Dr. Harlan Robins, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies, stepped down from his role as head of the computational biology program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, GeekWire has learned.
The departure came around the time that Adaptive filed to go public earlier this month. In documents for the initial public offering, the company warned investors that it faced risks related to the intellectual property it licenses from Fred Hutch.
“Our Co-Founder, Dr. Harlan Robins, had dual employment with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (“Fred Hutch”) and us, and accordingly has had obligations to assign his rights to inventions to either Fred Hutch or us depending on how and where the inventions were conceived, reduced to practice, developed or created. Disputes may arise in the future between Fred Hutch and us regarding ownership of intellectual property generated by Dr. Robins’ work,” the company wrote in the filing.
The warning, listed among a number of risk factors that the company faces, is not uncommon among biotech firms, which frequently license intellectual property from other institutions. In extreme cases, ugly intellectual property disputes can destroy entire companies. Such was the case with CellPro, a Bothell, Wash.-based biotech that lost a patent dispute with Baxter International in the late 1990s. The saga ended in bankruptcy for CellPro and the loss of a promising Leukemia treatment.
There’s no indication that Adaptive and Fred Hutch are on a path for a legal fight.
“Harlan stepped down as a full-time faculty member to become a full-time employee of Adaptive Biotechnologies. He’ll continue his association with Fred Hutch, and we look forward to an ongoing and collaborative relationship with Adaptive and Harlan,” a Fred Hutch spokesperson said in an email.
Fred Hutch lists 32 startups — including Juno Therapeutics, Blaze Bioscience and Faraday Pharmaceuticals — that have spun out of the research organization.
Adaptive declined to comment on Robins’ departure, saying it was respecting the quiet period imposed on companies by government regulators prior to an IPO.
Robins’ dual employment with Adaptive and Fred Hutch over the past decade may prove problematic should a conflict over intellectual property ever arise. “When somebody has dual roles, knowing which role they’re playing at which time can be hard to decipher after the fact,” said Katherine Rubino, a patent attorney who specializes in biotechnology at Caldwell Intellectual Property Law. “A lot of times these kinds of situations have to end up getting figured out in mediation or through the court system.”
However, the two organizations may also have agreements in place to settle any disagreements on friendlier ground, Rubino said.
Adaptive was founded after Harlan approached his brother Chad Robins in 2009 with an idea to commercialize technology that he had created to sequence the human immune system.
Harlan’s work at Fred Hutch gave rise to Adaptive’s immunosequencing platform, which the company wants to use to create a universal blood test and develop new cancer treatments. To do that, it has forged partnerships with industry giants Microsoft and Genentech.
After initially seeking $230 million in its upcoming IPO, Adaptive indicated in a filing today that it’s now looking to raise $244 million from investors at an offering price of $17 per share.
In the IPO documents, Adaptive said that it secured exclusive licenses on 128 patents and patent applications resulting from Harlan’s work at Fred Hutch. Exclusive licenses ensure that no other companies can use the technology during a set period of time, which can extend to the full 20-year life of the patent.
Adaptive said its patent strategy is to “to build a defensible moat around technology we use as well as what others might develop to design around our position.”