A McGill MBA team competing for a $1 million prize in a prestigious business plan competition is embroiled in a dispute with a PhD student who claims ownership of the idea.
The dispute concerns a kit that allows people in the developing world to grow crickets for human consumption and as a way to generate income. The idea was entered into the Hult Prize competition by a five-member MBA team from McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, which is now one of six regional finalists chosen from more than 10,000 applicants in more than 150 countries. The regional finalists spend two months in the Hult accelerator, a boot-camp style startup incubator where they receive coaching and refine their ideas. The grand prize winner will be named on Sept. 23 in New York City, with the $1 million in startup funding awarded by former President Bill Clinton.
Jakub Dzamba, a PhD candidate in architecture at McGill, says he first came up with the idea in 2009. He filed a report of invention with the school in August 2012, laying claim to the idea. In February of this year, the McGill team approached Dzamba, who had already received some press attention for the idea, for help developing its presentation for the regional competition in March. Dzamba says the team knew of his research on cricket farming and wanted his help designing a farming kit for the Hult Prize entry. He ultimately produced some of the graphics used for the team’s presentation, including several showing the collapsible “cricket reactor” he designed for the team.
Dzamba says he believed he had a verbal agreement with the team that he would be made a member of the team or a partner in any company it formed if it won the regional competition. He says that when the team won the regionals, that didn’t happen. “They took my work and called it their own,” he says.
The team disputes Dzamba’s account and contends that the Hult entry was based on “internal team research and not on concepts provided by [Dzamba] or other parties,” according to a statement e-mailed by team member Jesse Pearlstein. Dzamba’s work was “not material” to its win at the Boston regional finals, Pearlstein wrote. Team members declined requests for an interview and did not answer follow-up questions via e-mail.
The cricket-farming idea is designed to address the global food crisis by providing a low-cost nutritious protein source for the developing world. The cricket farm itself is a collapsible, portable device that makes it easy to feed, breed, and harvest thousands of insects in the sanitary conditions necessary for food-grade crickets. The business model that the Hult team presented anticipates farmers using crickets to supplement the local diet and selling any excess back to the company for use in flour and other cricket-enhanced foods.
The university, after reviewing both Dzamba’s work and the McGill team’s presentation, has filed a provisional patent application declaring Dzamba as the sole inventor, says Mark Weber, a commercialization officer at McGill’s Office of Sponsored Research. Members of the Hult team did not meet the criteria for co-inventor, he said, which includes both having the idea and having the ability to execute it. Dzamba had been working on the idea as part of his doctoral research before the Hult competition began: “[Dzamba] had the idea, and he knows how to do it,” Weber says.
In an effort to resolve the dispute, McGill administrators met with the two sides in June and drafted a memorandum last month suggesting a framework for a resolution that includes barring members of the Hult Prize team from using the invention. The administrators in the August memo said Dzamba made a “substantive contribution” to the team’s effort that deserves recognition, but there is “no evidence” that the team’s contributions warranted the status of co-inventor for the patent.
Since the August memo, however, negotiations between Dzamba and the team have broken down, with the Hult Prize team at one point threatening legal action against Dzamba, according to a copy of an e-mail from team member Gabe Mott supplied by Dzamba. Talks restarted this week, but no agreement has been reached.
The dispute will not prevent the McGill team from competing for the Hult Prize. While the origins of the cricket farm device are in dispute, Michael Lu, a vice president at Hult International Business School, which sponsors the competition, says the judges focus more on the business model than the device itself. Hult organizers believe “the designs provided are not central to the McGill team’s business idea and therefore did not contribute to them either winning the Boston regional round or their prospects of winning the $1 million prize,” Lu says.
Lu says, however, that should the McGill team win, it will need to sign an agreement stating that its plans won’t violate any laws, in the U.S. or abroad, including intellectual-property laws. If the team’s plan does violate any laws, it would be ineligible to receive the cash, he says.