The U.S. Department of Justice announced that a Chinese national and former employee of Monsanto has pleaded guilty to attempting to steal trade secrets of the company.
Xiang Haitao pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit economic espionage. According to court documents, Xiang conspired to steal a trade secret from Monsanto for the purpose of benefitting a foreign government, namely the People’s Republic of China.
“Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted that he stole a trade secret from Monsanto, transferred it to a memory card and attempted to take it to the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of Chinese government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “With his guilty plea, Xiang is now being held accountable for this unlawful conduct.”
According to court documents, Xiang was employed by Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, where he worked as an imaging scientist. In 2018, Bayer completed its acquisition of Monsanto.
Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed a digital, online farming software platform that was used by farmers to collect, store, and visualize critical agricultural field data and increase and improve agricultural productivity for farmers. A critical component to the platform was a proprietary predictive algorithm referred to as the Nutrient Optimizer. Monsanto and The Climate Corporation considered the Nutrient Optimizer a valuable trade secret and their intellectual property.
In June 2017, the day after leaving employment with Monsanto and The Climate Corporation, Xiang attempted to travel to China on a one-way airplane ticket. While he was waiting to board his flight, federal officials conducted a search of Xiang’s person and baggage. Investigators later determined that one of Xiang’s electronic devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer. Xiang continued on to China where he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science. Xiang was arrested when he returned to the United States.
“The American worker suffers when adversaries, like the Government of China, steal technology to grow their economies,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “It’s not just military technology developed in secret labs that adversaries want; in this case, it was agricultural technology used by American farmers to improve crop yields. The FBI will continue investigating the theft of technology from American companies because economic security is national security.”
Xiang pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 7. He faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, a potential fine of $5 million and a term of supervised release of not more than three years. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.