Technion sues own lecturer, claims intellectual property infringement

The Technion is also suing Michael Riabzev, a PhD candidate in computer science, who co-founded StarkWare with Ben-Sasson.

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April 23, 2019 17:10
2 minute read.
Technion sues own lecturer, claims intellectual property infringement

Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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The Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa has filed a rare lawsuit, the first in over two decades, against one of its own members of staff.

The research university is suing Prof. Eli Ben-Sasson, a senior lecturer in computer science at the Technion, for 50% of his stake in blockchain company StarkWare Industries. The Technion alleges that he founded the company based on intellectual property that he developed at the university.

The Technion is also suing Michael Riabzev, a PhD candidate in computer science, who co-founded StarkWare with Ben-Sasson.

“Ben-Sasson violated his obligations in connection with [the Technion’s] intellectual property regulations when he established a company that deals with the commercial application of an idea resulting from his research at the Technion, without obtaining the prior approval of the Technion,” said the university in proceedings filed at Haifa District Court.

“For its development, Ben-Sasson made use of the Technion’s resources, including grants amounting to millions of shekels provided to him via the Technion, to develop this exact idea,” the university alleged.

Founded in late 2017, StarkWare has commercialized STARK, its new cryptographic zero-knowledge proof technology to improve scalability and privacy in blockchains. The company has raised $36 million in two rounds of funding, backed by leading foreign investors including Intel Capital and Sequoia.

“This is a serious incident in which a senior faculty member entrusted by the university, in cooperation with a student working under him, acted improperly and contrary to the rules for the establishment of a technology transfer company, developed by the means of resources and funds made available to him by the Technion for research purposes, and without the knowledge or permission of the Technion,” said the university in a statement.


“The actions of Prof. Ben-Sasson constitute a flagrant violation of the Technion’s intellectual property regulations, the disciplinary code binding Technion faculty members and ethical rules accepted in the academic world. The Technion attaches great importance to the commercialization of research taking place in it to encourage and promote science and industry, as well as to promote knowledge and to disseminate it.”

Rejecting the Technion’s claims, a representative for Ben-Sasson and Riabzev stated that court proceedings will reveal that the professor acted both openly and legally.

“[Prof. Ben-Sasson] published all of his research at the Technion, including the open source that accompanies the research and, as is customary in his field, without registering any patent,” the representative said.

“This code is the property of the Technion and is now accessible to any person, researcher or entrepreneur, or any institution that wishes to use it. StarkWare did not use, and does not intend to use an invention belonging to the Technion,” the representative added.

“All there is here is an Israeli company that has been established and operates based on the skills and expertise of a faculty member... It is very unfortunate that the current Technion administration is quick to sue a faculty member and student, thereby harming Israel’s hi-tech industry as well as the Technion’s ability to attract outstanding teachers and researchers.”

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