Aug 24, 2022 • 11M

Chapter 6, Part 5: Pied Piper

This is Chapter 6, Part 5 of SMIRK, a serialized memoir of my relationship with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli.

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Appears in this episode

Christie Smythe
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
Episode details

When the protagonist of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” launches his tech company Pied Piper, he ends up enduring a series of surprising peaks and near-disasters, with each high and low more dramatic than the last. Some people might argue that the fictional rollercoaster is more intense than what startup founders experience in real life. That might be true — unless the startup founder is Martin Shkreli.

As a twice-failed hedge fund manager who was more or less broke, Martin started his first drug company, Retrophin, in early 2012. He was 28 years old, had no formal training in chemistry (just a business degree from a city college), and had grown up as a son of Albanian janitors in working-class Brooklyn. Yet by early 2013, Retrophin was a $1.35 billion company, trading on the Nasdaq, with offices in New York and San Diego. 

It had a healthy revenue stream from drugs it had acquired (Retrophin substantially raised the price of some of those it had purchased) and was researching possible new cures. One of those candidates, a treatment for a rare and devastating nervous system disorder called PKAN, was developed in large part by Martin.

Martin Shkreli at his desk in Manhattan (Getty Images)
Martin Shkreli at his desk in Manhattan (Getty Images)

Seemingly on top of the world, he was profiled by Forbes as part of its “30 under 30” list in December 2012. Good fortune appeared to continue for him for some of 2013. Then everything started to crumble. By October 2014, his board members — including Steve Richardson, a wealthy former American Express executive, and Steve Aselage, a longtime biotech sales executive — had fired him from his CEO job. 

What happened between early 2012 and late 2014 was about 30 months of pure chaos.

First, there was the matter of Martin’s burned MSMB hedge fund investors, who were becoming increasingly alarmed and disgruntled. Some tried to redeem their money (which he had all but completely lost through bad trades) and instead got a string of delays and excuses from Martin, delivered at haphazard intervals. 

While keeping those plates spinning in the air, he worked like mad to solicit capital for Retrophin, which initially began as little more than an idea in his head and a slide deck. As he had done with his hedge funds, he made Retrophin sound much bigger and more impressive than it was by falsely…

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