A research chemist with global pharmaceutical company sanofi-aventis admitted Tuesday to stealing sanofi-aventis trade secrets and making them available for sale through a U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese chemical company in China, authorities said.
In open court, the defendant, Yuan Li, 29, a Chinese national, waived prosecution by indictment and pleaded guilty to a charge of theft of trade secrets. Li, a resident of the Somerset section of Franklin, NJ, entered her guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano in Trenton federal court.
Sanofi-aventis, a global health care company with U.S. headquarters in Bridgewater, develops, manufactures and markets health care products, including the prescription drugs Allegra, Plavix, Copaxone and Ambien.
Li worked as a research scientist at the Bridgewater headquarters from August 2006 to June 2011, where she directly assisted in the development of a number of compounds that sanofi-aventis viewed as potential building blocks for future drugs. The compounds were the company’s trade secrets and had not been disclosed outside in any manner, including by means of a patent application.
“Sanofi takes the protection of its intellectual property seriously,” said Jack Cox, sanofi-aventis senior director of U.S. Public Affairs and Media Relations. “The company has been and will continue to cooperate with federal authorities, as appropriate, in this matter.”
Additionally, Cox said, the company fired the employee for policy violations.
While employed at sanofi-aventis, Li also was a 50 percent partner in Abby Pharmatech Inc., a subsidiary of the Chinese chemical products company Xiamon KAK Science and Technology Co. Ltd. Abby Pharmatech also sells and distributes pharmaceuticals.
Li admitted that between October 2008 and June 2011, she accessed an internal sanofi-aventis database and downloaded information related to a number of its compounds, including their chemical structures, onto her company-issued laptop computer. Li also admitted she then transferred the information to her home computer by sending it to her personal email address or via a USB thumb drive.
In the court documents, Li, who was responsible for maintaining the Abby Pharmatech websites and the Abby Catalog, acknowledged she made the stolen compounds available for sale on the Abby Catalog on the Abby Pharmatech websites. Additionally, Li made the Abby Catalog available through a well-known online database known among research scientists as the On-Line Database. In the Abby Catalog, Li assigned Abby Pharmatech part numbers to the chemical structures of the sanofi-aventis compounds and included them for sale.
According to Paul Brickfield of River Edge, attorney for Li, his client pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility for her actions.
“This was an error of judgment on her part,” Brickfield said. “She essentially started a business selling chemical compounds and in order to look credible, she would have to have more items in her sales catalog, and so, she put in the items from sanofi.”
Brickfield said Li only listed the items for sale but never had the compounds.
“She could have never actually sold them to anybody,” Brickfield said. “It’s like car dealerships that don’t actually have the models in stock, but with the cars listed, it looks like a better dealership. Her other listed compounds were legally available. The error she made was to include the sanofi compounds among her listings to increase the size of her catalog and increase customer interest. Other catalogs have thousands of compounds available, so to become a credible source, she foolishly put in the sanofi items and that way it looked like a bigger catalog. She could have never actually provided them.”
The charge to which Li pleaded guilty carries a maximum potential penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
There have been two other recent cases in New Jersey that involved Chinese nationals charged with stealing trade secrets from the U.S., said the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Jersey. The first case involved Sixing Liu, a former employee of a New Jersey-based technology company, who police arrested in March 2011 and charged with misappropriating sensitive military technology and exporting it to the People’s Republic of China. His case is pending.
The second case involved Yan Zhu, convicted in April 2011 of seven counts of wire fraud in connection with his scheme to steal confidential and proprietary business information, relating to computer systems and software with environmental applications, from his New Jersey employer. The jury acquitted Zhu on a charge of conspiracy to steal trade secrets and two counts of unauthorized transmission of trade secrets in interstate or foreign commerce.