Engineer Who Fled Costs of Stealing Chip Know-how in US Now Thrives in China

(Bloomberg) — Few firms are higher positioned to profit from the crippling scarcity of pc chips than ASML Holding NV, a Dutch producer whose tools performs an integral function in making the world’s most superior semiconductors.

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However 4 strains tucked midway into an in any other case upbeat, 281-page annual report from February hinted at a doubtlessly incendiary drawback. ASML accused a Beijing-based agency, regarded by Chinese language officers as one of many nation’s most promising tech ventures, of probably stealing its commerce secrets and techniques. Behind the temporary disclosure is a unprecedented multiyear story of mental property theft and a broader menace going through the $556 billion semiconductor trade.

Within the report, ASML stated the Chinese language firm, Dongfang Jingyuan Electron Ltd., is said to a defunct Silicon Valley agency, Xtal Inc., which ASML sued for mental property theft. A 2018 trial in California, which acquired scant consideration on the time, offered extra element. Dongfang and Xtal have been primarily the identical, created a month aside in 2014 by a former ASML engineer named Zongchang Yu, ASML’s legal professional instructed the court docket. The 2 firms labored in tandem towards the identical objective: acquiring ASML’s know-how and transferring it to China, which is searching for to foster its personal semiconductor trade, typically on the expense of Western firms, the legal professional argued.That know-how was secured in typically audacious trend: one engineer was accused of stealing all 2 million strains of supply code for essential ASML software program after which sharing a part of it with Xtal and Dongfang staff within the US and China, based on transcripts of the proceedings.“It’s not an accident. It’s not the rest,” Patrick Ryan, ASML’s lead legal professional, instructed the court docket. “However it’s a plot to get know-how for the Chinese language authorities.” Xtal misplaced and filed for chapter safety. It was ordered to pay $845 million, which ASML deemed “uncollectable.”ASML declined to remark for this story. A Dongfang consultant declined to remark. Yu, 60, who has an impressive arrest warrant in California on allegations of stealing commerce secrets and techniques from ASML, couldn’t be reached for remark. He now runs Dongfang in Beijing with ample assist from the Chinese language authorities, based on firm statements and different Chinese language paperwork. The allegations the corporate made in court docket and in its annual report replicate the fragile place ASML finds itself in, making an attempt to develop its enterprise in China whereas pursuing claims of IP theft in opposition to a Chinese language firm.

China is the world’s largest marketplace for semiconductors. Its electronics factories and rising center class are important customers of chips. Semiconductor firms have struggled for years to stability entry to China in opposition to issues the nation is searching for to pilfer their mental property and overtake them.

For now, China lags in semiconductor manufacturing, leaving its most vital industries depending on know-how dominated by overseas firms. Making its personal superior chips is a precedence that’s difficult by US sanctions that restrict entry to the newest tools. Beijing has taken unprecedented steps to clear such hurdles, together with launching a $150 billion semiconductor initiative in 2014 to turbocharge home manufacturing.

China has additionally inspired folks to steal know-how that advances Beijing’s pursuits, based on the FBI. “China acknowledges it must make leaps in cutting-edge applied sciences,” FBI Director Christopher Wray stated. “As a substitute of partaking within the laborious slog of innovation, China typically steals American mental property after which makes use of it to compete in opposition to the very American firms it victimized.”

ASML’s allegations provide an in depth instance of what nationwide safety authorities describe as China’s playbook to accumulate superior know-how. It’s a set of methods, they are saying, that relies on inducements from Beijing, theft by well-placed employees, and in at the least some circumstances, a reluctance to complain by company victims searching for to protect or improve entry to the Chinese language market.

“Taken individually these circumstances can appear actually anecdotal, and a few sufferer firms may say there’s probably not any grasp plan,” stated Anna Puglisi, senior fellow on the Heart for Safety and Rising Know-how at Georgetown College. “However take this along with different circumstances over time and you may see the silent—and in some circumstances not so silent—hand of the Chinese language authorities.”

China’s Ministry of Overseas Affairs known as the allegations “malicious hype.” “Anti-China politicians within the US have been utilizing ‘IP theft’ subjects to tarnish China,” the ministry stated in a press release. “China didn’t make its know-how achievements by stealing or robbing from others.”

Veldhoven, Netherlands-based ASML makes know-how that’s essential for manufacturing the quickest, strongest pc chips. In response to analysis agency Gartner Inc., as of 2021, ASML managed greater than 90% of the $17.1 billion world marketplace for lithography tools, which is used to shrink after which print patterns of transistors onto silicon wafers which are then sliced into particular person chips.

A single machine could be the dimensions of a small home and price roughly $170 million. That know-how is why the corporate’s market capitalization has greater than quadrupled in 4 years, to $284 billion on the finish of 2021.

On the middle of the litigation is software program known as optical proximity correction, or OPC. It makes up lower than 1% of ASML’s income. However with out it, lithography machines can’t precisely print tiny circuits, based on trial testimony.

“In the event you didn’t do any OPC, then the sample on the chip is completely scummed,” testified Yu Cao, an ASML government who was common supervisor of the division that develops the software program. “This is able to be a chip that doesn’t work.”

China is growing its personal lithography machines, however it may take years to catch as much as ASML, if ever, based on Robert Castellano, president of The Data Community, a Pennsylvania-based semiconductor analysis agency. Mastering OPC software program may shut a few of the hole by permitting Chinese language producers to enhance these machines and pack extra transistors onto chips they produce, he stated.

That leap may have implications past shopper units. “This isn’t about making a greater smartphone,” Castellano stated. “It’s about making weapons which are extra subtle than they’re proper now.”

The yr 2014 was vital for China’s semiconductor ambitions. That’s when the nation created its $150 billion fund to jumpstart firms to compete with overseas behemoths.

It’s additionally when Yu began his two firms. Educated in China, he had labored principally in Japan and the US, together with at ASML, which he left in 2012, based on court docket paperwork. In January 2014, he integrated Xtal, based mostly in an workplace park close to San Jose Worldwide Airport. A month later, he based Dongfang, in a government-funded industrial enclave in Beijing.

Yu created the businesses on the course of Jingyuan Han, a member of China’s financial elite who retains shut ties to the Communist Celebration, Ryan, ASML’s legal professional, alleged in court docket. Han serves as chairman and chief government officer of China Oriental Group Co., a big metal producer, the place his biography lists a number of Communist Celebration roles.

The objective was to faucet into incentive applications whereas delivering essential applied sciences for China’s semiconductor initiative, Ryan alleged.

Regardless of its industrial-age specialization, China Oriental is a participant within the nation’s race to grow to be a world know-how superpower, typically by way of investments by the corporate or by Han personally, based on company filings and Ryan’s courtroom arguments. Till 2019, China Oriental, by way of subsidiaries, owned greater than 50% of Dongfang, based on Datenna, a Dutch agency that tracks the possession of Chinese language firms. It has since bought its stake as different buyers have come onboard, Datenna stated.

Representatives for China Oriental did not return messages searching for remark.

As trial testimony alleged, Yu recruited engineers from the ASML division the place they labored growing OPC software program, and the departing staff assured their managers they’d be engaged on unrelated applied sciences.

However after Tune Lan, director of engineering, resigned in August 2015, ASML examined his pc. Investigators discovered he was working for each firms on the similar time and had downloaded ASML information to a tough drive that he took to his new employer, based on a submitting by the Dutch firm in Xtal’s chapter proceedings. The corporate stated it discovered comparable violations involving others who left for Xtal.After Xtal started advertising OPC software program, ASML sued.

The info taken by Lan, who grew to become Xtal’s vp of engineering, included supply code for ASML’s OPC software program, based on the submitting. Lan testified that he took the code inadvertently, whereas backing up his ASML e-mail to protect private information. The code was in a file connected to an e-mail that Lan stated he by no means opened.

ASML’s attorneys stated they weren’t capable of study the total scope of Lan’s actions. After ASML knowledgeable Xtal of its intent to sue, Lan used a wiper program on the laborious drive and erased as a lot as 61 gigabytes of information, based on the submitting. Lan didn’t handle the deletion in his testimony, as Xtal’s attorneys objected to a query about it.

One other former worker, Wanyu Li, who grew to become Xtal’s IT director, downloaded the supply code for ASML’s OPC software program—all 2 million strains of it—to a tough drive, based on testimony from ASML forensic consultants. Investigators discovered proof that Li used it instantly at Xtal, importing a part of the code to a GitHub server the place it was accessible to about 30 engineers with Xtal and Dongfang, based on the testimony.

The choose knowledgeable the jury that Li admitted to destroying proof, breaking the laborious drive’s circuit board into items earlier than turning it over to Xtal’s attorneys on the eve of trial, based on trial transcripts.

Xtal’s legal professional, Donald Putterman, acknowledged that Li stole the supply code and broken the laborious drive. “There isn’t any sugarcoating with what Wanyu Li did,” Putterman instructed the court docket. “You’ll be able to’t do it. It was fallacious. It was unlawful. Off the charts.”

Nevertheless, he stated nobody at Xtal knew that Li had the stolen code. “It was by no means really utilized by Xtal,” he stated. “Xtal by no means made a penny on it.”

ASML attorneys referred the case to Santa Clara County’s District Legal professional’s Workplace, which filed felony costs in April 2019 alleging theft of commerce secrets and techniques in opposition to Yu, Li and Lan, based on court docket paperwork.

Li, 56, pleaded responsible to a felony cost and Lan, 48, to a misdemeanor cost, each for taking pc information, based on prosecutor Erin West. Li was sentenced to seven months of digital monitoring, and Lan to 90 days of neighborhood service, she stated.

Each males, by way of their attorneys, declined to remark. When authorities went to arrest the three males in Could 2019, Yu had left for China, West stated.

ASML’s attorneys accused Yu of orchestrating the thefts. Yu was on emails the place his staff mentioned utilizing the Dutch firm’s supply code to assist velocity up Xtal’s software program growth, based on testimony from ASML’s forensic consultants. He additionally had copies of confidential ASML technical manuals and emailed them to his employees, they testified.

Yu testified that on the time he didn’t imagine there was an issue utilizing some inside ASML supplies to assist information Xtal’s work.

“It is rather good reference for our modeling work,” Yu wrote in a single e-mail.

By utilizing stolen information as a roadmap, Xtal shaved years off the time wanted to develop the software program, Ryan argued.

In January 2016, Xtal gained a $27 million contract with South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co., a longtime ASML buyer, to produce OPC software program, based on trial testimony. In two years, Yu’s firm had replicated a know-how that ASML stated it had spent $100 million and 10 years growing.

“Xtal didn’t should go down useless ends, as a result of it knew which of them have been useless ends, and it knew which of them have been the trail to glory, the trail to hurry, the trail to growth, the trail to the cash,” Ryan instructed the jury.

Samsung stated it doesn’t have a present relationship with Xtal or Dongfang. The corporate pointed to a press release by ASML saying that Samsung wasn’t concerned in “any malicious actions in opposition to ASML.” The Dutch firm didn’t lose any enterprise as a result of the work between Samsung and Xtal was “thwarted” when the theft was found, based on the assertion.

After ASML’s court docket victory, a Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad revealed a report alleging a hyperlink between the thefts and China. ASML refuted it and provided a distinct motive that didn’t contain China. “The broad hypothesis a few government-directed ‘conspiracy’ to steal our IP and commerce secrets and techniques is due to this fact simply that: broad hypothesis,” ASML stated, in an April 2019 press launch.

Chief Govt Officer Peter Wennink reiterated that place. “The suggestion that we have been by some means sufferer of a nationwide conspiracy is fallacious.”“The information of the matter are that we have been robbed by a handful of our personal staff based mostly in Silicon Valley who had damaged the legislation to complement themselves,” he stated.

“The suggestion that we have been by some means sufferer of a nationwide conspiracy is fallacious” — ASML CEO Peter Wennink

Nevertheless, months earlier, ASML’s personal attorneys had straight linked Yu’s firms to China’s know-how ambitions. “It’s in step with a broader technique that’s being employed the Chinese language authorities,” Andrew Winetroub, an ASML legal professional, instructed the court docket. ASML had proof, he argued, that Dongfang was receiving funds from the Chinese language authorities and that “Xtal is intimately concerned.”“They need to primarily be ASML in China,” Ryan, the lead ASML legal professional, argued. “Stealing our software program was a step in the precise course.”

ASML sought to introduce proof that its attorneys stated would assist these claims. Putterman, Xtal’s legal professional, argued that it amounted to “repetitive efforts” to “back-door prejudicial intonation” about China. The choose instructed ASML to give attention to allegations restricted to the US firm, Xtal.

ASML’s case highlights the issues many Western firms face coping with China.

China is ASML’s third-biggest market. Since 2019, the Dutch authorities has prevented the corporate from promoting its most superior lithography tools there as a result of the chips the tools makes have potential army makes use of. ASML has opposed the restrictions.

Nick Eftimiades, a senior fellow on the Atlantic Council, stated China “put ASML in an awfully awkward place.”

“This isn’t the primary time that an organization’s been stolen from and refused to make it a giant difficulty publicly,” stated Eftimiades, a former US Division of Protection official who tracks Chinese language IP theft and espionage circumstances. “Many firms go to extraordinary lengths to maintain these occasions from being recognized to the general public, stockholders and buyers.”

For Yu, Xtal’s troubles did little to gradual Dongfang’s ascent.

In 2015, Dongfang signed a analysis settlement with the Institute of Microelectronics of the Chinese language Academy of Sciences, the federal government’s semiconductor analysis middle, based on Chinese language paperwork. There, Yu caught the eye of Tianchun Ye, the institute’s director and the chief scientist directing China’s chip tools growth. Dongfang and the institute created a three way partnership for chip know-how growth. Since then, Dongfang has gained repeated honors and reward from the Chinese language authorities.

Regardless of shedding the Xtal case, Chinese language authorities granted Dongfang a wide-ranging patent in 2019 that features OPC software program. Final yr, Dongfang introduced that it was named a “little big” by China’s Ministry of Business and Data Know-how, a designation typically adopted by vital new funding and expectations of fast progress.

Since returning to Beijing, Yu has raised thousands and thousands of {dollars} whereas being courted by Chinese language officers. He appeared on the reviewing stand for a army parade marking the seventieth anniversary of China’s founding—an invitation-only affair reserved for elites.

A 2020 ebook of interviews with Chinese language tech entrepreneurs portrayed Yu as a “flagbearer” for semiconductor growth. He instructed the authors considered one of his largest goals was to assist China create its personal OPC software program—and “break the overseas monopoly.”

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