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WSU, Biotech Firm Fighting Over Cosmic Crisp Apple

Something has gone sour between Washington State University and a Seattle-based biotech company. It's over a new, highly-prized apple variety that has not yet hit the market.

After 20 years of study, WSU researchers developed a new apple called the Cosmic Crisp. It’s a blend of a Honeycrisp and a red variety called Enterprise. It has farmers excited because it lasts a long time in storage and is juicy and tasty.

WSU worked with a Seattle-based company, Phytelligence, to grow some of those trees. Then, according to Washington State University’s spokesman Phil Weiler, the company allegedly sold the young starts without permission. 

“Frankly, we don’t know where that plant material is,” he said. “One of the things that we are asking for in our countersuits is to be able to make sure either that plant material is turned over back to the University or it’s destroyed.”

But Phytelligence had sued the university first, claiming that WSU blocked it from licensing the new variety.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would have taken this long to get a pretty run of the mill, standard license," said company CEO Ken Hunt. "And we’ve licensed plenty of other things from the university. It’s just surprising that the time ran out.”

Hunt said he had to cancel multiple large orders from farmers. 

"Our efforts have been met with repeated delays and misinformation, ultimately preventing us from propagating Cosmic Crisp to date. During this time, Washington state growers have become increasingly frustrated with unnecessarily restricted access to Cosmic Crisp," according to a statement on Phytelligence's website

WSU says the biotech company broke its contract and infringed on the university’s patent and has a lot of plant material that either needs to be returned to WSU or destroyed. The university claims these unlicensed trees threaten the careful quality control of its newly-branded variety and steals from farmers who invested in its development.

The parties have filed three lawsuits in state and federal court. In the state case, a trial is set for February 2019. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated. 

In full disclosure, Anna King is a Washington State University employee.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.