Science and Technology News

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Chinese Scientist Sentenced to Prison in Theft of Engineered Rice


A Chinese scientist was sentenced to 121 months in a federal prison for conspiring to steal samples of a variety of rice seeds from a Kansas biopharmaceutical research facility.

Acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers of the Justice Department’s National Security Division and U.S. Attorney Stephen R. McAllister of the District of Kansas made the announcement.

Weiqiang Zhang, 51, a Chinese national, and U.S. legal permanent resident residing in Manhattan, Kansas, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia in the District of Kansas. Zhang was convicted on Feb. 15, 2017 of one count of conspiracy to steal trade secrets, one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property and one count of interstate transportation of stolen property.

Evidence at trial established that Zhang worked as a rice breeder for Ventria Bioscience in Junction City, Kansas.  Ventria develops genetically programmed rice to express recombinant human proteins, which are then extracted for use in the therapeutic and medical fields.  Zhang has a master’s degree in agriculture from Shengyang Agricultural University in China and a doctorate from Louisiana State University.

According to trial evidence, Zhang acquired without authorization hundreds of rice seeds produced by Ventria and stored them at his residence in Manhattan.  The rice seeds have a wide variety of health research applications and were developed to produce either human serum albumin, contained in blood, or lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein found, for example, in human milk.  Ventria spent millions of dollars and years of research developing its seeds and cost-effective methods to extract the proteins, which are used to develop lifesaving products for global markets. Ventria used locked doors with magnetic card readers to restrict access to the temperature-controlled environment where the seeds were stored and processed.

Trial evidence demonstrated that in the summer of 2013, personnel from a crop research institute in China visited Zhang at his home in Manhattan.  Zhang drove the visitors to tour facilities in Iowa, Missouri and Ohio.  On Aug. 7, 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found seeds belonging to Ventria in the luggage of Zhang’s visitors as they prepared to leave the United States for China.

“Weiqiang Zhang betrayed his employer by unlawfully providing its proprietary rice seeds to representatives of a Chinese crop institute,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan. “Today’s sentence demonstrates the significant consequences awaiting those who would steal trade secrets from American companies.  The Criminal Division and its law enforcement partners will continue to work closely with companies like Ventria to protect American intellectual property—which is essential to our economy and way of life—against all threats both foreign and domestic.”

“Cross-border intellectual property theft not only hurts victim companies, it also threatens our national security,” said Assistant Attorney General Demers.  “FBI’s vigilance stopped Ventria’s intellectual property from leaving our country in the nick of time, but it was Ventria’s cooperation that allowed us to hold Zhang accountable for his crimes.”

“Ventria invested years of research and tens of millions of dollars to create a new and beneficial product,” said U.S. Attorney McAllister. “It is vital that we protect such intellectual property from theft and exploitation by foreign interests. We all benefit when American companies continue to drive socially valuable advancements in food, medicine and technology.”

The FBI’s Little Rock, Arkansas, Field Office and Kansas City, Missouri, Field Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas investigated the case.  Trial Attorney Matt Walczewski of the National Security Division, Trial Attorneys Brian Resler and Evan Williams of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Rask of the District of Kansas prosecuted the case.

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