Adam Khan believed he had invented nearly indestructible glass that was going to revolutionize the technology industry. His “diamond glass” looked like ordinary glass, but was 6 times stronger than the industry standard. His plan, according to a new Bloomberg article? License the technology to phone manufacturers and turn a pretty penny for his company, Akhan Semiconductor, Inc.
As part of his research, he sent a specimen of his glass to a San Diego lab that was owned by Huawei Technologies to have it evaluated for potential licensing – but the sample he received back after testing was badly damaged, leading him to believe it may have been tampered with.
Khan said he was optimistic at first: “We were very optimistic. Having one of the top three smartphone manufacturers back you, at least on paper, is very attractive.”
But he then found himself paranoid about knockoffs – and became even more paranoid when Huawei began to “behave suspiciously” after getting his sample. They missed a deadline to return his sample and when they did return it, it was broken in several pieces and three shards of glass were missing altogether.
He said: “My heart sank. I thought, ‘Great, this multibillion-dollar company is coming after our technology. What are we going to do now?’”
Khan was likely further surprised when he was approached by the FBI to help with an ongoing investigation into Huawei. The FBI wanted Khan and Akhan’s chief operations officer, Carl Shurboff, to conduct an undercover meeting with Huawei in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. Shurboff was outfitted with surveillance devices and recorded the conversation, while a reporter from Bloomberg watched from a safe distance.
During the conversation, Khan and his COO “succeeded in getting Huawei representatives to admit, on tape, to breaking the contract with Akhan and, evidently, to violating U.S. export-control laws.”
Subsequent to that, when an FBI gemology expert was able to examine the glass Khan had received back, they determined the Huawei had blasted it with a 100 kW laser, which is “powerful enough to be used as a weapon”.
The investigation Khan is involved in is separate from recent indictments against the company. It is hardly the last as it seems that every day, more Huawei stones continue to turn over.
“Today should serve as a warning that we will not tolerate businesses that violate our laws, obstruct justice, or jeopardize national and economic well-being,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a January 28 press release about indictments regarding technology allegedly stolen by Huawei from T-Mobile. On that same day, the FBI raided the San Diego lab where Khan had sent his glass.
Display glass is considered to be a significant competitive advantage in the world of smart phones. Khan had been working on diamond glass going back to his college days when he began learning about nanodiamonds at the age of 19. According to Bloomberg:
After graduation, he ran experiments at the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility and teamed up with researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, eventually developing and patenting a way to deposit a thin coating of tiny diamonds on materials such as glass. He also licensed diamond-related patents for Akhan from the Argonne lab in 2014. By the following year, Khan was confident enough to start promoting his new technology.
If the FBI’s new investigation into Huawei continues to provide substantial evidence, it will bolster the Trump administration’s case to block the Chinese company from selling equipment for 5G use in the US. Some countries, like Australia, have already banned Huawei equipment for fear of not being able to protect IP that’s in the interest of national security.
Khan’s final take? All companies of all sizes should be watching out for Huawei as closely as possible: “I think they’re identifying technologies that are key to their road map and going after them no matter what the size or scale or status of the business. I wouldn’t say they’re discriminating.”
To read Bloomberg’s full long-form writeup with more details on the story, click here.