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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

High-Dollar, High-Tech Genomics Battle

SAN JOSE (CN) - A scientist stole "industry-leading genomics technology" from her employer and used it to start her own competing company, Agilent Technologies claims in court.

Agilent sued Emily LeProust, Ph.D., and Twist Bioscience on Feb. 3 in Santa Clara County Court. The case is the Top Download today for Courthouse News.

"This was a highly orchestrated scheme to misappropriate Agilent's intellectual property and violate its valuable rights," Agilent's attorney Daniel Petrocelli said in an interview.

Agilent is a U.S. research and development company spun off from Hewlett-Packard in 1999. Its specialties are analytical instruments and software, food, environmental and forensics services and pharmaceuticals.

It claims that LeProust engaged in a "premeditated plan" to steal cutting-edge genomics technology, which is "critical to the research and development of life-saving drugs, medical diagnostics, and fundamental molecular biology research."

As Agilent's director of research and development for genomics, LeProust was tasked with developing new DNA oligonucleotide synthesis technology - methods of chemically synthesizing nucleic acids to form designer genetic sequences - to meet growing demand for affordable custom genes, according to the complaint.

"In violation of her duties to faithfully assist Agilent in improving its already industry-leading technology, LeProust secretly laid the groundwork for a theft of Agilent technology, beginning on or before February 2012 - more than one year before she resigned from Agilent," the complaint states.

Over the next 14 months, Agilent says, LeProust planned her entry into the "several-hundred-million dollar, gene-assembly market" by registering Internet domain names for Twist and pitching new oligo-synthesis technologies to venture capitalists to generate funding for the embryonic company - all while working for Agilent.

LeProust "abruptly" resigned in early 2013 without informing Agilent about the new technology she had developed while working for Agilent, and wiped her company smartphone before turning it in so Agilent would be none the wiser, according to the complaint.

Thanks to the Agilent-developed tech, Twist secured almost $5 million from 14 investors less than three months after LeProust's resignation, Agilent says.

It claims LeProust based her new technology on its proprietary oligo-synthesis method, which took a large team of scientists 20 years to engineer, and with which Agilent "produces the highest-quality long DNA strands among all commercially available sources."

This technology is one of Agilent's most valuable and confidential trade secrets, but Twist registered patents for suspiciously similar technology only five months after LeProust's exit, an impossible feat for a two-year-old company, according to the complaint.

"It is evident from the materials distributed by Twist to investors that Twist is using Agilent's state-of-the-art printing processes and trade secrets to bring Twist's products to market at a higher volume, faster pace, and lower price than could ever have been possible without the theft," the complaint states.

But that's not all, Agilent says. It says LeProust "poached" 10 members of its chemical and oligo-writing group who have the skills needed to use the pilfered trade secrets.

"Twist now threatens Agilent's hard-earned technological and competitive advantage, not because of any profound innovation by Twist, but because it planned and executed a wide-ranging misappropriation of Agilent trade secrets. ... The result is a well-funded Twist that is built on the back of Agilent's intellectual property and know-how. Twist thus has an ill-gotten, illegitimate, and unearned head start in the market," the complaint states.

Twist rejected the allegations on Thursday.

"Agilent's claims are baseless and without merit, and Twist Bioscience intends to defend itself vigorously against them," the company said in a statement. "Typical of much larger, less innovative companies, Agilent's actions reveal an obvious attempt to stifle competition."

The company added: "Twist Bioscience believes that the marketplace is the best place to determine winners and losers."

Agilent seeks an injunction to stop Twist from using technology based on its trade secrets, "(r)epayment of all compensation received by LeProust from Agilent during the period of time when she was in breach of her duty of loyalty," and compensatory damages for breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets.

Attorney Petrocelli is with O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles.

LeProust earned her Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Houston and a Master's in industrial chemistry from Lyon School of Industrial Chemistry in France, according to industry publications, which credit her with more than 20 patents, mostly related to DNA synthesis.

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