A much-anticipated apple patented and trademarked by Washington State University is at the root of a legal battle with Seattle ag-biotech company Phytelligence. Also, Airbus is thinking about turning cargo space into passenger beds on some planes.
“Only God can make a tree,” declared the poet — but only Washington State University or its agents can license production of “the tree that bears Cosmic Crisp brand apples,” contends a federal lawsuit filed against Seattle-based ag-biotech company Phytelligence.
The prized apple, bred and refined over decades by WSU researchers and then patented and trademarked by the university, is due to reach consumers next year.
Several hundred thousand trees have already been planted by growers — only in Washington, because the state’s taxpayers supported the university’s research. The Cosmic Crisp, which combines sweetness and a long shelf life, is widely expected to be a major hit.
But like some sort of intellectual-property Garden of Eden story, the apple has ruptured relations between the university and the young company.
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Phytelligence was founded by WSU professor Amit Dhingra, and the university is a shareholder. Now, however, there are dueling lawsuits over the Cosmic Crisp and tens of thousands of young trees the company grew but then allegedly sold without authorization.
The Spokesman-Review newspaper reports that Phytelligence, which has a method of growing “budwood” from tissue cultures that enables them to reach maturity and bear fruit in less time, struck a “propagation agreement” with the university that allowed the company to cultivate the Cosmic Crisp for research purposes. The agreement included an “option to participate as a provider and/or seller” once the apple went to market.
But Phytelligence sued the university in King County Superior Court in February, claiming the university had violated the agreement by refusing to issue a commercial license.
WSU responded last month, claiming Phytelligence had not met clear requirements for obtaining a license and alleging the company had illegally sold 135,000 Cosmic Crisp trees to a grower near Yakima. The university also filed a patent-infringement claim in federal court, where the initial Phytelligence suit is now also being heard.
Phil Weiler, WSU’s vice president for marketing and communications, told The Spokesman-Review the university must protect the “significant financial investment” it has made to develop the Cosmic Crisp by ensuring that no one grows the apple without proper licensing and quality-control measures in place.
WSU claims it terminated its agreement with Phytelligence, and demanded that it destroy any Cosmic Crisp plant materials in its possession.
Phytelligence has refused to do so.
“We are not going to destroy the material because we feel it’s within our rights to get the license,” Ken Hunt, the company’s CEO, told The Spokesman-Review.
Hunt, who joined the company in 2014, said the litigation stems from misunderstandings, and he blamed “a small group of folks that are not about the entire university.”
Hunt said Phytelligence had indeed moved some Cosmic Crisp budwood — young branches that must be grafted onto rootstock from more mature trees — from its greenhouses to an Evans Fruit orchard “in anticipation of getting a license.”
“We don’t own land, so we used ground over at Evans, in large part because we thought we’d be using some of those buds to service their order,” he said.
But he insisted the move did not violate Phytelligence’s agreement with WSU or the university’s patent.
“If you don’t do the grafting, you don’t really have a tree,” Hunt said. “No grafting ever took place. No tree was ever generated.”
Hunt said Phytelligence has refunded payments to Evans Fruit, and the Cosmic Crisp budwood is back in Phytelligence’s possession.
As for the firm’s efforts to obtain a license, Hunt said WSU required Phytelligence to become a member of the Northwest Nursery Improvement Institute, a nonprofit association of tree-fruit nurseries, but the university would not provide clear requirements for doing so. The association has the authority to license its members to grow the Cosmic Crisp.
Hunt suggested Phytelligence faced pushback because the company’s scientific approach can generate apples more quickly than the traditional nurseries, but Weiler, the WSU spokesman, said he was not aware of such competitive concerns.
“For whatever reason, (Phytelligence) chose not to follow the path that was laid out in the agreement.”
The litigation isn’t likely to sour the market debut of the new apple, however.
“We are probably going to be placing between 6.5 and 7 million trees in the ground this year,” Lynnell Brandt, a fourth-generation farmer and president of Proprietary Variety Management, which handles marketing and licensing of the Cosmic Crisp for WSU, told The Spokesman-Review.
Brandt said the Cosmic Crisp has the potential to displace other popular varieties in Washington’s $2.4 billion apple industry, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of U.S. production. He said producers typically plant new apples a little at a time to test consumer demand, but not with the Cosmic Crisp.
“This level of planting is unprecedented,” Brandt said. “Nothing like this, globally, has ever happened so fast.”
— The Spokesman-Review
Cargo holds may be a spot for a nap
It won’t be a room with a view but may help prevent neck strain. Passengers flying on Airbus planes could someday be able to slip down into the cargo hold for a proper nap.
The European jet maker is working with seat manufacturer Zodiac Aerospace on the design and construction of lie-flat beds to fit in lower-deck cargo areas. The berths will initially be offered on Airbus A330 widebody aircraft from 2020, the companies said Tuesday at a conference in Hamburg.
The idea for specially designated sleeping areas on planes was also raised last month by Qantas Airways Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce, who said the airline is studying options for making ultralong-haul flights more bearable for passengers. Qantas is exploring direct links from Australia to the U.S. and Europe that would require travelers spend as many as 17 consecutive hours in flight. Joyce said the airline could introduce a new four-class structure, with part of the cargo hold used for beds.
Under Airbus’ plan, the sleeping berths would be installed as modules that could be quickly replaced with regular cargo fittings during an aircraft’s typical airport turnaround. Holds have in the past been designed as cabin-crew rest areas and for religious facilities.
Airlines will be able to retrofit old planes with the modules or build them into aircraft coming off the production line, according to the manufacturer. Airbus is also studying the possibility of offering similar sleeper compartments on its A350 airliner.
— Bloomberg News