St. Louis Record

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Former University of Missouri professor loses appeal over antifreeze compound


By Takesha Thomas | Jan 20, 2019

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KANSAS CITY — A former associate professor for the University of Missouri has lost an appeal in a breach of contract and loyalty claim.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, denied Galen J. Suppes' appeal arguing that he should not be held liable to pay the curators of the University of Missouri $300,000 in a breach of contract and breach of loyalty claim.

The university claims that Suppes, a former associate professor, failed to properly assign ownership of technology when he received a patent for an invention and sold it to a subsidiary of the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Counsel.

The university argues that Suppes filed at least 35 patents without the university's knowledge over his tenure.

The court said on Jan. 8 that "the University prevailed on the majority of its claims against Suppes but the jury found in favor of Suppes on the University's claim for tortious interference."

"Although the University did not prevail on its claim for tortious interference, it was successful in proving that Suppes had breached not only his employment contract but violated his duty of loyalty to the University resulting in financial loss to the University and a protracted legal battle," it said. "Suppes presents no credible argument for how the trial court abused its discretion in ordering Suppes to pay all costs of the underlying action."

Suppes's propylene glycol research discovered technology to transform glycerol, a byproduct of biodiesel production, into propylene glycol, a valuable chemical compound used to make antifreeze, according to court documents.

Suppes was hired to the College of Engineering's Department of Chemical Engineering as an associate professor in the fall of 2001.

As a condition of his employment, "the University required Suppes to sign an Appointment Notification document stating that he accepted his position…with the understanding that it is subject to all rules, orders and regulations of the Board of Curators," the court ruling said.

The university's governing rules include "Patent and Plant Variety Regulations" which states, "The University, as the employer and as the representative of the people of the state, shall have the ownership and control of any Invention or Plant Variety developed in the course of the employee's service to the University."

According to court documents, Suppes established a limited liability company, Renewable Alternatives (RA), to conduct some of his research. RA leased an office from the university but did not lease or pay for any laboratory space from the university.

Instead, all research was done in the lab provided by the university to Suppes for his work with for the university.

Pursuant to an agreement between the university and RA, any inventions developed by both university employees and RA employees would be jointly owned, and RA was given first option to lease these inventions.

Suppes entered into a licensing agreement with a Missouri Soybean subsidiary in March 2005 claiming that his company RA was the sole owner of the propylene glycol technology. His company in turn was to receive royalties at a rate of 33 percent for two years and 20 percent thereafter.

Once the university became aware of the deal in October 2005, it attempted to negotiate a three-way agreement between Suppes that recognized the University's ownership of propylene glycol.

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Missouri Court of Appeals Western District