The Boeing-Kitty Hawk joint venture Wisk Aero is taking legal action against Archer Aviation, claiming that the air taxi startup stole Wisk’s design for a sixth-generation eVTOL aircraft and other proprietary information.
A complaint filed April 6 in federal court in the Northern District of California alleges that Archer’s eVTOL aircraft copies a design that Wisk submitted in a confidential patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January 2020. The design was revealed in investor materials in February this year, after Archer announced plans to go public at a $3.8 billion valuation through a merger with the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Atlas Crest Investment Corp (NYSE: ACIC).
Established by Vettery co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, Archer burst onto the scene in May 2020 with a roster of highly paid talent poached from other eVTOL developers, including multiple engineers from Wisk, which has been developing eVTOL aircraft for more than a decade. Archer VP of engineering Tom Muniz previously held that position at Wisk, and Archer has hired at least 20 former Wisk employees in total.
“If Archer had merely hired away employees, Wisk would have little reason to complain: Wisk also depends on a fluid and elastic market for talent and strongly believes in the ability of employees to have the freedom to choose where they work. But Archer did not stop with employees,” Wisk’s complaint states.
The complaint alleges on the basis of a third-party forensic investigation commissioned by Wisk that multiple engineers who departed for Archer took with them highly confidential, proprietary trade secret information, which formed the basis for Archer’s Maker eVTOL design. “That aircraft is a copy of a confidential potential design for Wisk’s sixth-generation aircraft, and relies on innovations that Wisk has kept confidential and others that it has patented,” the filing states.
According to the complaint, one engineer surreptitiously downloaded a total of nearly 5,000 files from Wisk’s secure corporate Google Drive repository in the weeks before announcing his departure for Archer on Jan. 10, 2020.
In addition to trade secrets related to aircraft design, Wisk alleges that Archer has benefited from Wisk’s proprietary information related to component and system designs, facility inventory, and test data. Wisk claims that the stolen files contain explicit instructions regarding how to manufacture and assemble certain components for use in the aircraft, including printed circuit boards as well as custom “motor controllers, power controllers, power distribution systems, and other features.”
The stolen files also contain raw Wisk testing data that “would be particularly valuable to a competitor such as Archer that intended to build an aircraft replicating Wisk’s design,” the complaint states.
In a blog post about the lawsuit, Wisk points to Archer’s “startlingly short operational history” as a further indication that Archer is relying on stolen intellectual property to design and certify an eVTOL aircraft by its stated target date of 2024. “We believe it is virtually impossible for Archer to have produced an originally designed aircraft in this timeframe that has gone through the necessary testing and is ready for certification with the FAA,” the post states.
Wisk says it informed Archer about its concerns last year, but that Archer failed to take reasonable steps to address them. “Archer’s infringement was egregious and consciously wrongful, and done in bad faith,” Wisk asserts in its complaint, which seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to recover and protect its trade secrets, in addition to monetary and exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees.
An Archer spokesperson told eVTOL.com, “It’s regrettable that Wisk would engage in litigation in an attempt to deflect from the business issues that have caused several of its employees to depart. The plaintiff raised these matters over a year ago, and after looking into them thoroughly, we have no reason to believe any proprietary Wisk technology ever made its way to Archer. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously.”
The spokesperson said that Archer has placed an employee on paid administrative leave in connection with a government investigation and a search warrant issued to the employee, “which we believe are focused on conduct prior to the employee joining the company.” Archer and three other of its employees have also received subpoenas relating to the investigation, and “all are fully cooperating with the authorities,” the spokesperson added.
A Moelis & Company spokesperson declined to comment on behalf of Atlas Crest Investment Corp; Moelis chairman and CEO Ken Moelis is chairman of ACIC.
This story has been updated from its original version with comment from Archer and additional details.