Statoil Gulf Services, a unit of the Norwegian oil major, spun off a new company last year in Houston to commercialize advances in hydraulic fracturing technology invented by its scientists and engineers. And to lead the research at the new company, Statoil named as chief technology officer the researcher who developed and patented many of the inventions.
But now Statoil claims that Matthew Dawson kept secret a breakthrough he made while working for Statoil, passed it on to his wife to patent and later launched his own company to commercialize it. Statoil sued Dawson and his wife, Jin, in U.S. District Court in Houston, alleging that they stole the trade secrets and patented technology that belongs to the company.
The case raises the questions of who owns inventions developed in corporate settings and how to determine whether the ideas percolated in the company lab or emerged independent of that work. The invention would clearly be company property if it was developed while on the company payroll, intellectual property specialists said, but complicating the case is Jin Dawson, who, like her husband, holds a doctorate in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That means Statoil would need to present evidence that she did not develop the technology, intellectual property specialists said.
“That seems like a difficult thing to prove,” Joe Ahmad, a Houston trial lawyer who handles trade secret cases. “It would be different if she were, say, a plumber.”
Statoil said it would not comment beyond the lawsuit. The Dawsons, who haven’t hired a lawyer yet, declined to comment.
Statoil Gulf Services, the U.S. subsidiary of Statoil, is an oil and gas exploration and production company and is one of the largest lease holders in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Matthew Dawson joined Statoil in 2012 as a principal researcher in hydrocarbons, the molecules that make up oil and natural gas.
During his time there, Dawson applied for several patents including ways to produce oil and gas through high-pressure water injection and measure the effect of fracturing on adjacent rocks for more efficient well placement, according to the lawsuit. Dawson assigned his patents to Statoil.
Dawson also developed technology to map underground rock formations and the pressure changes in adjacent wells. The techniques, which take account of natural pressure changes as high-pressure liquids are injected into subterranean rock, save drilling companies money because they don’t have to drill as many wells, according to his patent applications.
His patents formed the basis for a trademarked product, “IMAGE Frac,” which would be sold to improve hydraulic fracturing operations, and the new company, called Reveal Energy Services, spun off by Statoil, according to court documents. Dawson became Reveal’s chief technology officer in April.
Statoil claimed in the lawsuit that Dawson, while working for Statoil and its subsidiaries, also developed proppant mapping technology, which uses surface pressure gauges to determine where to inject tiny particulates into the rock that prop open fissures for more efficient production. Typically proppants used in the oil and gas industry are ceramic particles or sand.
Statoil said in court papers that it believes Dawson passed on the technology to his wife, who then filed for a patent. Jin Dawson works as a technical patent advisor for a law firm in Houston that is not connected to the case, according to her LinkedIn profile and court documents.
‘Breach of contract’
Statoil claimed in the lawsuit that Matthew Dawson tried to use his wife’s patent application as leverage to obtain an ownership stake in Reveal. When Statoil refused, Matthew Dawson resigned as chief technology officer in mid-January, according to the lawsuit.
“A centerpiece of Dawson’s scheme was claiming Statoil/Reveal’s intellectual property as his own,” Statoil’s complaint said. The companies are alleging breach of contract against Matthew Dawson and misappropriation of trade secrets against both Dawsons.
The Dawsons have not yet filed a response to the lawsuit in federal court.
Since leaving Reveal, Matthew Dawson has launched his own venture, Axiom Genesis. Statoil accuses Dawson of meeting with Reveal’s customers – current and potential – to poach business, including speaking at trade conferences, according to the lawsuit.