The investor-boy-wunderkind-turned-pharmaceutical-CEO Martin Shkreli was the end of the year’s emblem of schadenfreude. Shkreli has been in the news regularly since September 2015 when his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, announced plans to raise the price of decades-old toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill. Public discussion about Turing’s pricing strategy prompted a congressional hearing on drug pricing and brought him firmly into the public eye: he appeared on numerous cable news networks, and a Gawker piece about his YouTube channel pushed one of his videos to over 122,000 views. His misfortune has continued since his December 17 arrest: on December 18, he resigned as CEO of Turing, on December 21, he was terminated from his other CEO position at KaloBios, and on December 24, KaloBios’ stock was delisted from the Nasdaq. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) complaint against him catalogs his crimes in animated legalese, clearly meant for wide public readership. The charges document a series of failed investments in the pharmaceutical space that he “lied” (in the language of the complaint) about to his investors to cover up. Yet Shkreli managed to spin his losses into promises of greater future gains, enabling him to raise yet more financing that he claimed was for his current and future projects, but that was actually used to hide what had gone wrong.
This episode is a prime ethnographic moment in a much larger, more complex story about how the production of biomedical knowledge is now being shaped by the financial services industry. In this essay—the first of what I hope to be many that I write on this topic—I am less interested in Shkreli’s mendacious psychology than I am in starting to pry open the logics of the milieu in which he committed his crimes: the intersection of biomedicine, biotechnology, and venture investing. What makes him so delightfully hateable aren’t the particular lies he told to investors and regulators, but how he so gleefully espoused the benefits of corporate profit-seeking in the pharmaceutical industry prior to his downfall. Yet his views are not extraordinary; rather, they are emblematic of how this peculiar corner of industry does business.