protect TurtleCell's business ideas and attract investors. Helen Ji, 3L, one of the student attorneys who worked with TurtleCell for two semesters, helped to draft contracts involving TurtleCell's intellectual property. She also helped TurtleCell understand how it could further leverage intellectual property (such as patents and trademarks) to protect its competitive technological advantage.
"Many entrepreneurs tend to see legal issues as mere formalities," Ji said, "but Nick and Paul seemed to really appreciate the importance of legal IP protection."
Working in the Entrepreneurship Clinic gave Ji the practical experience she desired, particularly since she plans to pursue a career in patent litigation. "The clinic provided a low-pressure opportunity for me to embrace the responsibility of working with a real client's complex issues," she said. "By discussing my research and analysis with Prof. Pilz, who previously worked as a patent litigator, I received valuable insight into how successful patent attorneys think."
In turn, TurtleCell's cofounders received useful legal advice from Ji and the clinic—advice they would have needed to fund with additional capital had the clinic's no-cost legal help been unavailable.
"I would recommend the Entrepreneurship Clinic to other entrepreneurs," Turnbull said. "It's a fantastic resource that U-M offers, and startups shouldn't shy away from using it. They blew away our expectations of what free legal services would be, and the students gave great help and advice."
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