A federal judge in San Francisco rejected air taxi startup Wisk Aero’s request for a preliminary injunction against rival startup Archer Aviation, as Silicon Valley’s first big “flying car” legal drama heats up.
Wisk, a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk, wanted to block Archer Aviation from using any of the 52 trade secrets it alleges were stolen. Wisk is also seeking unspecified monetary damages from Archer in a lawsuit that was filed April 6th. Federal investigators are also looking into the case.
In his ruling, US District Court Judge William Orrick wrote that Wisk’s request was “too uncertain and equivocal,” though he acknowledged that there were “some arguable indications of misappropriation.”
Archer celebrated the ruling by blasting Wisk’s lawsuit as meritless. “The record makes it clear that Wisk has provided no evidence — not a single document, not a single witness — that Archer ever received or used any Wisk trade secret,” Archer’s deputy general counsel, Eric Lentell said in a statement. “Wisk’s charges of massive theft are based entirely on conspiracy theories and outright misrepresentations of the actual record.”
Archer claims that evidence introduced in the case will prove that its 12-rotor, battery-powered Maker aircraft was designed “independently, and well in advance of any effort by Wisk to develop a similar eVTOL [electric vertical and takeoff] aircraft.” Archer officially unveiled its demonstrator aircraft at an event in Los Angeles last month.
In its lawsuit, Wisk alleged that former employee Jing Xue improperly downloaded almost 5,000 data files onto a personal device that he subsequently gave to Archer after joining the company in January 2020. Lentell claims that Wisk is trying to defame Xue as the “poster child for the covert theft.” But when questioned in court about the files, Xue pled the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, citing the federal investigation into the case. Archer has place Xue on administrative leave.
Despite the setback, Wisk says that it intends to take its lawsuit all the way to a jury trial. “We are in the very early stages of a long legal process,” a spokesperson said in a statement, “with in-depth evidence-gathering now to begin, and we fully intend to hold Archer accountable at trial.”
Archer was founded by Adam Goldstein and Brett Adcock, co-founders of Vettery, a marketing software-as-a-service company, which the two sold to Switzerland-based staffing firm Adecco Group in 2018 for $100 million. The company came out of stealth in the spring of 2020 after having poached key talent from Wisk, which is jointly owned by Boeing and Kitty Hawk, the flying taxi company bankrolled by Google co-founder Larry Page.
But Wisk argues that Archer didn’t just steal talent — it also stole trade secrets. Wisk has accused Archer of misappropriating “thousands of highly confidential files containing very valuable trade secrets, as well as the use of significant innovations Wisk has patented.”
Air taxis, sometimes misidentified as “flying cars,” are essentially helicopters without the noisy, polluting gas motors. A number of startups have emerged in recent years with prototype aircraft that are electric-powered, able to carry a handful of passengers, and intended for short flights within a city or regionally. Analysts predict that the flying taxi market could grow to $150 billion in revenue by 2035.