Category Archives: Comment

SGB Jatropha patent application published

A somewhat confusing patent application by SG Biofuels Ltd (KY), a Grand Cayman Islands company, has been published recently in several versions. Here is the official European link:

EP2521438  (A1) – 2012-11-14 - JATROPHA HYBRIDS THROUGH FEMALE ONLY TRAIT

And the US Version: US2012324783  (A1) – 2012-12-27

Several further international applications exist and a provisional US application No. 61/292751, dated January 6, 2010 is quoted for priority rights.

Explaining all the weird technicalities of international plant patents and the differences between US and European rules is not the purpose of this article. However, it should be noted, that the claims between the European and the US version differ substantially, obviously in order to adjust them to the corresponding requirements and take maximum advantage of them. As priority based on the US provisional application is claimed also for the European version the differing claims might become a serious technical hurdle for the issuance of a European patent.

On a side note, if you want to know more about patenting plants in Europe have a look at this excellent presentation “Latest Developments in Patenting Plant Inventions in Europe”.

Putting law and regulations aside, lets analyze the claims a little bit:

  1. “A Jatropha curcas plant characterized by an inflorescence with only female flowers.”  is the first central claim. Later on they call this the “FO trait” in an obvious attempt to avoid the common term “male sterile”. So in essence, this seems to be a business idea, to claim IP rights to all male sterile Jatropha plants and their use! It is absolutely possible within US and European rules to patent a certain plant trait. Now lets see, an invention needs to be “novel and inventive teaching”. That’s why they claim, their “FO trait” somehow emerged during their breeding activities. That would definitely make it “novel and inventive”. However, later they also claim the plant with the “FO trait” to be a homozygous (relative to the trait) and an inbred line. That is technically impossible for a male sterile, at least if it derives from an “novel and inventive” cross.
  2. Further, a wild plant can never be patented, even if it is discovered for the first time. That is also true for all traits of said wild plant. As we want to keep ourselves and fellow Jatropha breeders safe for the future, we have no choice but to disclose: Bionic Palm is in the possession of several male sterile Jatropha plants deriving directly from seeds that have been collected from wild plants at the center of origin. Specifically one of those plants has been grown from seeds collected from a wild Jatropha curcas L. bush in the South-West of Guatemala. We are in the possession of exact GPS coordinates of the mother plants location. The behavior of that male sterile plant is completely identical with anything described as the “FO trait” in the SGB patent application. (In the next few days we will publish a document which will fully disclose all our findings regarding our male sterile accession from Guatemala origin)
  3. Further, the SGB patent claims ownership over a most common and widely taught production technology for F1 hybrid seeds: a planting pattern for a seed farm combining a male sterile accession with another inbred superior accession for natural pollination. The only part “inventive and novel” in this claim is, that such a technology is combined with the word “Jatropha”. Other than that this could be copied straight from a breeders handbook! This seems to be an attempt to force major parts of a future Jatropha industry into paying royalties to SGB in case the application would be successful.
  4. And finally it is very interesting to see the new direction the claims in the US version are taking. Here the patent application seeks control over all derived fuels from Jatropha seeds originally produced using the above method. That is driven by the idea, that where ever in the world the seeds have been grown, once the product enters the US and the seed production method applies royalties can be forced on the importer.  

What can be the purpose of an otherwise meaningless patent like this one?

I want to leave the answer to this question to the reader and just ask 2 simple questions:

  1. Is the ailing Jatropha industry ready for patent wars as we see them unfolding in the mobile handset or the software industries?
  2. Is SGB trying to follow a Monsanto principle? Roundup and Canola are still well known at least to the agric experts…

What do we at Bionic Palm intend to do?

Well, we will do what ever we can to keep these applications to be turned into patents. We believe, publicly disclosing the ownership of above mentioned wild male sterile from Guatemala should do the trick. But we will also make sure, that this disclosure document will get to all patent offices concerned.

We will definitely keep you posted on any further developments.

 

Jatropha, a plant with a future – new report from Hardman&Co

Its report season… another one on Jatropha has just been published. Actually this one I had awaited for several months. Finally it has been released today. They titled it “Jatropha – Plant with a future” and it has been released by Hardman&Co, a UK based corporate research specialist for the financial industry. The PDF can be downloaded here or directly at their website.

After their excellent last report on Jatropha investment expectations were running high for this latest edition focusing exclusively on the development of improved Jatropha planting material. However, I find myself a little disappointed as this report mainly focuses on a handful of well known developers and obviously their response to telephone interviews. While the information contained is definitely interesting and well researched, I miss a more independent assessment of the actual development status and the possible paths forward for the evolving industry.

My disappointment was even greater when I realized that the huge global scene of independent developers have not been mentioned with one word. I have been watching the handful “incumbent” organisations mentioned in the report over the years and I don’t believe any of them will deliver the break trough developments the industry is desperately waiting for. Instead, I expect a lot more from the loosely connected modern networks which are working on Jatropha around the globe. What I see is somewhat similar to modern open-source software development. We are an active member of this scene.

Admittedly it is more difficult to explore that parallel universe of Jatropha development, because proper research requires a lot more insight into the subject itself. But it is also the only way to figure out and report what’s really going on in Jatropha development  Therefore I am seriously contemplating about sitting down for a couple of days myself to complement this report with a second one from the independent networked Jatropha development domain.

Actually, it’s the main purpose of this very website too to share more information about Jatropha development when it becomes available. So after reading the report please come back here and let’s discuss some of the “facts”:

For example, the world market price of soybean meal is not USD 300 (as claimed in the report) but actually over USD 450 per metric ton.

Or why is it, that we have announced, improved, high yielding planting material can be made available to any project within 18-24 months via our localized client site breeding services? The report says it will take to the end of the decade for improved material to become widely available! An unacceptable timeline for anyone interested in Jatropha farming today.

Where is the Jatropha industry headed in 2012?

This is the first post after reformatting this blog and transferring it from wordpress.com to our own domain. So welcome back to this renewed effort of bringing more insight about a fascinating plant to a wider audience. Today I will comment on recent industry and put it in the context of the general development of the Jatropha industry in 2012.

A lot of significant changes occurred in the industry over the recent year. I like to look at them from the perspective of an obvious ongoing move from generation 1 to generation 2 in the development of new Jatropha curcas projects around the world. The focus is still restricted on Jatropha as a commercially viable energy crop. While the more recent years already saw the majority of the generation 1 projects radically cut back or disappear all together, in 2011 we saw a few more serious generation 1 protagonists leave the scene. Above all Sun Biofuels Ltd., a UK company active in Mozambique and Tanzania suspended operations in October after a very upbeat report in Businessweek only a few months earlier. And only a few days ago the incumbent self-declared Jatropha heavy weight Mission NewEnergy Limited publicly announced a severe scale back of their Jatropha operations after admitting extremely disappointing harvesting results in 2011. Had they only listened to us 2 years earlier… ;)

Here are the key statements from Mission’s news announcement and my personal comments about them:

“The harvest is significantly lower than company expectations.”

—> How come they woke up all of a sudden? Welcome to reality…

“The company believes that the lower than expected harvest season is a result of historically planting wild seed varieties which have large yield variability in its early years of growth before the trees mature.”

—> Seems like they are among the last in the industry finally realizing what was written in endless reports over and over again the last 2 years.

“The Company expects maturity to be achieved in the seventh year of planting.”

—> They still prefer to dream on. Their current planting material will simply never become a winner how ever long they wait.

“The company expects that both productive acreage and yield estimates will be materially down graded and awaits the completion of the 2012 harvest season in December 2012 to provide further clarity.”

—> No reason to wait any longer. Admit complete failure now, apologize to your investors and restructure your business immediately.

“The company has decided not to undertake further planting of Jatropha until yield from existing acreage is determined.”

—> so what are they going to do instead? Just sit on their hands and wait for their investors’ cash to completely melt away?

Now this incident is like a flash back on the phase out of generation 1 projects, but we also saw some clear indications of generation 2 coming up on the horizon. So what should we look for in the next round? Quite simple: Better, commercial planting material coming from truly professional breeders and used by experienced farming professionals (Yes, there are a few around!). The first rank in plant development capabilities I would give to Joil from Singapore as probably the best funded and staffed breeder worldwide today. While I still believe that as a “boutique breeder” we are better positioned for a generation 3 Jatropha strategy with high yielding, non-toxic hybrid cultivars especially for Africa.

And finally a brief look at the ever increasing flow of scientific reports is encouraging too. There is not only an increase in numbers but seemingly also in quality and amount of knowledge established. On a special page I will start listing some of the most important scientific documents for Jatropha development and provide download links whenever possible.

How we became Jatropha breeders

When we originally became interested in growing Jatropha in a synergistic mix with food crops (commonly called inter-cropping) we did not have the slightest intention to move into anything like crop research. We simply intended to find us some good planting material, copy agronomic practices from a planter with more experience than us and get started.

Our initial business plans were based on numbers and “facts” available on the internet which gave us profitability results that looked very good. So we acquired some bush land in the Greater Accra region of Ghana and started a test farm. That was roughly 3 years ago…

Like many others we were soon to find out, that the truth about Jatropha as an energy crop of the future was quite different to the original picture we found. Luckily, we had only started a test farm with a concept that relies on JcL at only 30%. Otherwise we would have not survived like so many other ambitious projects started by others.

In 2009 already I gave my first presentation at a Jatropha conference explaining in detail, why the current approach of the emerging industry could only fail. The core elements of this speech still form a major part of our standard plantation presentation which can by found here. It lines out a number of advances needed to make Jatropha the energy crop everyone wants. A major part of this list is about superior planting material which unsurprisingly is not available today as no domestication process had ever occurred.

We spent some time looking for superior cultivars around the world only to realize, that they are actually not available. consequently we began looking at what would be needed to initiate our own breeding program.

We teamed up with Geneticlab, a private Italian company which had been doing intensive genetic research on Jatropha for some time. Thus we were able to establish a modern, genetic marker assisted hybrid breeding program based on prior detailed genetic diversity studies.

We eventually kicked of the program in early 2010. Intensive study of available scientific reports led to a breeding strategy which was highly ambitious to say the least. Non-toxic interspecific hybrids are at the core of the process, which meant moving on terrain nobody had ever passed for Jatropha.

We decided, to initiate a fast track proof-of-concept (POC) to test the most risky breeding hurdles on the planned development path. The POC will end in December 2011, but today, 5 months before reaching that critical milestone, we can be confident, that all intended interspecific hybrid crosses are actually feasible.

During the POC phase we have also built up a strong selection of proven genetically divers accessions which will form the initial parental material for the main program starting from 2012. These include “commercial” accessions from Asia, Africa and Central America together with true wild accessions. 4 of them have been positively tested as non-toxic, 1 as low toxic. In addition we have established 4 Jatropha species other than Jatropha curcas L. which will be used for interspecific crossings to bring distinctively favorable traits into our future main Jatropha lines.