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I am a fifth year PhD student who has independently developed a project for my thesis. Recently, I have presented some promising preliminary results. My professor called it a 'gold mine', and wants to start a company based on it. I prefer to publish it and make most of the data open source.

Today, my advisor hired a senior research scientist who intends to learn my work and start a company based on it. Apparently, they have been talking to each other for several months without my knowledge. The scientist intends on becoming CEO of this company and eventually wants equal inventorship, despite not having any experience in this field yet. My PI has made it clear that it is my responsibility to transfer the ideas and technologies that I have developed over to him before the end of my PhD.

I have argued with him that this work is not ready for a company, and such a start-up would rest on shaky foundations (I have not published or patented, or finished animal studies).

I also feel that he is holding my PhD degree ransom, as he has done more than once with other students in the past. He has a pattern of doing this with other students- hiring a 'CEO-type' senior research scientist to learn from a younger PhD student, working with the research scientist to start a company while the PhD student does most of the work, not allowing the PhD student to graduate until the company is off its feet, and then making millions selling the company, with minimal benefit or recognition to the student.

How should I approach this? Is there legal recourse and should I approach a third party? I have already discussed this many times with my PI, but he will not listen. I fear that my graduation will be delayed, andI would like to avoid burning any bridges.

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    Beyond the scope of my expertise, and would be great to get the input of others, but this seems like a situation where you need legal representation (perhaps from outside the university). This could be to 1) protect your intellectual property, 2) ensure you receive fair compensation (base % from VC funding, stock options, etc.), or any other potential outcomes... – user97709 Oct 31 '19 at 0:27
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    You need to talk to the doctoral degree office. If they deny you help (which would be seriously unethical), you probably have no other chance to protect your IP rights than go legal. However, legal action will not help you gaining your PhD, be aware of that. – Captain Emacs Oct 31 '19 at 1:01
  • The intellectual property almost certainly belongs to the university. There is no point in trying to "protect" it. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 31 '19 at 2:27
  • Patent your work yourself, start your own company, and tell him to screw off. – 123 Oct 31 '19 at 3:24
  • Seriously -- what gives him the right to force you to do this? You should start your own company. Use that same research scientist. Offer him a better deal than your advisor did. – 123 Oct 31 '19 at 3:25
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How should I approach this?

Jump at the opportunity! Your professor considers your work a "gold mine" and wants to commercialise. This is an extremely rare opportunity for any student and I recommend that you seriously consider embracing the opportunity. Let me consider some of your ideas and alleviate some of your concerns:

I prefer to publish it and make most of the data open source.

This is a worthy academic goal, but it mightn't result in your desired outcome. Academics share results for others to build on, yet many results have no impact: If you're hoping your results will have impact, then why not make sure they do yourself? Keep the results private, build a company, make an impact.

Today, my advisor hired a senior research scientist who intends to learn my work and start a company based on it...The scientist intends on becoming CEO of this company

Is there any reason to believe that this scientist should be CEO? As opposed to CTO, for instance? Why is the scientist even necessary? Consider taking the CEO role for yourself and maybe consider hiring the scientist.

Whether your supervisor should be involved is open for debate. They seem well-connected, so they could perhaps be very useful.

[The senior research scientist] eventually wants equal inventorship

Inventorship (in terms of IP law) cannot be shared: An inventor has to have invented, they cannot come onboard. Perhaps you meant equal ownership?

I have argued with him that this work is not ready for a company, and such a start-up would rest on shaky foundations (I have not published or patented, or finished animal studies).

You can start a company, strengthen the foundations, and patent the results. (NB: Your university may actually own the rights to any patents, it depends on your precise scenario. Regardless, you might not need to patent results that would be owned by the university, since patenting later results might suffice.)

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My PI has made it clear that it is my responsibility to transfer the ideas and technologies that I have developed over to him before the end of my PhD.

That is correct. These things almost certainly belong to the university.

not allowing the PhD student to graduate until the company is off its feet

This is an inappropriate conflict of interest. There is not much you can do about the conflict of interest. But you can:

  • Transfer all the information as you are obligated.
  • Complete your thesis
  • Obtain a job offer

If you have a job offer in hand which requires a PhD, it puts a lot of pressure on your supervisor to recognize that your thesis is complete.

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  • Why must a PhD student transfer...ideas and technologies to a third-party? (I agree that transfer to the university might be expected, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Also, it is a little unclear who owns the IP, the OP wrote, independently developed a project for my thesis.) – user2768 Oct 31 '19 at 8:38
  • @user2768 You are wrong, everyone mentioned in the question is affiliated with the university. If it's for the thesis, most universities have a policy saying it belongs to the university. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 31 '19 at 9:04
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    I might be wrong, you most certainly are, and you seem to have chosen your words to mislead. We can assume a university exists, even though none is mentioned, since universities - exclusively, to my knowledge - award PhDs. So, everyone is affiliated with the university (by proxy). Whether they are employed and what contractual obligations they have is unknown. Nonetheless, it's likely, but not certain, the OP and professor are employees. (It's plausible neither are.) It is unclear whether the senior research scientist is. We only know they've been hired, not by whom. – user2768 Oct 31 '19 at 10:24
  • Assuming the senior research scientist isn't a university employee (which seems unlikely given that the professor is looking to commercialise), my question remains: Why must a PhD student transfer...ideas and technologies [beyond the university]? Regarding a policy saying it belongs to the university, that depends what the OP meant by independently developed a project. If the OP meant that the project was developed without university resources nor aid, then the project might belong to the OP. Admittedly, that's unlikely (which is why I wrote a little unclear). – user2768 Oct 31 '19 at 10:28
  • No, @user2768, it is very obvious that "Senior Research Scientist" is a university employee. They are not employed by the company that does not exist yet. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 31 '19 at 21:00

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