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Sowing the Seeds of Corporate Espionage

The word espionage evokes certain clichéd images of dapper spies sipping shaken martinis, bedding dangerous women and employing vast arsenals of nifty gadgets while thwarting villainous plans for world domination. In reality, spy work is a mundane drudgery that rarely approaches the sexy.

Corporate espionage evokes its own clichés of penetrating the research and development labs of leading high tech companies to abscond with plans for the next big thing. But in the business world the “next big thing” is profit. And profit is most often found in the ordinary, like DuPont’s $17 billion trade secret that makes your Oreo Cookie’s filling bright white.

Or the secrets behind drought- and pest-resistant corn.

The FBI recently announced the arrest of Mo Hailong, a Chinese national charged with stealing agricultural trade secrets from DuPont and Monsanto farms in Iowa worth between $30 million and $40 million dollars.

Profitable? Seed technology that could be used to help feed a nation of more than 1.3 billion people probably fits into that category. Mundane? Driving through the Hawkeye State probably qualifies.

Other examples of high profile trade secret theft find their way into the headlines from time to time. In recent weeks these have included companies and organizations like:
Express Scripts and Ernst & Young
VIA Technologies and Asustek Computer
FoodquestTQ and the Food and Drug Administration
Pure Storage and EMC

The financial implications of these examples are measured in millions. But what about smaller organizations, such as a contractor or small consultancy that relies on its specific expertise in an industry segment to make a dollar? If you fit such a category, chances are you’ve been in a situation where, after a series of discussions with a prospective client—perhaps a larger company that would represent a significant source of income—you are invited in to make your pitch.

Over the course of the next hour or so you hand out documents and make a presentation outlining your ideas. Insightful questions are asked and answered, scenarios are raised and heads nod in agreement. Upon the meeting’s adjournment your point of contact pulls you aside and offers promising encouragement and you leave filled with optimism. But then there’s radio silence, and your follow-up calls and emails are met with evasion. Eventually you are told, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

In an attempt to win an important piece of business, you shared a portion of your own intellectual property and now you worry that you could very well have convinced the company of the value of your approach, but in the process of making your case you gave away enough that they no longer needed your services.

Whether a giant agribusiness or a solo business consultant, every successful company depends on innovation to thrive. Those innovations must be shared in order to have their effects, sharing comes with risk, and some times that means the innovations you toiled over and invested in are going to be stolen or copied by your competition.

That’s cold comfort when considering what might have been, but knowing the risks in advance means taking steps to protect your valuable intellectual property.

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