Chinese scientist sentenced to over 2 years in prison for stealing Monsanto trade secret for China

MONSANTO
Image: National Press Foundation
  • Xiang Haitao, 44, pleaded guilty in January to stealing copies of a proprietary algorithm from agrochemical giant Monsanto while employed under its subsidiary company The Client Corporation between 2008 and 2017.
  • The predictive algorithm, known as the Nutrient Optimizer, is critical to a farming software platform that collects, stores and visualizes agricultural data and improves agricultural productivity.
  • Upon leaving the company in June 2017, Xiang fled to China and worked for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science.
  • After finding evidence of the stolen copies, U.S. authorities arrested Xiang upon his return to the country in November 2019.
  • Xiang was sentenced to 29 months in prison plus three years of supervised release and fined $150,000 for conspiring to commit economic espionage.

A Chinese scientist who pleaded guilty in January to stealing trade secrets from Missouri-based, global agrochemical firm Monsanto for the benefit of the Chinese government has been sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Xiang Haitao, 44, admitted to stealing copies of a proprietary predictive algorithm known as the Nutrient Optimizer while employed as an imaging scientist with Monsanto’s subsidiary The Climate Corporation in St. Louis from 2008 to 2017.

Xiang moved to China a day after leaving the company in June 2017. There, he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science, which is run by the government.

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While Xiang was in China, U.S. investigators determined that he possessed copies of the Nutrient Optimizer. He was arrested when he returned to the U.S. in November 2019.

The Nutrient Optimizer is an algorithm that serves as a key component of a farming software platform that collects, stores and visualizes agricultural data and improves agricultural productivity.

Xiang was sentenced to 29 months in prison on Thursday for conspiring to commit economic espionage.

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“Xiang conspired to steal an important trade secret to gain an unfair advantage for himself and the PRC,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a news release. “The victim companies invested significant time and resources to develop this intellectual property.”

On top of his prison term, Xiang was sentenced to three years of supervised release and fined $150,000.

“Economic espionage is a serious offense that can threaten U.S. companies’ competitive advantage, and the National Security Division is committed to holding accountable anyone who steals trade secrets to benefit a foreign government,” Olsen added.

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Xiang’s sentencing is the result of the Trump-era China Initiative, which came under scrutiny for being “anti-Asian” and was consequently replaced with the more comprehensive Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats in February.

“Those who conspire to steal technology from U.S. businesses and transfer it to China cause tremendous economic damage to our country,” Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said. “The government of China does not hesitate to go after the ingenuity that drives our economy.

“Stealing our highly prized technology can lead to the loss of good-paying jobs here in the United States, affecting families, and sometimes entire communities. Our economic security is essential to our national security. That’s why at the FBI protecting our nation’s innovation is both a law enforcement and a top national security priority.”

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Xiang faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison and $5 million in fines.

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