In the 1980s, researchers from the biotech company Chr. Hansen used their extensive knowledge of lactic acid bacteria to create a series of unique malolactic bacterial cultures for the wine industry. Not only did the invention become a protected patent right that secured Chr. Hansen a leading market position, but it also resulted in a profitable business in terms of licensing agreements – all with the help from the dedicated patent attorneys at Plougmann Vingtoft.
Since 1874, Chr. Hansen has specialized in enzymes and bacterial cultures for the dairy industry, e.g. rennet, lactic acid bacteria for yogurt and cheese, and probiotics based on microorganisms. That this research should end up benefitting the wine industry may make some people wonder, but lactic acid bacteria actually play an equally important role when it comes to wine as yogurt and cheese – or to be more specific in the malolactic fermentation of the wine.
The challenge, when preparing laboratory-cultivated malolactic bacteria, is that the wine’s high content of acid and alcohol makes it a hostile environment for the bacteria to live in. Thus, the first commercial bacterial cultures on the market were unstable with a low resistance to the wine’s acidity. Or to put it more simply: they were not very effective.
Based on the extensive knowledge about microorganisms and bacterial cultures that Chr. Hansen had accumulated over a small century, the company’s researchers developed a method to select the most robust malolactic bacteria by exposing the bacteria to tough conditions during production. The bacteria that survive these conditions are so robust that they have a survival rate of at least 70%, and can be inoculated directly into the wine must in the form of freeze-dried granules.
A patent that carried weight
Patenting within the biotech industry was still a relatively new phenomenon in the 1980s, but there was a budding interest among the companies to protect their business-critical ideas.
“Chr. Hansen had begun to work with patents on a small scale, especially within enzymes for the dairy industry. In general, the field of enzymes was further advanced when it came to patents. The organization was open to the idea of patents, but it was still early on, and whether to patent was still up to the individual researcher”, says Iben Haasum, PhD, and senior director of IPR & Licensing at Chr. Hansen.
The malolactic bacteria patent illustrated, along with other of Chr. Hansen’s important patents, that patenting was not only a good way of protecting the company’s ideas, but it was also a good business
Chr. Hansen’s journey towards more strategic patenting was helped along by the consultants at Plougmann Vingtoft, who through the years helped the company take out several patents and licensing agreements, and devise an IPR strategy. Today, an overall professional IPR strategy is a completely integrated part of the research and development at Chr. Hansen, and the company has had its own IPR department since 2000.
A small step for Chr. Hansen – a big step for the wine industry
“The development of the robust malolactic bacteria was a natural extension of Chr. Hansen’s work with microorganisms within the dairy industry, but a revolutionary technology for the wine industry,” says Iben Haasum.
The robust bacteria have made it a lot easier for the winemakers to control the malolactic fermentation, so that the aroma and flavor potential of the grapes does not deteriorate. This results in fewer financial losses, as the number of fermentation failures decrease, and the number of satisfied customers increase, because they can count on the wine to taste as they expect to a higher degree.
So the next time you are enjoying a glass of Beaujolais or Bordeaux, send a kind thought to the laboratories of Chr. Hansen in Hørsholm and to the patent experts at Plougmann Vingtoft, who helped make the robust malolactic bacterial cultures a business success.