Human Longevity, Inc. Sues J. Craig Venter Institute Over Trade Secrets

Lawsuit

La Jolla, California-based Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI) filed a lawsuit against the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). Although Venter himself is at the center of the suit, he is not personally being sued. HLI was co-founded by J. Craig Venter, who was at one time its chairman and chief executive officer.

Venter is best known for his competitive efforts to speed along the Human Genome Project.

HLI filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on Friday, July 20. It alleges that J. Craig Venter took trade secrets with him when he left HLI in late May, when he took a company-owned laptop computer with him. Venter was chief executive officer at the time. The company indicates he was fired, but Venter claims he retired. Steven Strauss, JCVI’s attorney, is quoted by The San Diego Union-Tribute as saying the claims are “baseless, without merit, and contain numerous factual errors,” although those errors are not specified.

Venter was replaced in July by David Karow as interim chief executive officer, as well as with Scott Sorensen, as interim chief operating officer. Sorensen replaced Saturnino “Nino” Fanlo, who was the chief operations officer and chief financial officer. However, it was reported recently that Fanlo left the company in April after he was implicated in a scandal at his previous employer, online lender Social Finance (SoFi). The investigation of SoFi focused on its chief executive officer, Mike Cagney, who was accused of sexual improprieties with an executive assistant, Laura Munoz, among many other allegations. A lawsuit was filed against Cagney by former employee Brandon Charles, who alleged SoFi had fired him for reporting bad practices, including sexual harassment, as well as mishandling of loan applications. In the suit, Fanlo was also cited, stating he “made sexual comments at [SoFi’s] San Francisco office, touched women inappropriately and made them feel uncomfortable.”

In April, HLI let Fanlo go and put Scott Sorensen in on an interim basis. Sorensen is HLI’s chief technology officer, who will work with interim chief executive officer David Karow, who previously led HLI’s radiogenomics operation.

The lawsuit against JCVI alleges that in early May, Venter withheld critical information about the conduct of a “key HLI executive” that would have led him to be fired. It also claimed Venter appointed an interim president without discussing it with HLI’s board of director.

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

According to the lawsuit, Venter did so to use company trade secrets to set up a competitor to HLI, looking for investors and to hire away HLI staffers. The computer was a Lenovo laptop that was still connected to HLI’s server. The messages sent on the computer that day included Venter’s resignation announcement, which he made on Twitter.

HLI disabled the computer’s access to its email server on May 25, but still could access it via a crash recovery program and email software. The lawsuit alleges that Venter continued distributing proprietary company information on the laptop.

The company has had a number of changes in the C-suites, including its chief medical officer, chief operations officer and head of oncology. FierceBiotech noted, “HLI has stayed quiet about the reasons for the exits but they coincided with a period in which it increased its focus on high-end health screening service Health Nucleus.”

HLI uses DNA sequencing and analysis, with machine learning, to provide insight into healthcare data. For example, in March, the company offered two comprehensive Health Nucleus product, Health Nucleus X and Health Nucleus X Platinum. Both combine whole genome sequencing with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other modalities curated to focus on cancer, cardiac, metabolic, and neurodegenerative/neurovascular diseases.

The computer Venter was using included information related to this, as well as confidential information on financial sources, such as customers and potential customers, which, the lawsuit states, includes “high net-worth individuals such as Hollywood actors and actresses, corporate executives, NFL team owners, philanthropists and politicians.”

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