Motif FoodWorks challenges validity of Impossible Foods patent as plant-based meat IP battle heats up

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Meaty dispute: Motif FoodWorks is challenging the validity of a patent it argues should never have been issued to Impossible Foods. Image: GettyImages-rocky89
Meaty dispute: Motif FoodWorks is challenging the validity of a patent it argues should never have been issued to Impossible Foods. Image: GettyImages-rocky89

Related tags Motif Foodworks Impossible Foods heme myoglobin soy leghemoglobin HEMAMI

Motif FoodWorks has upped the ante in a high-stakes legal dispute with plant-based meat co Impossible Foods over meaty-tasting ‘heme’ ingredients by filing a petition with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board to challenge the validity of a patent it argues should never have been issued to Impossible Foods.

The patent​ ​– issued in 2020, covers the application of Impossible Foods’ flagship heme ingredient in meat substitutes – and is at the center of a lawsuit​ filed by Impossible Foods against Motif last month accusing it of patent infringement.   

Both companies use a genetically engineered strain of Pichia pastoris​​ yeast to express heme-containing proteins that impart ‘meaty’ flavors and colors to meat alternatives.

Impossible Foods’ ‘heme’ is identical to soy leghemoglobin, a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy; while Motif FoodWorks’ new HEMAMI ​ingredient is identical to bovine myoglobin, a heme-binding protein found in the muscle tissue of cows.

While structurally similar, Motif says the two proteins are “fundamentally different, and deliver different flavor and aroma benefits."

However, Impossible Foods argues that Motif "has been and is now infringing at least claim 1 of the ’761 Patent in the United States by, among other things, directly or through intermediaries, making, using, selling, and/or offering for sale an imitation burger including HEMAMI.”

Impossible Foods' claim re. denatured protein in fat replica were well documented in prior art, argues Motif

In an 87-page petition​ ​requesting an inter partes review of the patent at issue (USpatent 10,863,761​),​ Motif wades through reams of prior art (relevant patents and literature) which it claims was public before the earliest date that Impossible claims to have ‘discovered’ its invention, in a bid to persuade the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to revoke the patent.

At the same time, Motif explains that it plans to file a motion asking the district court in Delaware (where Impossible Foods' lawsuit was filed) to stay the litigation pending the action with the patent office, which, it argues, is likely to be resolved before the case would reasonably be likely to go to trial.

If the patent office cancels the patent, this would in turn render the district court litigation moot.  

How does an inter partes review process work?

According to the USPTO,​ the patent holder (ie. Impossible Foods) must respond to a petition within three months, while the PTAB then has a further three months in which to make a preliminary decision on whether to proceed with an inter partes review.

After that, a decision can be expected within a year (during which time parties will provide expert reports and depositions before a panel of technically-trained administrative patent judges), such that the whole process should take no longer than two years.

What does the petition say?

Motif says the USPTO examiner had rejected Impossible Foods' asserted patent’s ‘parent’ patent filing (the ‘221 application) numerous times over the course of after five years because it claimed inventions that were already disclosed in the prior art.

However, the examiner went on to approve a subsequent filing (the ‘697 application, which matured into the contested ‘761 patent) after Impossible Foods amended the claims to require a “fat replica comprising at least one plant oil and denatured plant protein,” ​which it argued was novel, but Motif says is in fact also well documented in the prior art.

“The ’761 patent was allowed because the Examiner (incorrectly) found that no substantively considered prior art reference disclosed a denatured plant protein in a fat replica.”

According to Motif, and as the USPTO examiner previously found: “The purportedly desirable aroma of patent owner’s ​[Impossible Foods’] products is the natural—and unpatentable—result of the prior art combination.”

Download the petition HERE​.

Motif: ‘Our industry should work together to grow the plant-based category for the greater good’

A Motif spokesperson said: “We are confident the Patent Trial and Appeal Board will agree with our view that the patent never should have been issued and revoke it.

“Impossible’s claims are a legally and factually baseless attempt to stifle innovation and limit consumer choice to preserve its own profits.

“Our industry should work together to grow the plant-based category for the greater good, to benefit people and the planet. Competition is healthy, and it should play out in the marketplace, not the courts.”

Impossible Foods: A 'deliberate and unauthorized infringement of our IP'

An Impossible Foods spokesperson dismissed the action as a "stunt" in a statement sent to FoodNavigator-USA this afternoon, adding: "Motif's stunt is a baseless and meritless attempt to distract from the fact that they have infringed on our patent and are unlawfully using our technology to build their business.

"Furthermore, Motif's misleading claim that bovine myoglobin is 'fundamentally different' from Impossible Foods’ heme protein is irrelevant and doesn't change the fact that they have infringed. We're confident in the strength of our patent and that we will prevail both in the District Court and before the Patent Office."

Speaking to us last month about its decision to sue Motif FoodWorks for patent infringement, the company said: We applaud other companies’ efforts to develop compelling plant-based products, but we do not tolerate attempts to undermine our brand or products through the deliberate and unauthorized infringement of our intellectual property.” 

* Impossible Foods v Motif FoodWorks. Case #1:22-cv-00311 filed March 9, 2022 in Delaware.

Mike Leonard Motif FoodWorks ExpoWest 22 cropped

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Expo West​ trade show in Anaheim a day after being accused by Impossible Foods of patent infringement​​​, Motif FoodWorks CTO Dr Mike Leonard said Motif's HEMAMI myoglobin, while structurally similar to soy leghemoglobin, is “fundamentally different, and delivers different flavor and aroma benefits.” 

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