Chinese man sentenced for stealing Monsanto trade secret

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Chinese national who pleaded guilty earlier this year to stealing a trade secret from agribusiness giant Monsanto while working in Missouri has been sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Haitao Xiang, formerly of Chesterfield, Missouri, was sentenced in federal court in St. Louis on Thursday to 29 months in prison and fined $150,000. Xiang must also undergo three years of surveillance upon his release from prison.

In January, Xiang pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit economic espionage. Federal prosecutors said Xiang transferred a trade secret to a memory card and then attempted to transfer it to China for the benefit of the Chinese government.

Xiang worked as an imaging scientist for Monsanto and one of its subsidiaries, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017.

Court records indicate that Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed an online digital agricultural software platform to help farmers collect field data to increase productivity. Part of the platform was an algorithm called Nutrient Optimizer, which the companies considered a trade secret and their intellectual property.

In June 2017, the day after he left the companies, Xiang attempted to fly to China, prosecutors said. During a search, investigators discovered that one of Xiang’s electronic devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer.

Xiang flew to China, where he worked for the Institute of Soil Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was arrested upon his return to the United States.

The case was brought as part of a 2018 Justice Department effort called the China Initiative, which aimed to crack down on trade secret theft and economic espionage.

The department removed the China Initiative name in February amid criticism that federal agents and prosecutors were too aggressive in their pursuit of Chinese scholars on US college campuses. But the department’s top national security official, Matthew Olsen, said at the time that the department would continue to pursue Chinese espionage and that it supported its ongoing China-related investigations and prosecutions.

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