- Global stevia giant PureCircle filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against competitor Almendra in a Georgia federal court last week. PureCircle claims that Almendra's Steviarome product infringes on patents it received last year for a particular steviol glycoside.
- PureCircle, which owns or co-owns more than 75 U.S. patents for stevia, claims in its lawsuit that Steviarome exhibits several of the characteristics outlined in its patent. These characteristics include the proportion and type of steviol glycosides in the product. PureCircle said it has repeatedly made Almendra aware of its patent infringement — both for the patent received last year and other patented discoveries PureCircle made that led up to its development.
- Almendra applied for a U.S. patent for Steviarome last October. It was approved on March 31.
As one of the oldest players in the stevia market, PureCircle has a history of innovations, product development and improvements in cultivating and extracting the natural sweetener. And this is the company's latest example of pulling out all of the stops to protect its work and place in the market, making its third patent lawsuit filed since 2017.
While PureCircle is a global stevia leader, it makes sense that the company wants to protect itself from any potential competitors. Consumers everywhere are looking to natural sweetening alternatives to replace sugar. Stevia, which is sustainably raised, all natural, sweeter than sugar and has no calories, is one of the food and beverage industry's top alternatives. According to Super Market Research, the stevia market was worth nearly $480 million worldwide in 2018. The research firm expects the natural sweetener's market to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 8.5% through 2024.
However, it's unclear if this lawsuit is the best way for PureCircle to protect its patent. Almendra's Steviarome received generally recognized as safe status from the U.S. Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association in 2016, so it's been available for years. But the patent PureCircle says Steviarome infringes on was just issued in September. PureCircle first applied for the patent in February 2017, meaning it came after Steviarome was out. However, after Steviarome received GRAS status from the flavor group, it took about three years to file its own patent application.
This is not the first time PureCircle has gone to court to defend its patents. In September 2018, it filed a lawsuit against competitor SweeGen, claiming the producer was infringing on its patent to use an enzyme to convert glycoside Rebaudioside D into the more desiriable Rebaudioside M. In response, SweeGen filed for a review with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This challenge was denied in October, clearing the way for the lawsuit to move forward.
PureCircle was successful in an earlier patent dispute, against stevia producer Sweet Green Fields. In 2017, PureCircle filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission claiming Sweet Green Fields' Natrose product, which it was importing, violated a PureCircle patent in the United States. The dispute was resolved less than six months later, with Sweet Green Fields signing a licensing agreement with PureCircle.
However, success is not guaranteed. According to a patent litigation study from PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2018, companies have just a 31% success rate in patent cases.
Days after this lawsuit was filed, global ingredients giant Ingredion agreed to acquire 75% of PureCircle. The deal, set to close in the second half of the year as long as PureCircle shareholders approve, will help the stevia company, which posted a $79.7 million loss in a much-delayed financial report from 2019. The loss stemmed from years of accounting issues, and PureCircle was exploring several drastic financing options before the acquisition was announced. Ingredion does not have these kinds of financial issues, and PureCircle's new owners will have deeper pockets to finance the fight.
Unlike PureCircle, Ingredion does not have a track record of litigation against other companies in its ingredient spaces. However, the larger company has also battled SweeGen in the courtroom. Ingredion, which doesn't currently have any stevia ingredients of its own, had a distribution agreement with SweeGen to sell its Bestevia to its customers. Last year, Ingredion sued SweeGen in federal court, saying the stevia company had violated their agreement by doing its own direct marketing. The lawsuit was dismissed in September as the two parties went to an arbitrator to work out the contract.