ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Bodybuilders in a legal battle over a common dietary supplement - throw a top university into the mix, and that gets attention. Well, it got the attention of NPR's Laura Sydell.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Bodybuilder number one, Jared Wheat - regular churchgoer, drives an old Lamborghini. Not in as good shape as he used to be.
JARED WHEAT: Not quite as muscular anymore, got a little - little layer over my six pack. But short of that, still have a little bit of muscle left.
SYDELL: These days, Wheat runs a dietary supplement company called Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals. Among its offerings - Jack'd Up for pre-workout and Stamina Rx for virility. Former bodybuilder number two - Ron Kramer, CEO of ThermoLife. He wouldn't talk to us for this story, but he's easy enough to find on the Internet. This is from a video of him at a bodybuilding competition on L.A.'s Muscle Beach. He's surrounded by women in silver bikinis, and he looks a little like Hulk Hogan in a bright bandana and sunglasses.
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RON KRAMER: ThermoLife is going to be in the house, giving out the love, giving out a lot of promotional items.
SYDELL: Kramer has his own supplement company, though 7 out of 9 of its products were out of stock the two-dozen times I tried to buy them over the last year. What Kramer does have are patents on a common ingredient in workout supplements, arginine, an amino acid that's been popular with body builders for decades. According to the patent research firm Lex Machina, Kramer used those patents to sue 91 companies - almost the entire supplement industry, including bodybuilder number one, Jared Wheat. Wheat is fighting back in court. And when he took a closer look at the patents, he was surprised to see where they came from in the first place - Stanford University.
WHEAT: Which I thought was very odd.
SYDELL: Why do you think it was odd?
WHEAT: Just seemed odd to me that Stanford University, who's one of the top-10 prestigious universities in America, would get in bed, for lack of a better word, with someone like ThermoLife.
SYDELL: The patents were based on research done in the early 1990s by a Stanford professor. The research indicated that arginine could help people with clogged arteries, a finding that's since been disproved. And so these patents sat on the shelf at Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing. I asked Katharine Ku, the director of the office, why they license these patents to a former bodybuilder who's using them to sue the entire supplement industry.
KATHARINE KU: You have an angle on this one that is not legit to me.
SYDELL: Really, you don't think so?
KU: I mean, they are a company. They sell product.
SYDELL: Some people have argued they don't really.
KU: I know.
SYDELL: That's why I was asking how much - how much investigation into somebody you're about to license something to are your people going to do.
KU: I don't think we're going to look into their personal backgrounds.
SYDELL: Or the - you know, how much of the history of his company, for example.
KU: We probably wouldn't.
SYDELL: Lots of universities have offices that license out their patents. Congress even passed a law to encourage it in 1980 called Bayh-Dole. The act was designed to get federally funded university research out of the academy and into the hands of companies that could create products and put them in the hands of consumers. The act was not meant to be used as a legal sledgehammer. But keeping up a patent office is expensive. There are legal fees, salaries at licensing offices. A recent study from Bloomberg showed that close to 90 percent of university licensing offices either lose money or just break even on their patents. So the pressure is on to license out patents and get some money. And sometimes, universities license patents that end up in some unexpected places, like a battle between bodybuilders. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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