The rise, fall and imprisonment of Martin Shkreli - the most hated man in America
If you don't know Martin Shkreli by name, you'll definitely know him by title. Back in 2015, the world was left seething when the price of lifesaving drug Daraprim, used in the treatment of HIV patients, skyrocketed by 5,000 per cent from $13.50 to $750 a pill. The man responsible? Shkreli, who immediately became universally despised and acquired the moniker of "the most hated man in America".
At the time, public opinion of him couldn't have been lower, with the price hike earning him nicknames like “evil incarnate" and protest after protest rallying against him, acknowledging him as the new figurehead of greedy capitalism. But the true fall of the "Pharma Bro" was yet to come.
Last week, Shkreli finally became a convicted felon, found guilty, not of the Daraprim scandal, but instead of two counts of securities fraud and a single count of conspiracy. His sentence of seven years was, in some people's opinion, too short, not to mention three years too late. However, look back in the 34-year-old businessman's history and you'll see his rocky rise to prominence in the pharmaceutical industry was always governed by questionable morals.
Shkreli grew up in a working-class community in Brooklyn, New York City. It was evident from the very beginning that he was destined for big things. Regularly described as "genius", he dropped out of school before his senior year and at the age of 17 landed his first job as an intern for Cramer, Berkowitz and Company on Wall Street.
Although he was initially hired for a low-level clerical role, the young man made a name for himself when he recommended shorting a biotech stock, betting that Regeneron Pharmaceutical's share prices would soon drop. He was absolutely right: the stock plummeted, with the shares losing half their value in a single day. But not everyone believed that a teen could predict shares that easily without some funny business going on. At the age of 19, Shkreli found himself under scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which eventually found him innocent of any wrongdoing. It was his first delve into the capitalist world, a world that he would soon rule over.
In the coming years, Shkreli began to start his own hedge funds, but looking back it seems that many moves he made seemed to go hand-in-hand with controversy. Regardless, the young businessman always seemed to get away unscathed.
In 2007, he was sued by the Lehman Brothers and told to pay $2.3 million for betting the wrong way on a broad market decline, but Lehman collapsed before it could collect on the ruling. In 2010, he wrote a letter to FDA officials urging them to reject an inhaled insulin remedy produced by MannKind of Valencia, making no secret of his financial interest in seeing MannKind's stock decline. Over the course of the next year, MannKind's shares lost two-thirds of their value and the young entrepreneur made big money without suffering any consequences once again.
By 2012, he had developed a reputation for using a stock-gossip website to savage biotech companies whose shares he wanted to go down. Investigated by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which publicly accused him of trying to manipulate the US Food and Drug Administration for financial gain, he once again emerged untouched, facing no government charges. But his luck wasn't to hold out.
In 2011, Shkreli founded Retrophin, a "biopharmaceutical company focused on the discovery and development of drugs for the treatment of catastrophic diseases". Although his work had seemingly only focused on financial gain before this, Shkreli pleaded his humanitarian intentions this time, saying "I want to cure many diseases and save children’s lives."
His tenure as CEO didn't last, with the board deciding to replace him in 2014. However, in the three years in which he controlled the company, its reputation was dragged through the mud with its employees using alias Twitter accounts to make gangster rap jokes and encourage short selling of other biotech stocks. Under his leadership, in perhaps what was a foreshadowing to the Daraprim scandal, the company raised the price of Thiola, a rare disease medication, by 2,000 per cent from $1.50 to $30 per pill.
Seemingly undeterred by his firing he moved on to found Turing Pharmaceuticals, the company responsible for raising the price of Daraprim by 5000 per cent. The 34-year-old - who infamously purchased a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album for $2 million straight after he increased the price - claimed that his reasoning for upping the price was ethical, insisting that the only party who suffers in this instance is big companies who pay full price for the treatment.
In a September 2015 interview with Bloomberg Markets, Shkreli claimed that, despite the price increase, patient co-pays would actually be lower. He also argued that many patients would get the drug at no cost, that Turing had expanded its free drug program, and that it sold half of its drugs for one dollar. Furthermore, he spoke out in another interview, saying that anyone in need of the medicine can contact him and get it for free and has claimed that his company invests 60 per cent of their profits back into researching cures for dying kids, naming himself a "hero".
Despite his protestations, he is still viewed by the public as a ruthless, money-grabbing maniac who made it impossible for physicians to afford to stock the drug, and therefore unendingly difficult for HIV sufferers to get the lifesaving drug they need. This was made even worse when he tried to justify himself by saying: “If there was a company selling an Aston Martin at the price of a bicycle and we buy that company and ask to charge Toyota prices, I don’t think that should be a crime."
Similarly, Shkreli has defended himself for his fraud cause, claiming that even though he made risky transactions with investors’ money without permission, they didn't suffer actual losses as they were compensated with drug company stock that more than covered their initial investments. However, that doesn't change the fact that he lost his investors an eye-watering $10.5 million.
Known for his erratic social media outbursts, the millionaire - who offered people $5,000 to pull hair from Hillary Clinton's head and harassed journalist Lauren Duca on Twitter after she rejected his invitation - sobbed as he was sentenced to seven years in prison last week.
But is he the poster boy for capitalistic greed, a heartless genius with a ruthless determination to make financial gain at any cost? Or is he, as he insists, an innocent man who loves to play the capitalist game, but at the end of the day wouldn't hurt a fly?
We know what he thinks at least: "Am I evil? No. I think I'm the opposite of evil," he told Vice back in 2016. "It almost became a thing where I wanted to agree to do it and say 'yeah I am evil. Let me be the bad guy...' I think the idea that I represent this is insane. I don't like drug companies, I think most of them do a bad job and I think I'm different. Yeah, I'm a capitalist, I love to make money, but I'm not going to do it at the expense of a human life."
Despite his objections, millions out there will disagree with him. Rather than saving the lives of children, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur is destined to go down in history as a greedy businessman who victimised HIV sufferers, got away with it, and was only brought down when he ruffled the feathers of wealthy investors.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu