Freight forwarding and finance provider Beacon says it will “robustly defend” claims its co-founders stole information from logistics firm Vanguard, following a lawsuit against the company in a California district court.

UK-based Beacon made headlines in June this year when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos contributed to a US$15mn series A funding round. The company was launched in 2018 by former Uber executives Fraser Robinson and Dmitri Izmailov, and appointed a former Amazon head of engineering as CTO the following year.

But according to claims filed this week, Robinson allegedly used his time as a director and board member at Vanguard – a logistics and shipping company headquartered in Long Beach, California – to collect trade secrets, including operational and pricing data, customer and vendor lists, and product strategy plans.

Vanguard accuses him of then using that information to establish Beacon as a “copycat company” in November 2018, despite being bound by contractual confidentiality clauses and a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

“We trusted Fraser Robinson as a director and fiduciary of the company – this included legal stipulations around non-disclosures and protection of Vanguard’s IP – and he betrayed that trust,” a Vanguard spokesperson says.

“It is fitting that Fraser Robinson launched a company founded on fraud and named it Beacon, a word that describes a warning signal. Anybody doing business with him should certainly beware.”

A spokesperson for Beacon says the company was “surprised to hear that Vanguard have filed these proceedings”.

“What we have seen so far is an ill-thought-out action which is entirely without merit and which has been brought in the wrong jurisdiction,” they tell GTR. “Any claim will be robustly defended.”

The lawsuit alleges that Robinson became interested in the logistics and shipping industry in early 2017, when his then-employer Uber launched digital truck-hailing service Uber Freight. It says he “let slip” to a reporter that he intended to spend time inside such a company to gather information ahead of forming a new startup.

In late 2017, Vanguard says Robinson approached its owners – global conglomerate the Mansour Group – and “gained their trust and confidence”. He was appointed as a consultant, board member and participant in its digital steering committee, and was later able to bring in fellow Beacon founder Izmailov.

According to the lawsuit, Robinson signed an NDA and non-compete agreement that included a commitment to keeping company information secret and confidential, and a vow to “refrain from competing ‘in the creation of a digital solution’ for the freight and logistics industry”.

At that time, Vanguard had already finalised plans for what it describes as “an exciting new business plan” and “a groundbreaking digital strategy for the logistics and shipping industry”.

It says this would have established the company as one of the world’s first fully digital door-to-door shipping services companies with global reach. Its “cutting-edge, one-stop online platform” would enable customers to price, book, track and manage the movement of goods worldwide.

Robinson’s senior position within Vanguard meant he had access to “key people, plans, prototypes, data, documents, customers, suppliers, brokers, technology, IP, trade secrets, and other assets – by making numerous oral and written promises and commitments”, it says.

Vanguard says that in September 2018, Robinson opened negotiations with the Mansour family over becoming a co-owner in the company and taking an equity stake. It now believes those discussions – which were not successful – were a stalling tactic designed to slow Vanguard’s launch of its new platform.

At the same time, the lawsuit says Beacon’s establishment was already taking shape. Robinson allegedly used a newly established Beacon email address to access a document-sharing site used only by Vanguard and its tech developers in October 2018.

Beacon itself was incorporated shortly afterwards, on November 7.

“Robinson created Beacon — a copycat company and competitor of Vanguard — while he still owed contractual, statutory, and common law duties to Vanguard and its owners and while his consulting agreement, NDA, non-compete agreements, board directorship, and committee membership with the Company were ongoing and still in effect,” the suit alleges.

The claims are filed under US fraud legislation, the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act and the California Uniform Trade Secret Act, as well as breaches of contract and an NDA.