Coercion of Grads, and Now IP Theft?

Former professor at Missouri Kansas City, who's accused of forcing graduate students to work at his home, is now accused of stealing a grad student's work and profiting from it.

March 4, 2019
 
Ashim Mitra

The University of Missouri System’s Board of Curators is suing a former professor of pharmacy at the Kansas City campus and his wife for allegedly stealing intellectual property and making $1.5 million off of it to date through therapeutics companies.

The former professor, Ashim Mitra, is further accused of concealing his work with industry from the university and then lying about it during recent internal investigation.

Mitra already tendered his resignation, effective later this month, amid a university investigation into separate claims that he coerced foreign graduate students from India into doing yard work, taking care of his dog and other tasks.

Mitra has denied the claims against him. One of the companies named alongside him as a defendant in the IP case said the university’s complaint has “no merit” regarding its interests -- specifically a dry-eye drug.

As is increasingly common among universities, Missouri says that it owns the inventions of faculty and staff members made within the general scope of their employment (but not necessarily all profits). That’s despite the American Association of University Professors’ and other faculty advocates’ insistence that inventions are owned initially by their inventors.

These faculty advocates say that the ownership principle is clearly established in the Constitution and federal patent law, including a major 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a researcher at Stanford University working on HIV diagnostic tests.

Still, ownership of patent rights is a separate issue: those may be transferred in writing to another party. The AAUP does not oppose cost-sharing agreements when patents are commercialized. Missouri, like many institutions, offers such agreements.

There’s another issue in the Mitra suit besides employee versus university IP ownership: research theft. According to the new federal lawsuit, Mitra oversaw the work of a graduate student who formulated a new, highly effective way of delivering drugs to the eye, around 2011.

Mitra allegedly sold the graduate student’s research and related inventions to the pharmaceutical company Auven Therapeutics. Mitra and the company are then said to have patented the delivery formulation without crediting the graduate student and without notifying or involving the university.

Auven then allegedly sold the research rights for $40 million to the international conglomerate Sun Pharma. Based on “the groundbreaking nature” of the work, Sun Pharma used the inventions described in the related patents to successfully obtain federal approval to sell the formulation in a dry-eye drug, Cequa, with a promising and potentially lucrative corner on the dry-eye market.

Missouri is seeking to restore its “rightful ownership interest in” and “fair share of the proceeds” from this work. It wants the graduate student’s -- not Mitra’s -- name on all the IP paperwork, and a clear declaration that it is the de facto owner of it all as the student’s employer.

It also wants damages from Mitra and his wife, Ranjana Mitra, who also worked at the university, and their outside consulting service.

Auven, too, owes Missouri compensation for the "improper theft, use and commercialization of its valuable intellectual property, without its authorization," according to the lawsuit.

The university and its lawyers declined to comment.

The graduate student, Kishore Cholkar, previously told The Kansas City Star that Mitra refused to put his name on the patent, even though Mitra delayed Cholkar’s graduation so that he could finish the work.

“He says, ‘Do you want to graduate or do you want a patent?’” Cholkar said of Mitra, describing the statement as a threat to stop complaining.

Mitra did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he told the Star that Cholkar wrote a paper on “other aspects” of the relevant formulation after his patent was submitted.

“It is clear to see that both him and [Missouri] are now trying to reap the benefits of the tireless work myself and others have put in to make this a success,” he said.

Auven knew that Mitra was a professor using university resources for his work and proceeded with their agreement anyway, according to the lawsuit. Its general counsel allegedly contacted Mitra in late 2011 seeking assurances that the “university permits this outside work and has no rights in IP created.”

Mitra allegedly replied that the project was part of his consulting company and signed a binding letter, generated by Auven, waiving the university’s rights to any IP. And Mitra simply placed the draft agreement on university letterhead and signed it, without consulting the university, Missouri says.

“Mitra did not have authority to sign the letter, to bind the university, or to otherwise waive the university’s rights to IP,” reads the lawsuit. Auven “knew that the letter presented a conflict of interest” because Mitra stood to gain financially.

Mitra is poised to collect millions more dollars from the deal. The university recently said that it will pursue a profit-sharing agreeing with Cholkar if its case succeeds, the Star reported.

A spokesperson for Auven said via email that the company “regards universities doing basic and clinical research as valued partners.”

There is “no merit” to Missouri’s complaints as they relate to Auven and its commercial partner on the dry-eye Cequa product, she said. “The university reached out to us in regard to this matter, and we look forward to engaging constructively with them.”

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