Agilent Sues Former Executive for Genomic Trade Secret Theft

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By John T. Aquino

Feb. 8 — Agilent Technologies Inc.'s former director of research stole genomic technology in order to start her own competitive company, the life sciences R&D company alleged in a complaint filed Feb. 3 in a California state court.

Agilent asserted in the California Superior Court of Santa Clara County that Emily Leproust and her company Twist Bioscience Corp. misappropriated trade secrets and that she breached her duty of loyalty and her contract with Agilent.

Leproust, who was named one of Foreign Policy Magazine's 100 leading global thinkers for 2015 in December, has raised more than $133 million for the San Francisco-based Twist since she left Agilent in April 2013, according to a Jan. 19 Twist announcement. Investors include ARCH Venture Partners and the life sciences company Illumina Inc.

She said in a Feb. 4 statement “Typical of much larger, less innovative companies, Agilent’s actions reveal an obvious attempt to stifle competition. Twist Bioscience believes that the marketplace is the best place to determine winners and losers.”

The technology at issue is an application of synthetic biology, a field that enables the development of new products using the technologies of different industries.

Alleged Misappropriation of Agilent Technology

According to the complaint, Leproust's primary duty at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Agilent in her position as director of research and development of applications and chemistry for genomics was to develop and improve existing Agilent DNA oligonucleotide synthesis technologies by assembling oligos into large, high-quality genes.

The complaint said she “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. That month, she registered internet domain names for Twist.”

For the next 14 months, Agilent wrote, Leproust remained at Agilent and continued to use Agilent's resources, people and proprietary information to develop and perfect the technology that Twist now touts as industry leading. “During that time, LeProust even pitched her competing company to venture capitalists—all while still an Agilent employee.”

As a result of her alleged misappropriation of its technology, Agilent alleged, Leproust was able to raise $5 million in funding for Twist from 14 investors in less than three months.

Alleged Poaching of Key Employees

Agilent also alleged that Leproust poached key employees with the skills and knowledge of Agilent's trade secrets, proprietary instruments and the methods necessary to synthesize high-quality oligos and collections of oligos of a length, complexity and fidelity “previously unmatched by any company other than Agilent.”

The company wrote, “In carrying out this plan, LeProust repeatedly breached her contractual duties, which required that she disclose and assign to Agilent all technological innovation relating to Agilent's research or business, protect all Agilent confidential information and refrain from recruiting Agilent employees for a period of two years after departing the company.”

Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Agilent asserted counts of breach of contract and breach of the duty of loyalty against Leproust and misappropriation of trade secrets against Leproust, Twist and 20 unnamed defendants.

The company asked the court for orders to prevent the defendants from continuing their alleged wrongful acts and to comply with their continuing obligations to Agilent; an award of compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial; punitive damages; repayment of all compensation Leproust received during the period of time when she was allegedly in breach of her duty of loyalty; and the imposition of a constructive trust for the defendants for all Agilent assets converted or used by them and all profits of equity interests and/or increases in the value of equity interests in Twist derived from the asserted claims of breach of contract and the duty of loyalty.

The complaint was filed by Daniel M. Petrocelli, James M. Pearl and David S. Almeling of O'Melveny & Myers LLP, Los Angeles.

In its Feb. 4 statement, Twist indicated, “Agilent’s claims are baseless and without merit, and Twist Bioscience intends to defend itself vigorously against them.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John T. Aquino in Washington at jaquino@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nancy Simmons at nsimmons@bna.com