In its complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California, Auris alleges “shameless, systematic and ongoing misappropriation of trade secrets” by Noah. It named former Auris employees Enrique Romo, Diana Cardona Ujueta and Kenneth Nip.
Among other things, J&J alleges that the three former employees collectively misappropriated at least 26,000 Auris, Verb and Cilag documents. Those documents comprise 81 gigabytes of data. According to the complaint, that data includes “significant trade secret material.”
Those documents feature source code, designs and test cases, according to the complaint. All have direct relevance to the individual defendants’ work at Noah, the company added.
“There is incontrovertible evidence that Noah used at least some of these stolen trade secrets: a Noah patent application includes stolen Auris trade secrets,” the complaint reads.
Dr. Jian Zhang founded Noah Medical as a new entry in the medical robotics space in 2018. Zhang serves as the company’s CEO. J&J said in the complaint that Zhang was its second employee. He departed in 2015, and the company alleges that he retained documents that have yet to be returned.
J&J said Noah acknowledged that he possessed those documents. “Many months ago,” Noah said it would “promptly return them,” J&J’s Auris said in the complaint.
The complaint alleges that the speed of Noah’s product development resulted directly from the alleged misappropriation of trade secrets. It said that, in March, Noah announced its Galaxy bronchoscopic robotic system. It allegedly labeled it “on the cusp of commercialization.” Romo, one of the defendants, publicly claimed that it had a second product in development and a third being conceptualized, the complaint reads. Romo serves as Noah’s VP of research and innovation.
Surgical robotics is a highly competitive space. In the soft-tissue surgical robotics field, a host of companies large and small seek to take on Intuitive — the dominant player in the space. J&J acquired Auris in 2019 for $3.4 billion. (Here are 16 surgical robotics companies you need to know. And here are 8 more.)
The compalaint alleged that Romo was “uniquely well positioned” to access and take its trade secrets upon his departure. The company further claims he did so. It said it uncovered an instance in which Noah used Auris trade secrets misappropriated by Romo to apply for a patent.
“Romo’s misappropriation is not limited to Noah’s patent application at issue,” the complaint said. “Rather, Auris has now learned that Romo took a treasure trove of Plaintiffs’ confidential documents with him.”
According to the complaint, Romo emailed himself a presentation of an endoscopic system developed at Auris that “bears a striking similarity to the subject of Noah’s patent application.” Other allegations include taking screenshots of Auris emails containing confidential program updates, product forecasts and prototype testing notes. The complaint also said Romo copied dozens of files related to his work at Auris onto external USB drives in the final few months before departing the company.
The complaint also says Diana Cardona Ujueta, another former Auris employee, took trade secrets and brought them to Noah. She served as senior robotics and controls engineer at Auris and had a key role in designing and testing instrument manipulators. The complaint alleges that she “undertook a monthslong process to gather her Auris lab notebooks and other trade secrets belonging to plaintiffs.”
J&J’s Auris said Cardona continued this process after interviewing for a job with Noah and meeting with Romo. Forensic evidence cited by the company said she accessed those “stolen” notebooks after commencing work at Noah.
More Auris influence alleged at Noah
Noah also hired defendant Kenneth Nip, a former Auris manufacturing engineering manager. The company alleges that he misappropriated secret documents comprising the manufacturing and process “recipes” to make Auris bronchoscopes when he left for Noah.
In total, Noah hired at least 16 Auris engineers at all levels of seniority since mid-2020. The complaint alleges that Romo led the recruiting efforts. it also said all engineers either affirmatively misappropriated or, at best, retained Auris property upon departure. All have contractual obligations to maintain secrecy and refrain from the use of Auris trade secrets.
J&J’s Auris said it wrote Zhang on May 17, 2021, to remind him of those contractual obligations. This came amid a slew of hirings of Auris employees by Noah.
Zhang responded: “Our employees are instructed to be mindful of confidentiality obligations to their former employers, and we understand that each of them intends to comply with such obligations.”
A few weeks later, J&J’s Auris alleges that Kalpit Gajera downloaded thousands of confidential files 48 hours before departing Auris. He allegedly downloaded the entire requirement set for Auris’ robotic platform. He began work at Noah three days later and Auris “promptly sued” him.
What’s next for J&J and Auris?
Meanwhile, there hasn’t been much news regarding J&J Ethicon’s plans for its Ottava system — its soft-tissue robotics play that came out of the Auris acquisition.
The company recently shared a statement with MassDevice that said: “We continue to be excited about and committed to our Ottava program. We look forward to delivering a competitive soft tissue robotic solution.”
Fortis Advisors has an active lawsuit in Delaware on behalf of the Auris shareholders who were behind the Ottava technology and the previous Monarch robotic system that J&J has cleared for certain indications. Despite the challenges, Monarch continues to advance, winning a new 510(k) in May. J&J has described the lawsuit as “wholly without merit.”
MassDevice reached out to Noah for comment, but the company did not immediately respond. This story may be updated.