UC Davis and its lucrative strawberry-breeding program have won an important early victory in a lawsuit filed by two former campus scientists who have formed their own strawberry-breeding company.
A federal judge in San Francisco last week rejected an attempt by the two former UC Davis scientists’ new company, California Berry Cultivars LLC, to gain control of a family of valuable strawberry plants located in a campus greenhouse. U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria rejected California Berry’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have forced UC Davis to turn over copies of the plants to a third-party grower so they can be bred this summer into strawberries.
The judge’s ruling doesn’t end the case, but it suggests California Berry faces an uphill battle. In denying the request, Chhabria wrote that California Berry “has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits” of the case.
The two scientists, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, left the university in late 2014 to start California Berry. The company’s lawsuit says UC Davis is illegally trying to squelch competition by denying the company access to the strawberry plants, which were developed by Shaw and Larson.
The plants, known collectively as the germplasm, can be vital to developing new varieties of strawberries.
California Berry’s suit is the second case filed against the university over the strawberry program, which generates millions in patent royalties for the university. In 2014 the California Strawberry Commission, an association controlled by growers, accused the university in a lawsuit of allowing the breeding program to collapse after Shaw and Larson’s departure. Growers rely heavily on the breeding program; strawberries developed at UC Davis generate about half of California’s $2.6 billion-a-year crop. The Strawberry Commission’s suit was settled after the university hired a replacement for Shaw and Larson.