Business Insider Edition

uBiome convinced Silicon Valley that testing poop was worth R8.9 billion. Then the FBI came knocking. Here’s the inside story.

Erin Brodwin , Business Insider US
 Jun 13, 2019, 09:52 AM
uBiome founders Zac Apte and Jessica Richman.
uBiome; Yutong Yuan/Business Insider
  • Silicon Valley health startup uBiome is in hot water on the heels of an FBI raid in April.
  • Founded in 2012, uBiome raised $105 million (R1.5 billion) from investors on the promise of exploring the microbiome, a 'forgotten organ'.
  • As uBiome advanced from a citizen science project to a clinical testing company, it overstated the medical value of its tests and prioritized growth over patient care, according to insiders, lawyers, and government officials.
  • "Some of my uBiome results remind me of astrology," one ex-employee said.
  • uBiome may also have run afoul of federal and state regulations while running some of its tests, according to the experts, insiders, and documents.
  • For more stories, go to www.businessinsider.co.za.

When the three founders of the "microbial genomics" startup uBiome began collecting human poop, they kept it in an erstwhile storage closet, inside second-hand freezers from a discount lab supply website. It was a far cry from a state-of-the-art facility.

But the setup matched uBiome's image at the time as a crowd-funded citizen science initiative that sought to seize knowledge about our bowels from lab scientists and place it in the hands of regular people.

It wasn't until roughly three years later, at the end of 2014, that the company established a lab space professional enough to be certified by government regulators. That certification was part of uBiome's attempt to transform itself from a fun, collaborative science project to a bonafide medical-testing outfit - one that could justify investments from high-powered VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz and 8VC and ultimately garner a $600 million (R8.9 billion) valuation.

That transformation hasn't gone very well: At the end of April, FBI agents busted through the door of uBiome's San Francisco headquarters and executed a search warrant, collecting information from employees' computers and hauling away cardboard boxes full of evidence, CNBC reported. The warrant was reportedly part of an investigation into the company's billing practices.

But the problems at uBiome extended far beyond billing issues, according to interviews with 11 former employees across its billing, operations, marketing, and science, departments, as well as with customers, lawyers, and medical experts.

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