It sounds like a scare from 1970s Cold War propaganda or a subplot from the popular TV series “The Americans,” but the FBI says the threat is real: Russian investment firms may be looking to steal high-tech intelligence from Boston-area companies to give to their country’s military.
In an extraordinary warning issued to technology companies in Massachusetts, the FBI’s Boston office said entrepreneurs could unwittingly be drawn into industrial espionage if they work with Russian-backed venture capital firms operating here and in Silicon Valley.
The bureau said it has sent notices to local companies and research facilities such as universities, and on Friday published a Boston Business Journal op-ed by an agent in the FBI’s Boston office.
The FBI singled out the Skolkovo Foundation, founded by Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, that in 2011 enlisted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start an elite technical college in Russia modeled after the Cambridge school.
“The foundation may be a means for the Russian government to access our nation’s sensitive or classified research development facilities and dual-use technologies with military and commercial application,” Lucia Ziobro, assistant special agent at the FBI’s Boston’s office, wrote in the op-ed piece.
Skolkovo officials could not be reached for comment. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Ziobro said Monday that the FBI does not have any evidence that this has occurred.
Instead, the warning grew out of a proliferation of intellectual property theft from US companies by Chinese firms over the past decade.
Like China, Russia has lax intellectual property protections, Ziobro said, and a documented history of corruption that could lead to similar thefts of American technology.
Though the FBI did not single out Russian venture capital firms by name, two of the best-known in the technology community are RVC, which has a US office in Boston, and RUSNANO USA, which is based in Silicon Valley and has invested in several Massachusetts companies.
The head of RUSNANO USA said he was dumbfounded by the FBI’s warning.
“I actually thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Dmitry Akhanov, RUSNANO USA chief executive. “I had to check the date.”
RUSNANO has invested $1.2 billion in American companies over the past four years. Akhanov said he does not know of any cases of intellectual property theft involving any of those firms, adding, “no one has ever suspected us of any wrongdoing.”
And, “No, I’m not a spy,” he added.
That response was echoed by RVC, whose US operation has been active on the Boston startup scene, providing funds to the MassChallenge program in previous years. The group’s chief executive, Axel Tillman, said that the FBI warning is so vague that it could spark fears in the startup and investment community about working with anyone from Russia.
“Making a blanket statement without any details is not a positive thing,” Tillman said.
The FBI warning comes as the Obama administration has increased pressure on Russia for its annexation of the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea by levying sanctions on some business leaders close to President Vladimir Putin. In March, the US Commerce Department banned new licenses for the export to Russia of defense-related products and “dual-use” technologies that could have military applications.
But Ziobro said the warning had been in the works since early February, before the situation began in Crimea.
“Rather than waiting for a crime to occur, we’re putting the alert out in case something comes up from Russia,” she said.
Many of Russia’s overseas technology initiatives are active in Boston.
For example, in September the Skolkovo Foundation, RVC, and RUSNANO organized conferences in Boston and Silicon Valley, called Russian Innovation Week, which sought to promote business relations between the two countries.
The conference included participation by a number of high-powered individuals from government and business, including Michael McFaul, who was US ambassador to Russia at the time of the event, and a former US ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle.
RUSNANO’s local investments include $35 million in Joule Unlimited of Bedford, which is developing renewable fuels, and $25 million in BIND Therapeutics, a biotech company in Cambridge cofounded by famed MIT scientist Robert Langer.
Prominent Boston-area venture capital firms invested alongside RUSNANO in those companies.
A partner in RUSNANO’s Menlo Park, Calif., office sits on the board of BIND Therapuetics, and a second firm spun out of Langer’s lab, Selecta Biosciences Inc. of Watertown.
Officials at BIND, Selecta, and Joule declined to comment Monday.
Contacted Monday, Langer said he could see no reason to suspect Russian venture firms.
“I’ve seen no evidence of this,” said Langer, who has won numerous awards for his scientific breakthroughs and was honored with a medal by President Obama last year. “In fact, they’ve been good investors and board members,” he added.
Ziobro, however, said the Skolkovo Foundation has a checkered history that warrants suspicion.
Last year, Russian authorities brought several corruption cases against Skolkovo officials, according to news accounts.
Moreover, the FBI raised alarms about a research and development deal the foundation signed last year with Russian defense contractor Ojsc Kamaz, which provides the country’s military with armed and armored vehicles.
“The FBI fears that Kamaz will provide Russia’s military with innovative research obtained from the Foundation’s US partners,” Ziobro wrote in the op-ed.
The FBI has also contacted local companies and universities directly and warned them to be wary of any approaches by those foreign investors.
“The FBI believes the true motives of the Russian partners, who are often funded by their government, is to gain access to classified, sensitive, and emerging technology from the companies,” she wrote.
The Russian foundation has collaborated with MIT to create the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or Skoltech, which is in a suburb of Moscow.
MIT has been responsible for helping to develop the education, research, and entrepreneurship programs at Skoltech, and the university accepted its first students in fall 2012.
MIT declined to address the FBI’s concerns. Instead, Bruce Tidor, an MIT professor involved in the Skoltech project, said in a statement that the school’s collaboration in Russia is intended to stimulate entrepreneurship in that country.
“Programs such as Skoltech are intended to build intellectual relationships in a transparent environment, centering on open, fundamental, publishable research,” Tidor said. “In this, as in all our international collaborations, MIT is very careful to comply with all US export control regulations.”
Globe reporter Michael B. Farrell contributed reporting for this story.
This article appears on page A1 of the Boston Globe on April 8, 2014, with the headline: FBI warns of Russian investors.