- June 15, 2018
A nationwide parade of 50 senior-level chemical and agricultural executives, some from multibillion-dollar businesses, flew into Bradenton in the late 2000s to visit a tiny research and development firm.
The company, Developmental Technologies Inc., has no sales.
Yet what the firm does have, says Executive Vice President Dave Conklin, is 20 global patents on something called Eco-Ag. It's a plant-responsive irrigation system where water is delivered to plants when the plants need it, not the traditional way, from a computerized timer. Developmental Technologies didn't invent the product. But the owners, Bradenton husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Mike and Jan Gould, have spent nearly a decade and at least $7 million of their own money testing and developing it.
The goal with the invitations to the big firms was to find a partner. Maybe team up with a manufacturer or a distributor, or even license the technology. “We are using dramatically less water to get dramatically better results,” Conklin says. “We think this is a game-changing product that would revolutionize agriculture.”
It appears irrigation and agriculture business Valmont Industries and chemical firm DuPont, industry giants with a combined $38 billion in annual sales, might have had similar thoughts. Multiple officials with those firms visited Developmental Technologies' office under non-disclosure agreements to take a look at Eco-Ag in 2009, says Mike Gould and Conklin. DuPont executives came back again several more times in 2010. The executives probed over installation procedures, technical data and sales projections. “They never saw the ultimate secret sauce,” says Gould. “But they saw everything else.”
Now Developmental Technologies, in a lawsuit filed in U.S. Federal Court in Tampa Nov. 7, accuses those two firms of stealing its trade secrets and violating terms of the non-disclosure agreement.
DuPont and Valmont, the suit contends, launched a company called Root Demand Irrigation that sells something similar to Eco-Ag. “At a certain point they decided to move ahead with their own products,” says Conklin. “Once we became aware of this, we decided to stand our ground.”
Adds Mike Gould: “This isn't right. It stinks.”
Developmental Technologies, according to its attorney, Woody Pollack with GrayRobinson in Tampa, seeks “significant damages” and the return of its trade secrets. “The non-disclosure agreements forbid the use of the confidential information for the defendants' benefit and forbid permitting others to use the confidential information for their benefit or to the detriment of Developmental Technologies,” the suit states.
An attorney for DuPont in the case, Karen Dyer with Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Orlando, declined to comment. Dyer brings some star power to the case: The wife of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, she's a prominent commercial litigator, with clients that include Florida Power & Light, SeaWorld and a major tobacco company. She also recently handled a case involving a constitutional dispute over legislative redistricting in Florida. The chairman of her firm, where she's a senior level partner, is renowned lawyer David Boies, lead attorney for former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 Florida election recount.
A spokesman for Omaha, Neb.-based Valmont Industries says the firm doesn't comment on ongoing litigation. Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont spokesman Dan Turner says the firm is “confident the allegations against DuPont are without merit and we will vigorously defend against these allegations.”
The Goulds are new to fighting back against business heavyweights. The couple moved from Chicago to Sarasota in 1999 to work for insurance firm Zenith and were laid off within months. With their 401(k) and savings from past jobs, the Goulds started their own insurance business out of a home office in an attic.
That firm, Gould & Lamb, quickly became a national pioneer in the Medicare Set Aside industry. These are firms that project lifetime costs on a Medicare insurance claim. Gould & Lamb grew from $250,000 in sales and four employees in 2001 to more than $41 million in sales and 300 employees by 2009.
The Goulds had sold the company to a private equity firm by that time. “We made some decent money,” says Mike Gould, “so we wanted to give something back.”
That something was the water-saving technology in Eco-Ag. Mike Gould admits he was skeptical at first, when a business partner told him about the technology and patent that was for sale. Says Gould: “I thought, what am I going to do with a patent? Put it on a wall?”
Instead he put it to work. He hired a few scientists and engineers, with a payroll that grew to nine people for a time. The firm tested the system indoors first, and then in fields in east Bradenton. “Our office looked like a laboratory,” Gould says. “It's been quite a few years of mom-and-pop trial and error.”
Conklin says the firm later tested the system on a variety of fruits and vegetables, with a concentration on high-value produce like tomatoes, peppers and onions. It eventually tested it on soil outside Florida, including Nebraska. “We went to anywhere we could where people wanted to increase yield by using less water and less fertilizer,” Conklin says.
The tests, says Conklin, found one constant: The highly developed polymers in the Eco-Ag irrigation system allowed crops to get water and nutrients faster and easier than with traditional systems. “We didn't want to reinvent the wheel,” says Conklin. “We wanted to make it better and cheaper.”
'What the hell'
The next big challenge the company faced was how to get the product to market. That's why Gould and Conklin brought in outside firms, with a non-disclosure agreement the only ticket to entry. They wanted to find a partner that could bring Eco-Ag to market quickly, but they also sought validation of their work.
“We wanted to show people we weren't cranks,” says Conklin. “That we were the real deal.”
DuPont and Valmont, at first, looked like winners. But after several meetings, according to Gould and allegations in the lawsuit, the chemical and agriculture firms made an unreasonable offer in terms of sales requirements. “They made the proposal so ludicrous,” says Gould, “that we would never hit the benchmarks.”
So Gould turned down DuPont and Valmont. Four years passed. Conklin kept plugging away, testing and looking for partners. The firm also moved toward contract manufacturing of the product.
Then, in early 2014, Conklin received a Google alert about Root Demand Irrigation. “The technology of Valmont Irrigation and the science of DuPont combine to provide a plant-driven irrigation solution that allows you to maximize production on all your acres, especially corners and hard-to-reach areas,” reads a line on the entity's website.
The pictures and diagrams on the site, says Conklin, were eerily similar to what Developmental Technologies showed the executives five years ago. “I was wondering what the hell was going on,” says Conklin. “There were so many things that we showed them that were in their presentation.”
The next step was to hire Pollack with GrayRobinson, who focuses on patent, trademark and trade secret litigation. Pollack has a master's degree in computer science from Stanford University and was a software engineer in Silicon Valley before law school.
Pollack has handled other cases where a company sues a larger firm for similar allegations. This case, he says, will go through standard settlement discussions before a possible trial. “It's not unusual for a small firm to fight tooth and nail in a trade secret case like this against a Goliath,” says Pollack, “because this is all the David has.”
Company. Developmental Technologies Industry. Agriculture Key. Firm says a pair of multibillion-dollar companies stole its trade secrets.