Cronin in his research lab, pictured in front of the Chemputer. Credit: Alexander Boestad

Exclusive: UofG sued by star professor’s former startup in dispute involving intellectual property

By Jan Jasinski

While not a party to the lawsuit, Prof Lee Cronin, described as ‘real-life Rick from Rick and Morty’ is a character integral to understanding the nature of the legal battle.

The University of Glasgow has been taken to court by Deepmatter, once one of the University’s highest-profile spin-outs, in a dispute involving the company’s original research agreement, in particular its intellectual property clauses. Deepmatter aims to have the court order the University to share information which it believes “could shed light on potential infringements of its intellectual property rights.”

The bitter conflict provides insight into the often acrimonious behind-the-scenes workings of the world of university spin-out startups in Scotland, and the UK at-large, particularly outside the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. Spin-outs are start-ups that rely on research created at universities, with the university usually receiving a percentage of shares in the firm.

While not a party to the lawsuit, a character integral to understanding the nature of this legal battle is the University’s Regius Professor of Chemistry, Leroy Cronin, who was Deepmatter’s founding scientific director between 2014 and 2019. After leaving Deepmatter, Cronin founded his own firm, Chemify, and spun it off from the University in early 2022. Chemify has been recognised as one of the UK’s most promising start-ups. When it “came out of stealth in August 2023,” following a £36mn funding round which saw Chemify receive Series A cash from major American venture capital firms, and the UK Government’s Levelling-Up fund, Bloomberg named it among the 25 UK top start-ups to watch. Mark Logan, the founder of Skyscanner and arguably Scotland’s most notable entrepreneur, described Cronin as “Elon Musk—but not an asshole.”

Since the company was last covered in the media back in August, Cronin says Chemify has “developed the hardware, the modular system, to actually get it working.” Chemify currently employs 60 people, and will aim to expand to 200 by the end of the year. The start-up also has plans to open a factory in Maryhill, and employ a few hundred people, which Cronin says will be “amazing” for the local economy.

Chemify occupies a prime space in the University’s Advanced Research Centre, one of the highlights of the flagship Campus Development programme. UofG’s Principal, Anton Muscatelli, commented on the funding round by pointing to Chemify as “a great example of how we are using research space in our new Advanced Research Centre to incubate innovative companies and ideas.” The Chemify lab sits right next door to Cronin’s research group’s academic lab. Chemistry research is organised into ‘research groups,’ usually led by a single professor. Cronin’s own Cronin Group, focussing on ‘digitising chemistry,’ is one of the largest at Glasgow, and consists of 63 members.

Cronin speaking to The Glasgow Guardian. Credit: Alexander Boestad

Cronin described Chemify’s origins: “The way a lot of these startups work is ‘fake it til you make it.’ Or you’re an entrepreneur, and you have a technology, and no one wants to use it. It’s like a widget.

“The thing is that not only did I have a widget that actually works, so it wasn’t fake, it addressed the biggest market in the world, which is chemistry. So, all I had to do was say to the VCs, all I need is to get my programming language. Add it to the robot. Make sure the robot works. Make molecules that people want, and no one really believed me.

“But in the end, some people obviously did, because we raised $43mn.”

But it was that funding round that led to Deepmatter, Cronin’s previous start-up, commencing legal action. Following an in-depth article on the funding round in the Financial Times on 1 August 2023, which includes references to the Chemputer, Deepmatter posted a statement on their website the next day, asserting not just its trade mark rights to the Chemputer, but also “copyright in code and software for use in the digitalisation of chemistry, [some of which] were acquired by way of an agreement with the University of Glasgow.”

The company posted a further statement on 29 November 2023, announcing its launch of legal proceedings against UofG at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, seeking to “require the University to disclose information which Deepmatter considers could shed light on potential infringements of its intellectual property rights arising out of a research agreement conducted between 2014 – 2018.” Both statements, however, have since been deleted from Deepmatter’s website.

The Glasgow Guardian attended a procedural hearing in the case, the same day as speaking to Cronin, but the professor refused to comment on the matter as the case is still on-going.

When speaking to Mark Warne, Deepmatter’s CEO, the next day, he indicated that the case is on-going and the litigation continues, and seeking not to prejudice the outcome, only echoed Deepmatter’s lawyer’s statements in court the previous day, who stated the University’s legal strategy seemed to use “oppressive tactics and be intent on drawing the process out.” The University’s counsel refuted that accusation, saying the University has responded to every documentation request by Deepmatter over the past four years, and “provided more documents where it was reasonable and necessary to do so.” Warne said that legal action was the only avenue open to it following the University’s refusal to engage in constructive dialogue over the exercise of a contract. The University asserts it has already provided all the information requested by Deepmatter, making the legal action unnecessary. The next material hearing is scheduled for 23 February.

The Chemputer, which is described as a ‘3D printer for molecules,’ was first invented by Cronin back in 2012. While the legal entity which eventually became Deepmatter was set up nearly two decades ago, it has changed names and ownership over the years, and has been trading under its current name since 2018 since being founded by Cronin in 2014. After Cronin spun off Cronin3D Ltd from UofG in 2014, it was acquired in 2015 by a company that was then renamed Cronin Group plc. It was in that form that the firm first registered the trade mark for the ‘Chemputer’ in 2016, when Cronin was a director of Deepmatter. Chemify has since launched a trade mark dispute, alleging that Deepmatter has not been making use of the name. 

Warne disputed that, saying the Chemputer had been “present in our annual report over many years,” and as “something within our commercialisation framework,” for which it maintains patents assigned to it by the University—Deepmatter would continue to defend its Chemputer trade mark. He further underscored that it was not the University, but Chemify that was challenging the trade mark, demonstrating that Cronin, who is Chemify’s CEO, wants to make use of the Chemputer outside the lab, in a commercial manner.

Warne acknowledged that Cronin was seeking to demonstrate how his research lab and the Chemify lab are “separate places, but obviously in the same building,” but couldn’t make any representation to the accuracy, saying that the University is not engaging in dialogue with Deepmatter.

The Chemify lab in the Advanced Research Centre on campus. Credit: Chemify

After Cronin’s departure, Deepmatter’s value plummeted “because it could not raise money”, according to Cronin, and ended up getting delisted from the AIM stock exchange. While the company announced a deal with Astrazeneca, the firm responsible for one of the COVID vaccines, right before the pandemic, it has been experiencing commercial trouble since. The Glasgow Guardian has seen anonymous comments from purported Deepmatter investors, concerning how much money they had lost on the firm. Cronin was still publicly praising the company in 2021, positively commenting on the company’s ‘DigitalGlassware,’ adding “#proudcompanyfounder.”

Cronin is a colourful character, expressing a wide range of opinions on his Twitter profile, to nearly 50 thousand followers, questioning diversity questions on grant applications, retweeting praise of Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, and vehemently criticising Brexit. One source familiar with Cronin described him as ‘wearing his heart on his sleeve.’ His Twitter presence has been compared to Kanye West, with one parody account nicknaming itself ‘ChemKanye’—Cronin describes it as a “very funny account.”

Cronin is one of the University’s most highly regarded academics. After graduating from York, and brief stints at Edinburgh, Birmingham, and Bielefeld in Germany, he joined Glasgow in 2002, taking on the Regius title in 2013, at just 39 years old. The Regius chair is one of the University’s several ‘royal’ professorships, originally founded in 1817. Regius professorships were once a tradition reserved for the seven ancient universities of the UK and Ireland.

Aside from digitising chemistry, Cronin’s other principal subject of interest is what he describes as research into the origin of life, and the creation of artificial life: this has so far culminated in a major article published in Nature, arguably the single most notable scientific journal, in October last year, describing ‘assembly theory,’ a theory he first created back in 2017, which ties together chemistry, physics, and biology, to define a new way to approach evolution. The article has become one of the most downloaded Nature papers ever, and has become controversial, causing heated discussion on Twitter, in which Cronin himself will frequently defend his research. Cronin acknowledged the fervent debate around the article, telling The Glasgow Guardian:

“There was a prominent evolutionary biologist [who] said it’s complete nonsense, he didn’t understand the word of it. And then there was the physicist, kind of saying, well, we accept this bit, but this is obvious. And then, the chemists were like, sure there’s a gap, the computer scientists didn’t like the complexity stuff.

“And then everybody who wasn’t in the dogma, read the paper, understood the paper. […] The paper is not complicated.”

The paper and the theory behind it has been fiercely debated by scientists from across the disciplines into which the theory delves. In November, Cronin engaged in a debate at Harvard with Rice University scientist James Tour, whom Cronin describes as a “well-known creationist,” over both his theory and the origin of life as a whole. One computer science researcher, Hector Zenil, went so far as to accuse Cronin and his researchers of not having “proven or demonstrated anything close to what they claim in public forums, through their paper titles, and university press releases,” and accused them of “doing a disservice to science and the general public.” In response, Cronin pointed to an interview he conducted with YouTuber Professor Dave, who ‘debunks’ Zenil and Tour’s arguments, and calls Zenil a “charlatan.”

Since a popular TED talk in Edinburgh in 2011, Cronin has steadily become something of a ‘celebrity chemist’—he made Business Insider’s list of the ‘top 50 sexiest scientists,’ coming in at number 20, and has made three appearances on Lex Fridman’s podcast, each receiving over a million views on YouTube alone. Fridman introduced Cronin as “the real-life Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty.” The episode following the publication of the Nature article received attention from notables ranging from Sean Ono Lennon, to Elon Musk himself, who removed the three-hour limit on Twitter videos so that the full podcast could be seen on his platform.

Cronin aims to grow Chemify into a $10bn company. His end goal is to found an institute for origin of life research in Glasgow. “In terms of entrepreneurship, I couldn’t want to be at a better university,” Cronin remarked to The Glasgow Guardian. At one event, Cronin concluded his remarks by saying that the only thing that could stop him from achieving his goals would be his death.

UofG has not sold its stake in Deepmatter despite Cronin’s departure, and the start-up remains listed as one of the University’s spin-outs on the University’s Research and Strategy service’s webpage, sitting right next to Chemify. Cronin mentioned that “he still hopes Deepmatter could be a success story.” 

Mark Warne, Deepmatter’s CEO, declined to offer further comment for this article. The University declined to issue a comment as well.

The next hearing in Deepmatter Ltd v The University Court of the University of Glasgow is scheduled for 23 February.

With reporting by Odhran Gallagher.


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