A former Corning Inc. scientist has been charged in connection with an alleged scheme to steal technology from a government-funded project he was working on and transfer it to China.
Wang Ji, 59, was indicted late last month by a federal grand jury in Rochester, New York, on charges of economic espionage, theft of trade secrets, and unlawful exports.
According to the recently unsealed indictment, Wang, who worked for the company from 1998 to 2019, was assigned as the lead scientist to work on a project initiated and partly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA injected $16 million into the endeavor.
The aim of the project was to develop high-powered optical laser fibers that could be used to defeat hostile drones. Wang and his team were successful, boosting the power of fiber lasers by 1,000 times, according to the court document.
The information and technology produced by the project were trade secrets belonging to Corning and restricted for export under U.S. law, the government said.
Prosecutors allege that in July 2016, Wang, without permission, downloaded the DARPA project files, including information on the manufacture of the laser fibers, onto his personal drive. According to the indictment, Wang stole the information to use as a reference for a fiber laser business that he was seeking to set up in China, called QuantumWave.
At the time, Wang and an unnamed business partner were negotiating with several Chinese authorities in the northern megacity of Tianjin about establishing a laser fiber research and development company, according to the indictment. They sought $29 million in seed funding for the venture.
The two also expressed interest in starting an optical fiber lab in the city as part of a state-sponsored recruitment program, according to the document. Chinese state-sponsored recruitment plans have been criticized by U.S. officials who say they facilitate the transfer of U.S. technology and know-how to China.
According to the indictment, Wang and his partner once expressed to Chinese counterparts that the technology they sought to bring over was “strictly controlled” by the United States.
Prosecutors also allege that Wang carried export-controlled DARPA project data on his laptop on at least two trips to China in 2017.
Negotiations with the Chinese entities eventually failed, so in 2018, Wang and his partner approached a U.S. investor seeking about $15 million in funding to launch QuantumWave in the United States, according to the indictment. The proposal was to manufacture the same laser fiber developed by the DARPA project.
If convicted, Wang faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $5 million.
Corning, in a statement provided to local media, said it “takes the protection and defense of its intellectual property very seriously” and would monitor the case and cooperate with law enforcement.
Wang’s attorney and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of New York didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
This case is the latest in a string of federal prosecutions focused on the theft of U.S. intellectual property for the benefit of China.
In April, former Coca-Cola employee You Xiaorong was convicted of stealing trade secrets relating to the coating of beverage containers from U.S. companies. You then planned to use the technology to manufacture the coating for the global market.
In June 2020, Chinese professor Zhang Hao was found guilty of economic espionage and stealing wireless technology from U.S. companies for the benefit of the Chinese regime. The technology in question filters out unwanted signals in wireless devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, and has both consumer and military applications.