Chemist Convicted of Stealing Soda Can Tech for China

The Michigan resident and former Coca-Cola employee planned to start a BPA-free coating company in China.

A worker wearing a face mask drives a forklift at a Coca-Cola plant in Wuhan, China, in March 2020. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)

(CN) — The technology is near ubiquitous: the thin, plastic lining found in aluminum soda cans. On Thursday, a jury in East Tennessee convicted a chemist who once worked at Coca-Cola of stealing information about that technology for the Chinese government.

The lining in a soda can is designed to protect the aluminum from corrosion and the contents from contamination. According to court documents, it had cost $119.6 million to develop a liner free of BPA, a chemical compound with potential health risks.

Prosecutors said Xiaorong You aka Shannon You, a 59-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Lansing, Michigan, took the trade secrets belonging to a handful of companies when she worked at Coca-Cola in Atlanta and then at Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee.

In a press release announcing the conviction, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern Tennessee said You hoped the technology would have benefitted the Chinese Communist Party and she planned to start a company that would have applied the BPA-free coating in China.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has said China’s economic espionage is one of the greatest long-term threats to the United States’ national and economic security.

You applied for two grants, one under the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Plan designed to bring technology to the communist nation, and received more than 12 million Chinese Yuan, or about $1.8 million.

According to the government’s trial brief, You copied dozens of trade secret files to an external hard drive late in the evening on Aug. 29, 2017, days after she had traveled to China to defend one of her grant applications.

At the time, You was working as the principal engineer for global research at Coca-Cola and the company terminated her employment on Aug. 31, 2017. The next day, she began working at Eastman Chemical as a packaging application development manager.

“Because of Dr. You’s extensive education and experience with BPA and BPA-free coating technologies, she was one of a limited number of Coca-Cola employees with access to BPA-free trade secrets belonging to Akzo-Nobel, BASF, Dow Chemical, PPG, Toyochem, and Sherwin Williams,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release said.

In a statement, Coca-Cola said it was aware of the verdict.

“The Coca-Cola Company takes the protection of trade secrets and confidential information very seriously, especially information entrusted to the company by our partners,” it said.

On June 21, 2018, according to prosecutors, You copied hundreds of confidential files belonging to Eastman to a Google Drive account, minutes ahead of a meeting where she thought she was going to be fired. Her employment with Eastman ended that month.

You was arrested in Lansing on Valentines Day 2019. Her apartment was furnished with only a mattress, a folding table and a folding chair, according to her detention order. She had a briefcase that held her passport, thousands of dollars worth of currencies, bank statements and her diplomas.

The FBI interviewed her for about two hours that day, where she made “dozens of relevant and incriminating admissions,” according to the government’s trial brief.

You’s attorneys did not return emailed requests for comment. In their response to the government’s brief, attorneys Thomas Jessee and Corey Shipley said the clips of the FBI interview prosecutors planned to show at the trial that lasted 12 days had the potential to be taken out of context.

You is set to be sentenced in November.

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