J&J's Auris Health, Verb Surgical accuse 3 former employees of trade secret theft

A trio of Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries filed suit against a handful of former employees and their current company, accusing the workers of stealing tens of thousands of J&J documents.

Auris Health and Verb Surgical, two J&J subsidiaries that have been jointly developing surgical robotics technologies, were joined by Cilag GmbH, one of its pharmaceutical offshoots—which also holds the intellectual property rights to some of the technologies detailed in the allegedly stolen documents—to file the lawsuit in California’s northern district last week.

In it, the companies accused three former Auris employees of “the shameless, systematic and ongoing misappropriation of trade secrets” from all three subsidiaries. They alleged that the ex-workers went on to share the stolen documents with Noah Medical, their current employer, another maker of robotic surgery systems. Noah Medical did not respond to a request for comment.

According to J&J’s 122-page complaint, the three individuals—one of whom is now Noah’s vice president of research and innovation—“collectively stole at least 26,000 Auris, Verb and Cilag documents comprising 81 gigabytes of data.” Those documents included source code, product designs and details of test cases, much of which J&J said is now “directly relevant” to Noah Medical’s own work.

Among the “treasure trove” of materials allegedly taken by Enrique Romo, the Noah VP, were an emailed presentation detailing an Auris endoscopic system, screenshots of confidential Auris emails and copies of files spanning product details, market assessments, Auris budget and planning information and more.

Another of the named defendants, Diana Cardona Ujueta, was accused of taking a “methodical” approach to collecting information from her role as a senior robotics and controls engineer at Auris for months before departing. According to J&J, “Forensic evidence shows that, at the very least, she accessed those stolen Auris lab notebooks after she commenced work at Noah.”

Rounding out the trio is Kenneth Nip, a former manufacturing engineering manager at Auris, who the plaintiffs said not only was already “intimately familiar” with the process of making Auris’ bronchoscopes—which he could in turn apply to the development of Noah’s own Galaxy bronchoscopic robotic surgery system—but also stole documents further detailing that process.

The lawsuit also includes 10 additional unnamed defendants, but J&J said it has so far only gathered definitive evidence of theft by Romo, Cardona Ujueta and Nip. The unnamed defendants comprise other former Auris employees who have since jumped ship for Noah—many of them allegedly recruited by Romo—and who are believed to have, at minimum, held on to Auris property or even “affirmatively misappropriated” J&J trade secrets when they left.

In addition, the J&J companies singled out Jian Zhang, Ph.D., Noah’s founder and CEO, who was Auris’ second employee. According to the complaint, Zhang held on to Auris documents when he left the company in 2018 and has yet to return them, “even after Noah acknowledged that he possessed those documents and represented, many months ago, that Noah would promptly return them to Auris.”

The companies also accused Noah of profiting off the trade secrets included in the stolen documents, citing one patent application by the Silicon Valley company that allegedly “includes stolen Auris trade secrets” and which listed Romo as its sole inventor, but was filed “within weeks of Romo joining the company.” Another patent application filed this year depicts a Noah catheter that J&J claimed is “indistinguishable from a figure in a confidential Auris presentation from February 2015.”

In fact, the companies argued in the court docs, the fact that Noah has been able to bring its Galaxy system to “the cusp of commercialization”—and to have already begun conceptualizing and developing two more products—between just its 2018 founding and now is “a direct result” of the alleged trade secret theft.