Human Longevity accuses J. Craig Venter of stealing secrets

Human Longevity (HLI) has accused its co-founder and former CEO, J. Craig Venter, of sharing secrets with competitors. HLI made the accusations in a filing to sue the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI).

Venter set up HLI in 2013 to use Illumina’s population-scale genome sequencing equipment to make scientific breakthroughs, and he served as CEO of the company for most of that time. In May, Venter left the CEO post for the second time, purportedly out of a desire to return to research at JCVI. However, HLI has now painted a different picture of his departure, shedding some light on a turbulent time at the company in the process. 

In legal filings reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune, HLI states Venter was fired. As HLI tells it, the dismissal came after Venter withheld information about the behavior of a key executive that would have led to them being fired. HLI CFO/COO Nino Fanlo left the company around that time. HLI’s board also had grievances with Venter’s contract and his unilateral appointment of an interim president, the filing states.

Those events preceded Venter’s departure in May. The meat of HLI’s allegations center on what happened after Venter left.

“Following Venter's termination from HLI, he abruptly left the HLI corporate offices with his HLI-owned computer,” the HLI lawsuit states. “Venter immediately began using the HLI computer to communicate to the public, solicit HLI investors and employees.”

The computer remained connected to HLI’s email server immediately after Venter’s departure, and HLI retained access to it through a crash recovery program even after it was disconnected, the suit states. HLI claims that enabled it to see Venter’s efforts to found a rival to HLI, take trade secrets, tap up investors and poach employees.  

HLI is seeking an injunction to stop the use of its trade secrets and is asking for court-determined damages. 

JCVI attorney Steven Strauss told the Union-Tribune HLI’s claims are “baseless, without merit and contain numerous factual errors,” adding that JCVI will “vigorously defend against these allegations as the legal process advances.”

The case follows a period in which HLI has parted ways with multiple senior executives, including two CEOs, two COOs, a CMO, a CFO and a head of oncology.