Enzyme developer Codexis has filed suit against China-based competitor EnzymeWorks and its founder Junhua (Alex) Tao for stealing trade secrets and infringing on Codexis patents. Tao denies the allegation and Codexis’s accusation that EnzymeWorks is poaching customers by selling copycat products at low prices.
In its complaint, filed on Feb. 19 in a California federal court, Redwood City, Calif.-based Codexis is asking the court to stop Tao’s alleged infringement and for unspecified monetary damages to be determined at a trial.
Codexis and EnzymeWorks both sell enzymes as biocatalysts for pharmaceutical and fine chemicals synthesis. The use of enzymes is growing because they tend to be more environmentally friendly than traditional catalysts. They also can enable enantioselective transformations.
“Codexis undertakes litigation rarely and reluctantly,” says CEO John Nicols. “But this form of blatant disrespect for intellectual property harms not only our business and ultimately our shareholders but also our customers.”
Reached by e-mail, Tao, a chemist with a Ph.D. from New Mexico State University, calls Codexis’ s charges “baseless,” saying that EnzymeWorks “has its own retrosynthetic expertise.” The firm is able to develop “cost-effective chemoenzymatic processes, and it will continue to do so successfully,” Tao adds.
Between 2004 and 2006, while working for Pfizer, Tao led a research project between Pfizer and Codexis to develop biocatalysts for pharmaceutical synthesis. During this project, Codexis claims, he gained proprietary knowledge of Codexis’s products.
Tao started up EnzymeWorks in 2010, after which he successfully recruited former Codexis scientists as part of “a deliberate plan to copy Codexis’s enzymes and misappropriate Codexis’s trade secrets,” Codexis says.
With the help of those scientists, EnzymeWorks has been able to sell “100% exact molecular copies” of Codexis products, according to Codexis. Because enzymes are typically hundreds of amino acids long, Codexis says, “it is statistically impossible” for EnzymeWorks to “coincidentally” develop those products on its own.
EnzymeWorks is based in Zhangjiagang, China, where it maintains an R&D facility and a manufacturing complex. It also has an outpost in San Diego.