MADISON, Wis. -- A federal trial is scheduled for next week involving major makers of scientific equipment over who can profit from a device most people know from high school chemistry.
At stake is millions of dollars in US sales of the adjustable pipette, a syringe-like instrument that researchers use to measure and transfer liquids.
Inventor Warren Gilson created the instrument in 1972, and since then his company, Gilson Inc., has had an agreement allowing Rainin Instrument Co. of Woburn, Mass., to exclusively buy and sell it in the United States. For 30 years, the two companies have teamed up to supply laboratories with the devices.
But Gilson claims Rainin executives have waged a campaign to disparage Gilson's Pipetman products and route customers to their own competing product lines, introduced after the 1974 patent expired in 1991. Gilson blames that for a significant drop in sales of pipettes to US customers and is seeking to break the sales contract with Rainin and recoup more than $8 million in lost profits and royalties.
The lawsuit also names Rainin's parent company, Mettler-Toledo of Ohio, which warned investors in February that losing the agreement would cost it $19.9 million.
Gilson's 1972 invention made the pipettes adjustable, allowing one tool to be used for many different sizes of measurements, instead of having to use dozens of them. And researchers could simply push a button to take in and discharge the liquid.
''It made the researchers' life easier because it took a task that had been drudgery and it made it fast and easy and reliable," said Robert Gilson, chairman and president of Gilson Inc. and son of the inventor. The younger Gilson himself had a role in the invention, designing the instrument to be hand-held.
The invention cut three-quarters of the time that scientists spent measuring and transferring liquids, said Henry Lardy, a UW-Madison professor emeritus of biochemistry. ''With the Gilson pipette, you could just hit that button and you got the right amount, click the button again, and it discharged the volume that you had," said Lardy.
But fewer pipettes carry the Gilson name. In 2004, Rainin's pipettes increased their share of the US market by 25 percent, selling 30,000 in all, according to court documents. Gilson pipette sales declined to 50,000 in 2004 from 80,000 in 2001. Gilson argues that was the result of a campaign by Rainin to portray Rainin's lines as superior.
Rainin denies it waged any campaign and claimed sales of Gilson pipettes dropped because of a market downturn after Sept. 11, 2001. The company has filed a counterclaim, seeking more than $1 million in damages for Gilson's alleged refusal to turn over technical data as required by contract.