Following the Recent Raid, Could uBiome Become Theranos 2.0?
uBiome, a Silicon Valley startup providing tests focusing on the microbiome and its importance to health, is under investigation after an FBI raid on its offices over how it was allegedly billing its customers. The company has received significant criticism recently for handling of the co-founders’ relationship and alleged corner-cutting during its scientific work.
uBiome, which raised $105 million in funding and has achieved $600 million in value since its inception in 2012, came to prominence as a leading microbial genomics company after portraying its tests as free to patients, stating that the bill would be paid by insurance companies.
Despite this claim, some customers have received bills of thousands of dollars after their insurance companies refused to pay. Former employees have also suggested in Business Insider interviews that corners were cut on its science as well.
New details have now emerged suggesting that uBiome co-founders Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte have been concealing personal details about themselves, including misrepresenting their ages and their relationship. The two have been placed on leave from their roles following the raid.
The Wall Street Journal has separately reported recently that the company has been using stock photos to illustrate testimonials on its site. The testimonials were removed after the report came to light.
While much of the storm around uBiome speaks to issues affecting companies in almost every sector – the founder’s need to allegedly lie about her age in a youth-centric culture being one – what matters most in uBiome’s case, and indeed in the case of its publicly-damaged counterpart Theranos, is trust.
In a sector where patient trust – to provide personal, sensitive data and allow for its recording, to take part in long-term studies with potentially unknown and varied side-effects, and to continue to take part in the participatory system time and time again – is vital for a company’s growth, such public examples of company’s potentially misrepresenting the truth can be damaging not just to themselves but to the entire rest of the sector.
At the time of writing, a poll on twitter for current views of Silicon Valley’s health-tech industry registered 43% as “sceptical”.
A recent article by Vice highlights this issue further: if personal private data was already a considerable issue before the uBiome scandal, it is even more so now: with government officials raiding the uBiome offices, there is nowhere near enough transparency in proceedings to ensure patients’ data is guarded and safe.
The healthcare industry relies on patients’ goodwill to an enormous extent. When alleged lies like this surface – and even worse, when patient money is squandered – companies created to improve lives succeed only in pushing everyone further away from achieving that end.
Another notable circumstance to come out of the uBiome discussion is attached to its investment stages. Users on Twitter pointed out that despite the sizeable amount of funding uBiome received, investment by traditional healthcare investors was noticeably lacking. This disparity was only pointed out after the raid, however: that, combined with the fundamental insurance issue around delivery of the product, points to a possible lack of rigour from investors looking to share a piece of the company.
That uBiome still made over $100 million in its funding rounds should spark a serious discussion around the stringency with which investors scrutinise potential investments. With so much at stake if a company publicly implodes, more should definitely be done to ensure standards can be met, and real progress carried out.