A new development has come to pass in the ongoing legal dispute between life science company Agilent Technologies and DNA synthesis startup Twist Bioscience. Back in February of 2016, Agilent filed a lawsuit against Twist alleging that the young company’s platform was lifted from Agilent by Twist founder and CEO, Emily Leproust, while she was still working as a scientist for the company in Santa Clara, California. Now, a year later, Twist has issued a response that seeks to show how and why Agilent’s legal allegations do not hold water.
The original complaint filed by Agilent last year levies a number of accusations against Leproust and Twist Bioscience. As a former Agilent employee, Leproust left the company in 2013 and joined forces with two other biotechnologists, Bill Banyai and Bill Peck, to found Twist Bioscience. Agilent’s complaint alleges that, before doing so, Leproust executed a premeditated plan to develop Twist’s platform on the basis of Agilent’s technology as well as to seek funding for her forthcoming startup all while still an employee of Agilent.
The complaint also claimed that Leproust tried unsuccessfully to sell her technology to another DNA synthesis startup, Gen9, in February of 2013. Agilent then invested $21 million in Gen9, who went on to become one of Twist’s biggest competitors and were recently acquired by Ginkgo Bioworks last month. On top of this, the Agilent complaint states that Leproust continued to poach employees from the company by recruiting them to her new startup.
According to Agilent, Leproust violated her employee contract and duties, as well as misappropriated trade secrets, and demanded on those grounds that Leproust and Twist be prevented from using their allegedly stolen technology platform. They also asked that 100% of Leproust’s compensation during her tenure with Agilent be repaid, along with additional damages.
Twist swiftly denied the validity of Agilent’s legal complaint, speculating that it was a baseless attempt to “stifle innovation and competition.” Little other response to the lawsuit was offered by either Twist or Leproust until now with their very recent filing.
Throughout 2016, Twist’s momentum appeared not to be impeded by the scandal of the lawsuit, as they went on to establish strategic partnership and supply agreements with Microsoft, Ginkgo Bioworks, Desktop Genetics, among others. Twist also further extended its platform, which originally supplied genes up to 1.8 kb in length, to now supply genes of up to 3.2 kb to certain partners.
The Latest ‘Twist’
On January 30th, Twist and Leproust filed an official answer to Agilent’s complaint. Their response roundly denies every one of Agilent’s allegations and reiterates the message that Agilent is motivated by the desire to stifle competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
The answer states that the foundations of Twist’s platform were developed independently by Bill Banyai and Bill Peck while the two were working at Complete Genomics. Leproust’s role is emphasized as that of a business leader—a role that, according to the narrative given in the answer, she hoped to assume to a greater extent while working at Agilent, but which her employer denied.
To address the allegation that Leproust stole trade secrets, the answer points out that the two original patents on which the company’s platform is based—held by co-founders Banyai and Peck—are not, in fact, disputed by Agilent’s lawsuit. In other words, Agilent is not attacking the patents on which the company’s platform is based because, according to Twist and Leproust, they don’t actually contain any trade secrets.
To the accusation that Leproust recruited employees from Agilent after founding her startup, the answer points out that employees followed their former colleagues to Twist from multiple companies (not just Agilent), including some who followed Banyai from Glimmerglass and Complete Genomics.
Twist’s answer also calls into question the sincerity of Agilent’s claims based on the timing of the lawsuit. To Twist and Leprousts’ lawyers, the fact that Agilent delayed their lawsuit for two years after becoming aware of Twist’s technology platform shows that the object of their litigation is not to achieve justice, but to stifle a rising competitor. According to the document, “only after waiting and watching Twist’s success, and failing to perform in the marketplace on its own, has Agilent turned to litigation.” Indeed, the filing of the suit nearly a year ago did come on the heels of Twist announcing their blockbuster $61 million Series D fundraising round.
Having presented these defenses, Twist’s answer demands that the complaint from Agilent be dismissed and that Agilent pay to compensate their legal fees along with any other unspecified relief as deemed appropriate by the court.
Overall, Agilent’s complaint and Twist’s response paint wholly different pictures of the situation at hand, including everything from the founding of Twist to the nature of Leproust’s relationship with Agilent near the end of her employment. Sifting through these incompatible narratives is bound to be quite a task for the State of California Superior Court. At present, both parties are scheduled to attend a case management conference on March 3, but no dates have been set for close of fact discovery, for hearing dispositive motions, or for trial.0