The Martin Shkreli Show: The widely scorned pharma exec just can’t stop talking
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Martin Shkreli wants you to see him in a funny hat.

And playing a video game at the office. And hanging out at home, wearing what look like pajamas.

Shkreli, the brash pharmaceutical executive who’s been called “the face of greed” — and worse — for hiking the price of a decades-old drug more than fiftyfold, has broadcast online more than 80 hours of real-time video of his daily routine in the past eight days.

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He told a STAT reporter — in a conversation that was, you guessed it, livestreamed — that he was indifferent about his company’s public image but wanted people to get to know him better.

Not many have taken him up on his repeated invitations to watch his life unfold online. Those who do see a spectacle that’s at once odd and utterly mundane. From both work and home, Shkreli stares at his computer screens. He plays with his hair. Sometimes he sips from a mug. Or banters with employees at his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, as they sit in their 39th floor office of a building steps away from Times Square in New York City.

As he drifted around on a hoverboard-style scooter in his office mid-day Tuesday, Shkreli chatted cheerfully, if somewhat aimlessly. “I feel so cool. I got so much — so much swag,” he said. It wasn’t clear who he was talking to, if anyone. But he kept going. “That’s like the douchiest possible thing I could say,” he said.

It’s been more than seven weeks since Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim, a drug often used to treat infections in people with AIDS, to $750 per pill, up from $13.50. The big biotech and pharma industry trade groups have disavowed him. Presidential candidates have denounced him. The Senate wants to haul him in to testify. Activists have plastered his face on protest signs and even put his image in a litterbox.

Most executives would hunker down in the face of such fire. But Shkreli, a 32-year-old former hedge fund manager, is no ordinary CEO. With boyish looks and an unrepentant swagger, he’s not just embracing the spotlight — he’s grabbing it and focusing it squarely on himself.

“Maybe some subconscious goal is to try to show people a little bit more about who I am,” Shkreli told STAT (and, simultaneously, his livestream audience). “I think the media hasn’t done a good job in portraying who I am, so it’s a little easier for me to just say ‘Okay, well, I’ll be as transparent as it gets. Here’s my day job.’ ”

Raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents from Albania and Croatia, Shkreli got his first taste of Wall Street when he was just 17. After finishing a business degree at Baruch College, he started several hedge funds and pharmaceutical companies, attracting lawsuits and federal scrutiny along the way. He has no formal scientific training, but he has a reputation for being a quick study and has several drug patents in his name.

Now at Turing, Shkreli has said his priority as CEO is to use the money from the Daraprim price hike for drug discovery. But he spends a lot of time doing other things.

Livestream viewers typically see both Shkreli’s face and the screen of one of his computer monitors. (He said he has three other screens that he doesn’t show, because the information is proprietary. He also occasionally mutes the stream when he’s talking on the phone or to employees.)

During the workday, he toggles between spreadsheets, scientific literature, Wikipedia, the video game League of Legends, social media, and an editing program where he draws molecular structures. Last week he beat the Friday afternoon doldrums by watching a high-speed car chase.

Shkreli also spends a lot of time on Twitter, where he’s sometimes all business (“Looking to hire a structural biologist. NY/NJ area.”) and sometimes all boast, touting his prowess at video games and rap (“I’m going to drop the hottest album of [2016]. Every track a banger.”). Donald Trump-style, he’s also fond of retweeting comments from supporters, like the one who said Shkreli is “NOTHING like the media portrayed him. Smart, down to earth person.”

He’s answered dozens of questions on Reddit, telling someone asking for a date with him to “get in a very, very long line.”

And he uses the dating site Tinder, where he defended the price hike in an exchange with a journalist that went viral.

Shkreli is broadcasting his many hours of live footage on his accounts on YouTube and Twitch.tv, a platform typically used by video game players livestreaming their play. (Twitch has banned him from livestreaming at least twice in recent days but won’t say why.)

When Shkreli leaves his desk, sometimes for more than an hour at a time, the stream continues, broadcasting his empty chair. Sometimes, he also leaves messages on his computer screen, like this one: “ILLUMINATI NEW MEMBERS MEETING BRB.”

This may be part of why Shkreli’s online audience is pretty small, often fluctuating between 40 and 70 viewers during the workday. Even a stunt on Monday in which he filled out and submitted an application to be an intern for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has been a vocal critic of Turing’s price hike, did little to draw more eyeballs.

When asked by a reporter how Turing employees feel about the livestream in their office, Shkreli put Chris Lau, a business development analyst, on the screen. Lau, who said he’s made a few cameos walking by Shkreli’s desk, said he thought it was “pretty cool.” Turing has about 200 employees, Shkreli said in a recent interview with the HIV activist and blogger Josh Robbins.

In the evenings and over the weekend, Shkreli doles out stock-investing tips while lounging at home in his New York apartment, sometimes well past midnight. In response to typed questions from his viewers, he has weighed in on Valeant Pharmaceuticals stock (not a fantastic buy), bitcoin (no opinion), and whether he’d do a livestream in the shower (no).

“I feel so cool. I got so much — so much swag.”

Martin Shkreli

What he’s doing is pushing the boundaries on how executives can react to a reputational issue,” said Peter LaMotte, a senior vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Levick who has helped pharmaceutical and biotech companies manage their reputations.

It’s unclear whether any PR professionals are advising Shkreli on his antics.

Turing’s communications chief, Craig Rothenberg, quit immediately after the firestorm broke out in September, just two months into the job. And last month, Turing parted ways with Allan Ripp, an independent PR consultant who said he had advised the company for about a year. (Turing’s head of investor relations, Edward Painter, recently added communications to his portfolio but did not respond to requests from a reporter.) 

Shkreli’s past ventures and investments have made him a millionaire many times over, and he has said he holds the largest ownership share of Turing, which is privately held.

But LaMotte warned that Shkreli’s attitude, particularly his lack of remorse over the price hike, could turn off future investors.

“No one wants to touch a radioactive firm or individual,” LaMotte said.

Scientists who tuned into Shkreli’s broadcast, though, were bemused, at times breaking into laughter as they recounted for a reporter what they had watched.

Bill Sullivan, a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine who studies the disease that Daraprim is used to treat, pulled up Shkreli’s livestream in hope of learning more about the science that Turing claims to be working on.

He found it refreshing to see an unfiltered CEO and was intrigued when he saw Shkreli’s literature search on an enzyme that he believes could have promise as a drug target for the disease. But he stopped watching after a few minutes when Shkreli’s broadcast shifted to “him singing some songs and playing some video games.”

Robert Kruse, an MD/PhD candidate at Baylor College of Medicine, watched Shkreli’s broadcast for about 10 minutes before abandoning the stream in favor of his own reading and spreadsheets.

“Not much was happening,” Kruse said. “It wasn’t quite like television.”

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