ALBANY — The former General Electric research engineer who pleaded guilty on Thursday to stealing trade secrets admitted he stole the technology while working at GE’s lab at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany.
Yang Sui, 42, of Niskayuna, faces up to 10 years in federal prison under a plea deal in which he admitted to stealing dozens of files from GE’s computer servers while working at GE’s lab at SUNY Poly, which was part of the New York Power Electronics Manufacturing Consortium, a $500 million research program created by the state in 2014.
GE invested $100 million in the consortium by helping to set up a clean room manufacturing line at SUNY Poly that would make silicon carbide chips that would be made into power electronics switches. The switches would regulate power in everything from electric cars and airplanes to wind turbines. The chips are technically called metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors, or MOSFETS.
The consortium has been instrumental in attracting companies to set up silicon carbide manufacturing and packaging operations at SUNY Poly’s campus outside of Utica.
Sui was assigned by GE to work at the SUNY Poly lab from 2015 to 2017. It was during those two years that he admitted to stealing GE trade secrets on silicon carbide chip manufacturing, which GE had developed over the years at the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna.
Sui, a Chinese national, began working at GE’s research lab in Niskayuna in 2010. He was sent to work at GE’s silicon carbide lab at SUNY Poly in 2015, and soon after began downloading sensitive GE files to his computer at SUNY Poly.
“On multiple occasions, the defendant stole, by downloading from GE’s servers, and then uploading as attachments to emails via his Gmail account, dozens of GE’s electronic files pertaining to the research, design, manufacture, and customer markets for silicon carbide MOSFETs,” federal prosecutors outline in Sui’s plea deal filed in U.S. District Court in Albany. “After sending the stolen information to himself via his Gmail account, the defendant repeatedly logged on to his Gmail account from his home in Niskayuna and downloaded the stolen GE files onto his personal laptop computer.”
Sui also admitted that he planned to use the silicon carbide manufacturing instructions, which involve 200 steps, to launch his own company. He even had plans to attract $30 million in outside investment in the venture.
“Beginning in about 2017, the defendant was developing a business plan to start his own private company whose purpose was to manufacture and sell the same type of silicon carbide MOSFETs that GE was researching, developing, designing, and manufacturing through NY-PEMC,” federal prosecutors wrote in the plea agreement.
Under the plea agreement, the loss to GE is considered to be at least $500,000. Sui is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 22.
Neither SUNY Poly nor the state immediately offered comment on the case.
“GE has been closely cooperating with the FBI for some time on this matter,” a GE spokesman told the Times Union. “At GE, we aggressively protect and defend our intellectual property and have processes in place for identifying these issues and partnering with law enforcement.”
Prosecutors wrote that GE uncovered the theft in December of 2017 as it was winding down operations at SUNY Poly, having set up the manufacturing line at SUNY Poly.
GE initially interviewed Sui about the crime on Dec. 19, 2017 and then took materials and electronic devices from his SUNY Poly office and his house.
Two days later, the FBI searched Sui’s Niskayuna home and seized additional computers and other devices. On Dec. 22, the FBI executed another search warrant at GE in Niskayuna and seized Sui’s office materials that GE had removed from its SUNY Poly lab after uncovering his activities, including notebooks.
“One of the notebooks memorialized the defendant’s plans to start his own company by producing silicon carbide MOSFETs,” prosecutors wrote in the plea agreement. “The seized materials show that the defendant was seeking $30 million in funding for a 50 percent ownership stake in his planned private company.”
Prosecutors say Sui had also explored the possibility of just licensing the silicon carbide technology from GE, a move that would not have been illegal by itself.
“The defendant had not yet discussed any potential license with GE because, soon after the defendant began exploring the possibility of obtaining a license, GE came to his house and seized the materials,” prosecutors wrote.