ST. PETERSBURG — A cutting-edge prosthetics maker announced this week the kickoff of new research efforts and 20 new hires after a big win in a long legal fight regarding patents.
St. Petersburg-based Alps South develops liners that make prosthetic limbs more comfortable for amputees, including a product used to connect movie star dolphin Winter’s artificial tail.
But the company had to curtail many research projects at its 42nd Avenue North headquarters in the past decade to fend off a series of lawsuits by an Ohio competitor that accused it of stealing a prosthetic cushioning technology, Alps executives said.
In 2008, Alps struck back with its own lawsuits against WillowWood for using a special liner that mixes mineral oil and polymers to reduce chaffing on amputated limbs.
A jury ruled in Alps’ favor and a judge in U.S. District Court in Tampa awarded the company $15.5 million last month with the possibility of several million dollars in legal fees, said Ron Christaldi, a lawyer with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Tampa.
In a separate case, WillowWood’s claim against Alps over a more generic liner was ruled invalid as the technology already was being widely used before they filed for a patent, Christaldi said.
“We knew we had properly respected other companies’ patents,” Laghi said in a statement.
“Our philosophy was to plant our feet in the right place and stand firm.”
Laghi moved Alps to St. Petersburg in 1994 and now operates two local manufacturing facilities with 120 employees and offices in five other countries.
The company’s focus is on soft gel liners for prosthetics, but new products range from oxygen-injected car engines to silicone masks for patients recovering from facial surgery.
Laghi holds more than 50 patents.
With more than 80 percent of Alps’ production tied to the technology challenged in the WillowWood lawsuits, though, the company had to spend enormous time and resources to defend itself in court, Christaldi said.
“The practical fact of what they were trying to do, it would have put Alps out of business,” Christaldi said.
In a twist, the court put an injunction on their competitor to force them to stop using Alps’ patented materials.
The engine of innovation already is moving again at Alps.
“Over the past six to eight months, they’ve had a lot of very exciting stuff come out of the lab and it’s able to be put into production now,” Christaldi said.