Lawsuits fly as Wisk accuses Archer of stealing eVTOL designs
Skullduggery and shenanigans are afoot in the emerging eVTOL market, as long-established player Wisk accuses cashed-up newcomer Archer of pilfering its air taxi design, along with some key employees. Lawsuits and criminal investigations are underway.
When Palo Alto startup Archer exploded onto the eVTOL scene in June 2020, it did so in a remarkably aggressive fashion. Where most companies in this space spend years working in small teams on aircraft designs and scale models before making a public debut, Archer hit the ground sprinting, poaching top-level talent from Joby and Wisk, and picking up a bunch of other experienced employees from Airbus's defunct Vahana program.
It quickly signed an exploratory deal with Fiat Chrysler Automotive (now Stellantis) in a design, engineering, supply chain and composite materials partnership, and by February it had produced spectacular renders of a 12-rotor transitioning eVTOL called the Maker, and announced a billion-dollar provisional order from United Airlines, with piloted commercial flights expected to begin in 2024.
This flurry of activity was in support of a push to list on the New York Stock Exchange and raise capital through a SPAC merger with the Atlas Crest Investment Corp. SPAC listings, as we've pointed out before, are a very popular way to get your company listed without all the scrutiny and due diligence required for an IPO, and they tend to be a much worse deal for investors.
Now, Archer appears to be embroiled in the first high-profile legal showdown of the eVTOL world, as Wisk Aero has launched a lawsuit accusing Archer of misappropriating trade secrets and violating trade secrets – and it appears a criminal investigation is now also underway.
The allegations relate to unnamed employees among the 10 that Archer hired away from Wisk, who are accused of jumping ship with a treasure trove of Wisk IP in their pockets after Wisk hired a third party to conduct a forensic investigation.
"We discovered that one of those engineers downloaded thousands of Wisk files near midnight, shortly before he announced his resignation and immediately departed to Archer," reads a Wisk blog post. "Another engineer downloaded numerous files containing test data just before departing for Archer. Yet another wiped any trace of his computer activities shortly before leaving for Archer."
"The stolen files," it continues, "include a multitude of Wisk trade secrets for aircraft designs, component designs, system designs, manufacturing, and test data. They include voluminous confidential presentations reporting on the development, simulation and testing of Wisk aircraft, as well as highly technical confidential documents focused on research, design, development, testing and fabrication of specific systems, which compile years of effort by engineers to develop Wisk’s proprietary technology."
According to Wisk, Archer's Maker design is stolen more or less wholesale from a secret patent design Wisk filed with the US Patent and Trademark office in early 2020. It features the same unconventional 12-rotor setup used on Wisk's aircraft, as well as a highly unconventional V-tail and five-bladed rotors. Wisk compares the two designs in the image below:
Wisk believes Archer's projected timelines could only be achieved using purloined IP, pointing out that the near-identical design it submitted to the patent office was Wisk's sixth-generation aircraft design, and the result of 10 years of engineering, prototyping and testing. "We believe it is virtually impossible," says Wisk, "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."
In response to the lawsuit, Archer made the following statement: "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.”
“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 Archer employees with whom the individual worked also have received subpoenas relating to this investigation, and all are fully cooperating with the authorities.”
According to the lawsuit, Archer's co-founders did the company's position no favors in an unspecified recent media interview. Section 9 of the lawsuit's introduction elaborates: "In an interview, Archer’s co-founder, Adam Goldstein, acknowledged that “a lot of the folks from Archer came from Wisk.” Archer’s other co-founder, Brett Adcock, said “our team here at Archer has been working on this for 10 years.” Goldstein heaped praise on former Wisk engineers, stating “this is the sixth aircraft that they’re building, sixth full scale aircraft.” This “sixth aircraft” was, in reality, a virtual copy of a potential design for the sixth-generation aircraft Wisk is currently developing. Goldstein elaborated, “it’s not a question to us whether the technology work, you can literally just go to a Wisk website . . . you can see these vehicles work.” He called Wisk’s former engineers an “[i]ncredible group with incredible technology.” Adcock confirmed that “we’re not waiting on any technology breakthroughs.”"
Ouch. It'll be interesting to see how this situation progresses. Wisk presumably has considerable resources at its command, as a joint venture between Google co-founder Larry Page's Kitty Hawk corporation, and Boeing. Archer certainly seems to have cash to splash as well, so if it really did go to market with a stolen design, you've got to ask the question: why on Earth would Archer take a Wisk like that? (Sorry, we couldn't help ourselves.)
Source: Wisk Aero