In patent dispute, Supreme Court sides with startup

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Supreme Court sided with startup company Gevo Inc. in a lingering dispute over patents for technology related to the commercial development of an advanced biofuel, isobutanol.The justices vacated a federal appeals court ruling that last year upheld two patents belonging to Butamax, a BP PLC-DuPont Co. joint venture, in a lawsuit alleging that Gevo infringed on the patents. The case now goes back to the appeals court for reconsideration.

The high court’s decision comes on the heels of its ruling last week that an appeals court had used the wrong standard of review in a similar patent dispute between pharmaceutical companies.

Colorado-based Gevo and Butamax have been developing technology to produce isobutanol, a promising advanced biofuel that can be used in higher volumes in petroleum fuel than conventional ethanol. Both companies have developed fermentation technology to produce isobutanol from retrofitted corn ethanol plants.

Gevo owns and operates a completed retrofit ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn., that is producing both isobutanol and conventional ethanol. Butamax has yet to open its first isobutanol facility.

The two companies have been sparring in the courts for more than four years over patents to the technology. At issue in the Supreme Court case are patents that cover Butamax’s broad technological pathway for making isobutanol; Butamax first sued Gevo in 2011 in the U.S. District Court of Delaware, accusing it of infringing the patents.

Butamax twice appealed rulings by the lower court, which found that Gevo’s technology did not fit into the definition of enzymes in Butamax’s patents. In Butamax’s successful appeal last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit modified what the district judge had determined the patent claims meant, paving the way for Butamax’s infringement suit to continue.

But in a 7-2 ruling last week, the Supreme Court justices ruled in the similar case Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. v. Sandoz Inc. that a federal appeals court should have deferred to a district judge’s findings.

The Gevo case was one of three cases that the court today remanded in light of its ruling in Teva. Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the consideration of or ruling on Gevo Inc. v. Butamax Advanced Fuels LLC.

Last week, Gevo Chief Legal Officer Brett Lund characterized the Teva decision as a big victory (E&ENews PM, Jan. 20).

“Obviously, this is a huge win for us because there’s no higher court than the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s no mechanism to further challenge this at a higher court,” Lund said. “What this does is make it clear that we’re not utilizing any of this technology in their patents.”

In a statement today, Butamax said it was still confident it would win its lawsuit.

“In the light of the Teva ruling, we were expecting the Supreme Court to refer the Butamax case back to the federal circuit for consideration,” Butamax said. “However, we remain confident the federal circuit’s earlier decision in our favor will be confirmed.”