Mirina Vs. Marina: The Looming Court Battle Over Biotech Company Names
[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 A previous version said Marina's market cap was $32 million, based on an outdated figure from Yahoo Finance that didn't factor in Marina's acquisition of Cequent.]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.
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.