UW Sues GE, Accusing Industrial Giant of Infringing Patent on Ultrasound Technology

12/1/10Follow @xconomy

[Updated: 4:05 pm] The University of Washington has filed a federal lawsuit against General Electric, in which the university is accusing the industrial giant of infringing on patented technology that is helping GE make major strides in the market for next-generation diagnostic ultrasound machines.

UW filed its complaint against GE (NYSE: GE) earlier this week in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington. The university claims that GE’s Healthcare unit has chosen not to obtain a license or pay royalties to the UW for its invention that enables doctors to combine ultrasound and other images like those from an MRI. The invention, from the lab of Yongmin Kim, was granted a patent, 6,775,404, in 2004. GE has known about it since at least June 2009, the university contends in its complaint.

Real money is at stake in this case, even for an institution as big as UW with a $1 billion annual research budget. UW argues that GE must pay for a license to the invention from Kim and his medical imaging colleagues in the bioengineering department, because GE uses the technology in its Logiq E9 ultrasound device. The U.S. ultrasound market alone is worth $1.2 billion a year, and GE has been on a tear in this field, boosting its market share from 10 percent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2009 in the fastest growing ultrasound market segments, according to a report from Millennium Research Group. GE’s Logiq E9 and Venue 40 were specifically cited as products enabling the company to grab market share from competitors like Philips Medical Systems and Siemens, according to the Millennium report.

UW says in its complaint that its invention is the sort of thing that enables physicians to get a good look at “real-time intraoperative information contained in ultrasound images with the rich anatomical content” from MRI and CT scanning images taken prior to surgery. One application of the technology, UW says, is that it can enable neurosurgeons to precisely guide their tools inside the brain.

GE introduced the Logiq E9 back in September 2008, and at the time, medical device industry publication Medgadget called it “the next plane” in ultrasound. “The beauty of LOGIQ E9 is in its new image technology and real-time capability to merge an ongoing ultrasound exam with previously acquired CT, MR or ultrasound images,” Medgadget wrote at the time.

[Update with GE response] A spokesman for GE Healthcare said the company, as a matter of policy, does not comment on pending lawsuits.

UW is asking the court to order an end to what it sees as GE’s infringement, and for the company to pay damages, which could come in the form of a royalty rate on product sales.

This is thought to be the first time UW has brought a patent infringement case against General Electric, says UW spokesman Norm Arkans. The university has benefitted in the past from some sponsored research by GE in its radiology, cardiology, and mechanical engineering departments, and the company has occasionally donated equipment, Arkans says. But the two parties apparently disagree on whether GE needs to pay for a license to the invention from the Kim lab. GE hasn’t sponsored any research in the Kim lab, Arkans says.

“Our view is we have a serious responsibility to protect the intellectual property of our faculty that emerges from their research,” Arkans says. “There is a process in this country for protecting IP, and it’s through the patent office. We believe this is an invention by Yongmin and his colleagues that has been properly registered. If a commercial entity wants to use it, it should be licensed.”

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