DARYL ACHILLES: From fundamental physics to the practice of law—'Who knew?'

How Illinois Physics alumnus Daryl Achilles went from student experiences at Fermilab to intellectual property lawyer at the global biotech leader PerkinElmer

Bill Bell
for Illinois Physics 

Daryl Achilles remembers the people who helped guide him toward physics. 

Several professors and researchers at Fermilab hosted weekly “Saturday Morning Physics” lectures when he was a high school student. Edwin Abbot—the Victorian satirist who thought he was critiquing social hierarchies in the United Kingdom but ended up writing Flatland, an enduring examination of the mathematical concept of multiple dimensions—makes the list too. So do Michio Kaku and his book Hyperspace and Kip Thorne and his book Black Holes and Time Warps. In fact, nearly 30 years later, Achilles can still pull the copy of Black Holes and Time Warps that he read as a teenager off his shelf.

It’s the sort of pop-science non-fiction that any student in an AP Physics course in the suburbs of Chicago was likely to get their hands on in the mid-1990s, after Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking but before Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

“At the time, I probably thought I understood better than I actually did. But I was hooked. It was so fascinating,” Achilles says.

The books and lectures might be a common origin story for an Illinois Physics alumnus, but his career is much more unusual. After graduating in 2002 and completing a doctoral degree focused on quantum optics at the University of Oxford, Achilles is now senior intellectual property (IP) counsel at PerkinElmer, an $18-billion biotech and instrumentation company headquartered in Massachusetts.

What motivated the shift? In part, it was probably that same tendency to feed his own curiosity that led him to Flatland

“I’ve always liked knowing lots about many different things,” he notes. While an undergrad he was hired by Illinois Physics Professor Leland Holloway—now an emeritus professor—to write software for the Collider Detector and to help upgrade the muon detectors at Fermilab, over one summer. He also worked with Illinois Physics Professor Paul Kwiat, who was new to campus and just setting up his lab focused on optical experiments related to quantum information.

The structure of Oxford—where student life is based around small “colleges”—multidisciplinary communities of students and faculty—was also a boon for him. At UIUC, his cohort was largely made up of other physics students. 

“There are jobs that revolve around science that don’t require doing research in the lab. These folks with PhDs working in other areas outside of academia? They’re happy.”

Illinois Physics alumnus and PerkinElmer Senior Counsel Daryl Achilles

“I learned so much from them—they were my people. A typical evening started in the lobby of Loomis for problem sets, then down to the IHOP for coffee, conversation, and more problem sets. It wasn’t the most efficient way [to learn physics], but it was a great way of making friends. U of I Physics was so close-knit,” he said.

At Oxford, meanwhile, there were chemists, historians, archeologists, and students of many other fields constantly interacting at his college. 

“I’m an introvert, but I knew no one in the country when I moved there, so I got really into college life,” he said. He eventually became president of his Middle College Room, a governing and support body within Oxford’s colleges.

Achilles’ first job after completing his doctoral degree had an even bigger impact on his career trajectory. 

As a researcher at a quantum information startup, he worked on laser-based systems for generating single photons. It involved a lot of tweaking and maintaining instruments and—for Achilles, anyway—a lot of tedium and monotony. 

But there was another component to his job. He was frequently asked to review technology that other companies had patented to see if it might be licensed by his startup for its use.

“It reopened my eyes to broader contexts and different ideas. I was still getting to learn, but I wasn’t in the lab. Before this, I had no idea that IP law was a career at all,” he recalls.

It was a big realization and a bit of a scary one.

“There was an assumption that you’d go to grad school, then post-doc, then faculty. That was the path in my head— it wasn’t ‘pure’ to do something else,” Achilles says. “But there are interesting, fulfilling, exciting careers out there. There are jobs that revolve around science that don’t require doing research in the lab. These folks with PhDs working in other areas outside of academia? They’re happy.”

He adds, “Companies do real science. They do R&D. And they hire scientists to do things other than active research. Who knew?”

Achilles followed up his realization with quick action. Within a year, he was an in-house science advisor at a law firm that specializes in patent litigation. From there it was 18-hour days working as a patent agent, writing patent applications for clients and arguing with patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—all while attending law school at night.

Now at PerkinElmer, he and a team of two other attorneys are responsible for the company’s ever-growing portfolio of more than 4,000 patents. Those patents cover techniques used in everything from mass spectroscopy to cellular imaging, genetic testing to point-of-care diagnostics, chromatography to lab automation.

“It’s perfect for me,” says Achilles. “People bring me a concept that they toiled over in the lab, I learn about the technology from them, and we figure out what intellectual-property strategy to take.”

The IP team looks at things like how to avoid infringing patents owned by other entities, how patenting an invention will serve the company’s interests, and whether to license IP from another company. They also manage the company’s IP litigation strategy. PerkinElmer has acquired about 10 other companies in recent years, so the team helps assess any patent liability PerkinElmer may face in such acquisitions and develops ways to mitigate that risk.

“With an Illinois Physics degree, nothing seems too intimidating,” Achilles sums up. “Optics, electronics, writing code, working on hardware—I had the chance to do it all at UIUC. Even if it’s not directly in my wheelhouse, I’ve been exposed to it.”