Stumptown Startups Blog

PSU graduate says professor stole his startup plan

PSU graduate says professor stole his startup plan »Play Video
Jorge Guzman

A Portland State University graduate says his professor stole his surfboard startup business and now the former student wants to reclaim what he believes is his.

Jorge Guzman created Yuyana with two friends. He said they invested years and thousands of dollars into the business. It would sell surfboards made of balsa wood that are an eco-friendly alternative to foam boards.

Guzman said he brought his business plan to his professor’s attention in 2012 while in class. He wanted advice and hoped the class may evaluate it. Instead, he said his professor stole his work.
“I didn't see it coming, he was my instructor,” Guzman said. “I paid a lot of money to go to school, to learn from knowledgeable individuals, and again, I never expected this to happen.”

His professor, Wilson Zehr, now runs a company called Yana Surf.

“People have been using balsa wood -- building, shaping, selling balsa wood surfboards -- for 200 years,” Zehr said. “Yana Surf and Yuyana are completely different companies.”

Guzman showed KATU emails Zehr sent him in 2012.

“I'm intrigued by the surfboard product that you showed me in class,” one email shows Zehr writing when Guzman was still his student. “Let's see if we can come up with some ideas."

After Jorge responded with more information, Zehr wrote, "This looks interesting. Were we going to try and talk with your partner?"

Guzman said he continued to give Zehr information because he thought his instructor's experience and advice would be good for his company. He said, instead, Zehr manipulated him and then cut off ties when he asked too many questions.

“I became really concerned when he was not very forthcoming with the corporation (he created),” Guzman said. “He responded saying you don’t have any authority, and you’re pretty much out of the business, and that was the final communication I had with him.”

Zehr said, ultimately, he didn’t like the way Guzman and his partners ran their business. He said while Yuyana was a company acting as a middle man, Yana creates and designs its own sustainable surfboards.

“There was no unique intellectual property, no unique idea, and the team was dysfunctional,” Zehr said. “We discussed having Jorge work with us, but after dozens of angry emails and phone calls, it was just really difficult to work with him.”

“We will continue to pursue this. I feel it's unjust, it's not fair,” Guzman said. “It's something we're not going to let go.”

Guzman complained to PSU who conducted an investigation.

“It's an unfortunate, cautionary tale,” said PSU spokesman Scott Gallagher. He said the investigation found the business relationship between Guzman and Zehr developed after graduation.

“It’s not our responsibility that his business deal went awry,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher added that PSU does not have a policy specifically protecting students’ intellectual property, although it is part of a code of conduct for faculty and state employees.

Guzman plans to start an online fundraising campaign this weekend to raise money to hire a lawyer.