'Clash of the Titaniums' close to resolution?
China and the US are intensifying their efforts to cash in – at the expense of Cambridge – on a protracted Intellectual Property wrangle concerning production of new ‘super metal’ titanium.While Cambridge University continues to dither in a rights row over market-leading technology between spin-outs British Titanium and Metalysis, technologists in China and the US are coming up fast on the rails with alternative solutions that are unencumbered by IPR issues.
Sources close to the Cambridge dispute claim the University‘s ‘“Nero-style fiddling” could end up burning Cambridge’s chances of commercialising the pioneering technology. The judge drafted in by Cambridge University to adjudicate on the intellectual property battle between its spin-outs is expected to deliver his judgement by the end of the week.
Centering on a novel, low cost way of producing super-metal titanium, the wrangle has already dragged on around nine months and, it is feared, cost the UK precious ground to the competing foreign technologies.
Titanium is strong, light and corrosion-resistant making it much sought after in applications ranging from hull armour for battleships to sporting equipment. It is also expensive as it is difficult to extract. Hence the international race for a low-cost method of production.
British Titanium alleges that its licence to use the FFC Cambridge Process to produce titanium was unfairly rescinded by Metalysis, which was awarded the head licence to use the technology for the production of any metal or alloy, by Cambridge University in December 2005.
BTi says that the licence was taken away from it just before it was about to sign a potentially lucrative production deal in Norway.
Metalysis refutes the claim, saying its offer to BTi of a licence was dismissed by its one-time sister company out of hand.
Meanwhile US government defence agencies have been pouring millions into the development of the competing Armstrong Process and the number of titanium producers in China has risen from two to 21 in a matter of months.
BTi is backed in its plight by the co-inventor of the technology, Prof Derek Fray who put his case to Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC earlier this week.
The issue has already been the subject of a High Court action, brought by BTi, which was subsequently struck out as the company was not able to meet the £470k preliminary court costs.
In fact, BTi was placed into administration to protect it from a court ruling that it must meet the costs of Metalysis and QinetiQ, the joint defendants in the case.
Should Judge Hepple find against BTi, things could start getting really nasty. The company has already informed the University of its intention to withhold rights to a pivotal piece of intellectual property called FFC Cambridge Imp-rovements, which it contends could prevent Metalysis from using the technology to produce any metal.
It is also investigating the option of gaining ‘after the fact’ insurance cover which would allow it to pursue its case in the courts.
A source close to the dispute told Business Weekly: “In my mind there is no doubt that BTi felt it had exclusive rights to exploit the technology as it negotiated with NASA and others globally to commercialise the rights.
“There are a number of conflicting interests running through this whole sorry mess and the University is culpable. The real tragedy in this saga would be for the University to dally further, make the wrong decision and watch as the US or Chinese waltz off with lucrative commercial deals emanating from their versions of this technology.