Elon Musk’s SpaceX is working on a constellation of satellites that will broadcast the internet, and the company has been treading on a few toes at Broadcom in order to develop them.
Chipmaker Broadcom has taken SpaceX to court over the alleged poaching of 5 senior engineers. Broadcom alleges that SpaceX did so in order to steal its trade secrets, writes Tim Fernholz for Quartz.
SpaceX hiring policy leaves a bad taste at Broadcom
Musk’s company admits that it hired the engineers, but says that it “did not pursue or lure engineers from Broadcom.” The company says that the engineers switched companies in fear of redundancy, and in once case following a demotion.
When SpaceX was looking for a chipmaker to develop custom chips last year, Broadcom was one of a number of companies involved in a so-called “beauty contest.” The chip firm alleges that SpaceX used the event to identify its engineers before poaching them.
Specifics on what the chips would be used for are not available, but it appears that the program relates to SpaceX’s planned satellite internet constellation. At the same time the company opened an office dedicated to the project in Seattle.
Broadcom has experience in the field and the firm has worked on sophisticated chips. In order for the satellite internet program to work, SpaceX needs chips that can connect large numbers of terminals and share connections between rapidly moving satellites.
Iranian-born engineers at center of controversy
The lawsuit relates to engineers Alireza Tarighat, Bagher Afshar, Ahmad Mirzaei, Ali Sajjadi and Masoud Kahrizi. All five received early training in Iran before completing doctorate programs at U.S. universities.
While each of the men worked in Broadcom’s radio-frequency (RF) division, only Tarighat was on the SpaceX bidding team. Broadcom ultimately did not receive the contract, and was also being acquired by Singapore-based Avago Technologies at the time.
Two senior members of the RF division were made redundant and more jobs were expected to go. The engineers started looking for work.
Tarighat is said to have contacted a friend at SpaceX regarding a job at the company, while the other four went to the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco in February. During the event Mirzaei bumped into a friend who worked for SpaceX and introduced his colleagues. The contact went on to tell the men about job opportunities at the company.
Broadcom alleges poaching after “beauty contest”
As a result the 5 applied for work, and all were hired in March 2016. “In my new position at SpaceX I am working on long range satellite communications,” Kahrizi said in his affidavit.
Broadcom believes that the “beauty contest” was just a way of identifying its top engineers. SpaceX maintains that it is using a different design on its chips, and that the employees have not given away any trade secrets.
Broadcom has asked for the engineers to be barred from working at SpaceX under the terms of a temporary restraining order, but the request was rejected by a California state judge. It is not clear whether Broadcom will take any further legal action.
SpaceX is currently racing to get its satellites into the air by the end of the air in order to win a crucial radio spectrum. Any delay would mean the company would not meet “its current project schedule, which will jeopardize SpaceX’s position vis-à-vis its competitors in bringing new technology to the market and thereby trigger cascading and largely irreparable harm to the company.”