Students file lawsuit against Trinity-affiliated engineering firm

As most Trinity students were moving back onto campus after winter break, two former Stumberg finalists had a more dramatic start to their semester: On Jan. 13, just two days before classes began, junior Andrew Aertker and senior Gavin Buchanan were busy filing a lawsuit.

Aertker and Buchanan are co-founders of their business PATCH (Pill-Administering Technology for Compliance Healthcare). Their product is a pill bottle cap that tracks whether patients take their medication and sends the information to clinical trial specialists. The ownership of this technology is the center of their pending litigation.

The two students brought their idea to the 2018 Stumberg Competition, at which they secured a position as one of the four finalists. It was after that competition that they met Doug Conyers: a team leader of the engineering firm BJN Technologies, a Trinity alumnus and a defendant of PATCH’s filed complaint.

Conyers, who graduated from Trinity in 1997, was a member of the Alumni Association Board when Buchanan and Aertker met him in the spring of 2018. This past summer, Conyers was elected president of that board.

Additionally, BJN has a history of working with Trinity and Trinity entrepreneurs, having been a part of Students + Startups (S+S).

According to Buchanan and Aertker, this Trinity affiliation made it feel natural to trust Conyers. The duo was connected with BJN as a potential manufacturer of their pill-bottle cap, and Conyers acted as an informal mentor to them.

As part of the Stumberg Summer Accelerator program, PATCH had access to Trinity’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS), a program adopted from MIT, but Conyers was never an official mentor to Aertker or Buchanan through this service.

In Summer 2018, after PATCH became Stumberg finalists, the company formally incorporated and began to pay BJN to help them work on the manufacturing of the product. PATCH agreed “to pay BJN the applicable hourly rates for the services performed in providing research and development engineering services related to the PATCH products,” according to the complaint filed in January.

Fall 2018, PATCH received an unprecedented, anonymous $10,000 donation, though they did not win the Stumberg Competition.

After a semester and a half of classes and building their company, PATCH became a company partner in S+S for the summer of 2019. Later that summer, BJN approached PATCH and explained that it had been creating a device similar to PATCH’s pill-bottle cap that would operate within a different market, according to Buchanan, and in Fall 2019, BJN presented PATCH’s technology as one of the senior software projects in the Department of Computer Science.

At the time, PATCH and BJN were in the midst of negotiations over the rightful ownership of intellectual property.

“We kind of misplaced trust in hindsight because they never had us sign any formal contractual obligations,” Buchanan said. “Stuff that we now know is standard, that any engineering firm would have you sign before even engaging in any discussion with that: nondisclosures, so they can’t go and make the idea themselves; rights to what is made, what you’re paying for; rights to any [intellectual property]; patenting that results from those things.”

Buchanan said he and Aertker were also initially drawn to work with BJN because the firm was a younger, more ambitious company that seemed to want to help them reify their ideas.

“They presented us with this offer, about working on it together, which we initially thought, ‘OK, this is great, right? We trust them,’” Buchanan said. “Essentially, what they were saying is, we would give them a certain portion of our company. In exchange, they would help build this device for a reduced cost. And there are a lot of, you know, maybe mutual benefits to be had. They would share the profits of the device. Whereas with the first device they said would belong explicitly to us.”

However, after about three months of negotiating, Buchanan said BJN began requesting a majority share of the company.

“All they did was preempt us and save us costs on a device that we were already planning on making and a market that we were already planning on going into,” Buchanan said.

According to the filed complaint, the distinction was the removal of a few features, and Buchanan and Aertker described the device BJN presented as their own as “derivative” of the original PATCH pill-bottle cap. However, during negotiations with BJN, the Trinity students discovered the firm had already filed for intellectual property of the new device.

“We said, ‘Well, that’s that’s not really right.’ You know, we tried to make them understand that this was a derivative of our original device and them trying to compete with a similar device in a similar field with essentially the same device. The circuit board and everything about it was the exact same in many respects,” Buchanan said.

According to Buchanan, the PATCH duo then told BJN that they would switch engineering firms, take their product and its derivative and cut ties with BJN after a year and half of working with them and spending over $80,000.

“We were going to be put in a position where we were looking at, like, our entire future was being kind of taken away,” Buchanan said. “So we were really put in a position where the only way that we could get them to respond was to threaten them legally. That didn’t go anywhere. So we eventually were forced to file a lawsuit in January.”

The lawsuit poses multiple complications for PATCH, according to Buchanan, especially in terms of costs.

“We don’t have an unlimited amount of funding,” Buchanan said. “To file a lawsuit, it jeopardizes our company in its own way, right? But we can’t just recreate, you know, a year’s worth and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of production costs and get an engineering firm and restart. It just wouldn’t have been viable.”

Both Buchanan and Aertker said they feel BJN is prolonging the litigation to apply pressure financially.

“Whether it was or was not the intention, it’s put us in a seriously precarious financial position. And then I mean, really the goal here is for us to get back to what we’re trying to do, which is improve patient outcomes,” Aertker said. “And it’s just stopped that process right in its tracks.”

In a statement to the Trinitonian, Conyers wrote, “BJN innovated, designed and built the PatchCap hardware and embedded electronics for PATCH over the past 18 months.”

Conyers wrote, “BJN has personal connections with Trinity University and provided significant discounts as well as mentorship, office space and lead classes at the university all to support PATCH and the Trinity Entrepreneurship program.”

“…we tried to make them understand that this was a derivative of our original device…”

According to Conyers, PATCH has owed BJN $25,000 in unpaid consulting expenses for the past six months. Conyers also wrote saying PATCH did not recognize BJN’s role as inventors of the product in their attempt to patent it.

However, Jacob Kring, the Dallas-based attorney representing PATCH through Hedrick Kring PLLC, said the student-created company offered to pay the balance.

“BJN rejected that offer, and instead, chose to attempt to take credit for PATCH’s work. BJN did not ‘independently’ create any ideas or intellectual property – they stole PATCH’s ideas and now are claiming it as their own,” Kring wrote in a statement.

Though both PATCH and BJN are individual companies, the primary issue is the “predatory” nature BJN has displayed, according to the complaint.

“BJN needs to explain the core issue of PATCH’s own engineering firm trying to compete with the students that hired them by stealing their ideas,” Kring wrote. “BJN was trusted by PATCH and they have ripped off PATCH’s ideas and now PATCH’s own engineering firm wants to compete with the customer that hired and paid BJN over $80,000.00 using PATCH’s ideas.”

Though Buchanan and Aertker’s company is full-fledged and no longer acts as a startup within Trinity’s Department of Entrepreneurship, the university supports Buchanan and Aertker through this litigation.

“First and foremost, Trinity exists to foster an environment in which students feel supported in their efforts to push themselves intellectually, and protected when such efforts result in valuable intellectual property,” Tess Coody-Anders, vice president for Strategic Communications and Marketing, wrote in a statement to the Trinitonian. “As part of our commitment to perpetual discovery and in our efforts to hold ourselves to the highest standard to achieve enduring excellence, we call upon alumni and community mentors to be our partners in helping students develop and protect their intellectual property and business concepts.”

Coody-Anders explained that Conyers has stepped down from his position on the Alumni Association Board, and neither he nor BJN are working with the senior software project. However, Conyers is still a part of Trinity’s VMS program.

“Protocols are in place to avoid conflicts of interest within the program,” Coody-Anders wrote. “Because we are a student-first institution, we are ensuring that there is no direct involvement between these two businesses through any Trinity program while the matter is being resolved.”

University president Danny Anderson also released a statement on the situation to the Trinitonian:

“While I am not in a position to speak to the facts of pending litigation, let me affirm our philosophy: Trinity’s best intentions are to be a community of support. We welcome enthusiastic and committed faculty, staff, alumni and professional mentors who share our commitment to students and support our students in the development of their business concepts and intellectual property. Our programs are and should be a vehicle for students to create and advance companies, and are not intended as a means for others to harvest competing ideas or products.”

Correction: The original version of this story described BJN as a mentor in the VMS program. BJN is a mentee in the program.