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Questions raised over Levandowski actions at Alphabet

The Uber executive accused of stealing trade secrets from his former employer, Alphabet, was allegedly involved in a competing start-up while he employed there, a company that eventually became part of Uber.

The revelation is the latest in a high-stakes legal battle between Alphabet and Uber, which are both competing to master self-driving car technology so that they offer driverless transportation fleets.

The lawsuit brought by Alphabet’s autonomous car unit Waymo in February accuses former employee Anthony Levandowski, who now heads Uber’s self-driving programme, of stealing trade secrets and accuses Uber of infringing on patents. Uber has said those accusations are baseless.

Newly unsealed documents reveal that Alphabet paid Mr Levandowski $120m in incentive payments while he worked on Waymo’s self-driving car, underscoring his key role in the development of the technology. After leaving Waymo last year, Mr Levandowski and other ex-Waymo engineers founded Otto, a self-driving truck company that was quickly purchased by Uber for more than $600m.

The new documents reveal that while at Waymo, Mr Levandowski was simultaneously working with several companies that were direct competitors to the group’s self-driving car. These companies, which merged and then became part of Uber, could bolster Uber’s case in the broader lawsuit — because they may allow Uber to argue that it is using intellectual property owned by these hitherto unnamed start-ups, rather than Waymo’s technology.

One of these companies, called Odin Wave, listed Mr Levandowski’s address in its documents of incorporation in 2012. A second, called Tyto Lidar, was run by his friend Ognen Stojanovski and merged with Odin Wave in 2014.

The existence of these companies was revealed in court filings from October in which Alphabet accuses Mr Levandowski and a colleague of breach of contract. Those documents were published on Monday and allege that Mr Levandowski and Lior Ron, both co-founders of Otto, recruited Alphabet employees to join their new venture while they were all still employed by the group.

Alphabet and Uber once had a close relationship, and the search engine company was one of Uber’s first big backers, taking a $258m stake in 2013. But the companies have become rivals as they have moved into similar fields, with both aspiring to offer self-driving taxi fleets. Last year David Drummond, Alphabet’s chief legal officer, stepped down from the Uber board, citing a conflict of interest.

The new filings show that Alphabet was aware of Tyto Lidar, the start-up linked to Mr Levandowski, and even considered buying the company in 2015 and 2016. Mr Levandowski participated in these conversations as part of his role at Alphabet, without disclosing that he had a relationship with Tyto. Tyto later merged with Otto, which was then acquired by Uber.

Mr Levandowski could not be reached for comment on Monday. His lawyers said last week that he would be invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination in response to a court request for documents. Mr Levandowski has previously told journalists that Otto did not steal any IP from Alphabet.

As Alphabet and Uber clash, there are three related legal efforts moving through the courts. The first began in October when Waymo quietly charged Messrs Levandowski and Ron with breach of contract. That case is still working its way through the courts.

Then in February Waymo sued Uber and Mr Levandowski, raising accusations of patent infringement and trade secret theft. Alphabet has asked for a preliminary injunction that would compel Uber to cease using the patents in question, a motion that will be decided on May 3.

In tandem with that lawsuit Uber has asked to move the case to arbitration, which would mean avoiding a public showdown. That motion will be ruled on at the end of this month.

Via FT