Troubled poop-testing startup uBiome announces plans for liquidation
Your favorite, fun-loving, poop-testing, bacteria-diving, under federal investigation, bankrupt startup with the possibly fundamentally flawed science is — alas — shutting down.
uBiome has filed to convert its Chapter 11 bankruptcy into a Chapter 7 liquidation, all but spelling the end for a once soaring company that partnered with researchers at Harvard and Stanford and wooed Silicon Valley investors, but ultimately found itself owing potentially hundreds of millions to healthcare companies, laying off half of its staff and under federal investigation for its billing practices.
The news comes barely a year after the company announced an $83 million funding round and the hiring of former Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez to head a new R&D arm in Cambridge, MA.
What went wrong?
From their 2012 crowd-sourced founding until the first layoffs came this January, it seemed Ubiome could do no wrong. They were 23andMe for your gut, a young company with young, telegenic founders offering a warm face to a hot new science. They promised to map your microbiome, the 3-pound bacterial ecosystem scientists only recently discovered had wide impacts on your health, from digestion to mental health. Their website home page sent “A warm welcome to you. And your 39 trillion bacteria.”
Their premier service was Explorer. Originally priced at $400, it offered to test your stool sample and give back all sorts of health-related advice. Since then, they’ve widened their focus to include vaginal health and STDs women face.
But while their blog offered fun tips about diet, sleep and “could your summer fling change your microbiome?” some researchers were sounding alarms. They offered the same warning researchers gave about 23andMe’s first forays into health-related advice: It’s too soon and the science isn’t there. (23andMe has since gained FDA approval for several health-related services).
“I don’t think we know enough yet about the microbiome to be able to advice people as to how they should modify their diet or change their lifestyles based on a kit of this sort,” Columbia epidemiologist Ian Lipkin told The Atlantic’s James Hamblin in a 2016 video, offering a 10-year timeframe for when the science will be ready.
In that video, uBiome told the quite svelte Hamblin that based on his test that he had the microbiome of an overweight, depressed man. He did not confirm the depression suggestion.
The first sign of trouble came in January, when the startup cut 55 jobs out of its 300-person workforce, reportedly to focus on drugs and partnerships. In May, founders Jessica Richman and Zac Apte were placed on leave as the FBI began an inquiry into the company’s billing process. This summer, Business Insider reported the company had laid off half its staff and that its science may have been flawed from the start.
They filled for Chapter 11 at the beginning of September. Court documents revealed they may owe hundreds of millions to healthcare companies, BI reported.