Mirina Vs. Marina: The Looming Court Battle Over Biotech Company Names

8/16/10Follow @xconomy

[Updated: 9:53 am Pacific, 8/17/10] Two Seattle-area biotech companies vying for a place among the nation’s elite developers of RNA-based drugs are now battling in court over names that make them sound like they’re in the yachting business.

Mirina Corporation, a startup founded in August 2008 inside Seattle’s venture-backed Accelerator, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit today against the recently-renamed Bothell, WA-based Marina Biotech (NASDAQ: MRNAD). The complaint, which asks Marina to stop using its new name and logo, was filed in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington, in Seattle.

This dust-up could’ve been seen coming a mile away. Mirina (pronounced Muh-REE-nuh, just like a place you dock boats) has been seeking to make an impact the past two years in the bleeding-edge world of microRNA therapeutics. It has had some early success, winning a second round of about $3.9 million in an April financing that included Versant Ventures. The company’s concept is to inhibit specific stretches of RNA that regulate how entire networks of proteins are expressed, which is thought to be a promising strategy against complex diseases like diabetes, cancer, and inflammation. This niche within biotech is populated by a lot of companies that apparently like to borrow the scientific shorthand “mir” in their names, including Boulder, CO-based Miragen Therapeutics and Austin, TX-based Mirna Therapeutics.

While those names are similar enough to make things confusing, Mirina was apparently pushed over the edge sometime after July 22. That’s when Bothell, WA-based MDRNA said it had completed an acquisition of another company and decided to re-name itself Marina Biotech. This is the same company that was once called Nastech Pharmaceutical, and re-named itself MDRNA two years ago when it gave up on nasal-spray drugs, and switched its focus to drugs that specifically interfere with certain stretches of RNA. This company, founded in 1983, has accumulated a deficit of more than $263 million according to its most recent quarterly report, and had a market valuation of about $60 million, based on today’s closing stock price. [Corrected: 9:53 am Pacific, 8/17/10. A previous version said Marina's market cap was $32 million, based on an outdated figure from Yahoo Finance that didn't factor in Marina's acquisition of Cequent.]

[Updated: 7:03 pm Pacific, with comment from Accelerator] Carl Weissman, the CEO of Accelerator, where Mirina is housed, said the most recent name change by Marina is bound to cause confusion. “We requested that they change their name. They refused. You will have to ask them to explain their reasoning. This is an outcome that Mirina does not and did not want, but we feel they have left us no choice.”

Peter Garcia, the chief financial officer of Marina Biotech, said the following: “Marina Biotech respects the intellectual property rights of others as we expect others to respect ours. After careful review, we believe that we do not infringe any trademark rights of Mirina Corporation.”

In the legal complaint, Mirina argues that it has been damaged by the confusion created by the new name “Marina Biotech.” The startup Mirina has been promoting itself to investors, partners, and potential employees with its name for about two years, and now considers its name and logo “valuable assets of the company,” the firm says in its legal complaint.mirina1

So when something called Marina emerges with a very similar name, it “deceives, and is likely to deceive, others into believing that Defendant’s services are sponsored by, approved by, or affiliated with Mirina, which they are not,” the complaint reads.

Mirina argues that it told the former MDRNA that it would be creating a conflict if it changed its name to Marina, but the older company went ahead with the name change anyway. Even in just a few weeks since the newly rebranded Marina Biotech revealed its name, Mirina said it has gotten mistaken correspondence intended for the older company.

For what it’s worth, this isn’t really the first time Accelerator has been irritated by a trademark issue. Back in August 2008, Weissman talked about his annoyance at the tendency of various startup incubators around the country to refer to themselves as “accelerators” in a generic sense, like how people refer to a generic tissue as a “Kleenex.” Weissman trademarked the term Accelerator Corporation in 2003 when the venture-backed biotech startup engine was founded.

What do you make of this legal scuffle? Which Mirina or Marina do you think is more likely to prevail? What’s the best way to resolve this dispute? Ideas, suggestions, comments are welcome in the comment space below.

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  • http://web.mit.edu/kdw-lab/people Christopher Pirie

    One would think that the infringing company would be just as concerned as the other with independent and distinctive name recognition. Why would you go out of your way to do this? I wish Seattle biotechs would focus on getting new drugs approved (Dendreon) and stop wasting their time with junk like this.

  • DAphne Zohar

    Hi Luke. It’s always hard to come up with company names, and even harder to do sufficient diligence to ensure no other company has a similar name. However, intentionally misleading people is a bad strategy and also implies that the copycat company is not sufficiently differentiated or doing interesting things on it’s own. Not sure if that’s what happened here…

  • copp

    It may be that Marina made a judgement call that Mirina wasn’t going to be around long enough to make it much of an issue. They’ll be bought out. Maybe by Marina.

  • mpc

    I never knew about the existence of Mirina till I read this article. I’m sure I’m not alone. Small biotechs by nature are strapped for cash, and it could be entirely possible that Mirina is just using this lawsuit against Marina Biotech to draw attention to itself and gain exposure to more investors and capitol. There are a lot of start-up biotechs with similar names, but there aren’t lawsuits everywhere whining about name/identity infringements. C’mon Weissman, you know identity confusion happens in every industry as evidenced by your own quotes from this article. Stop the obvious publicity games and get back to trying to cure people.

  • 1234

    I’m surprised either company, being cash strapped, has the resources to be involved in a very expensive legal battle. That being said, the US is a first to use country with regard to trademarks and therefore, Mirina is likely to prevail since Marina just recently started using the name. If Mirina can actually show consumer confusion I would think it would be a slam dunk.