Don't call it a comeback, because even though he's 16 months in to a seven-year federal prison sentence, Martin Shkreli has never stopped running Phoenixus - the re-branded iteration of Shkreli's Turing Pharmaceuticals - at least not according to the Wall Street Journal. Wielding a contraband cellphone, Shkreli has been calling the shots at the company, quashing boardroom rebellions and even almost firing a CEO.
Though he might be forced to sell some of his stake in Turing to pay court mandated restitution, as of now, Shkreli remains Phoenixus's largest shareholder. And he's made the company the focus of his long-term plan to emerge from incarceration even wealthier than he started.
In a long-winded profile of Shkreli sourced from interviews with Phoenixus investors, employees and friends and acquaintances of Shkreli (Dix refused to grant WSJ's interview request), the paper explored how Shkreli has managed to maintain an online presence, run his company, and continue the research that informs his investment decisions.
As with all things related to Shkreli since he first surfaced in the public's awareness in late 2015, the federal government is investigating. The FBI has reportedly interviewed several Shkreli associates about his role at the company.
Though investors and analysts would beg to differ, Shkreli reportedly believes that his company will be worth some $4.3 billion by the time he gets out of prison in 2023.
His back-of-the-commissary-envelope calculation indicates that Phoenixus could be worth $3.7 billion by the time he is due to be freed in 2023, according to a person familiar with his thinking. His plan involves acquiring more rare drugs in various stages of development and plowing money into an ambitious research-and-development agenda. Both are guided by his long days reading pharmaceutical research. He has, for now, abandoned the strategy that led to his explosion into the limelight in 2015 when Turing raised the cost of an HIV drug to $750 per pill from $13.50.
The company’s minority shareholders are tired of big promises and want to curtail Mr. Shkreli’s influence so the company can be sold. "This investment is an absolute disaster," says Austrian interior designer Sabine Gritti, who owns a million-dollar stake in Phoenixus. "We can’t get information, and anything they do send out, we don’t know if it is trustworthy."
Others say they fear an attempt from Mr. Shkreli to enrich himself by seizing control of the cash-rich company through complicated financial transactions.
Flexing his muscle on the board, Shkreli has used his influence on the board to fend off acquisitions that he felt severely undervalued the company, including one that valued Phoenixus - a portmanteau of 'Phoenix' and the Latin word 'Nixus' or struggle - at $100 million. He recently told investors that he believes the company is worth $500 million and, in a passionately worded letter, appeared to win some over after he pleaded with them to allow him to finish his work.
In April 2017, Mr. Shkreli argued that Mr. Tilles was spending too much money and persuaded the board to fire him as chief executive, but kept him on as a director. Mr. Tilles’s successor, Turing’s former chief scientist Eliseo Salinas, was fired after less than two months. It was then that Mr. Shkreli proposed a new five-person board that included three of his former employees and an acquaintance.
Mr. Shkreli, in a missive to shareholders, wrote that he estimated the company was worth $500 million. "Many of you have profited from my other ventures,” he wrote. “This one will generate an enormous return, as well, if you let it."
And in a hint that there could be more legal troubles ahead for Shkreli, one person involved in one of the blocked transactions told WSSJ they received a threatening message warning them to back off.
After one person involved in the nixed sale expressed misgivings to others, he received a text message from an unlisted number that couldn't be traced. "You like talking to people about Turing? Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad," the message read. “We are watching and listening.”
So far, at least, Shkreli's prison experience doesn't appear to be anything out of the ordinary. Guards still mispronounce his name. He has at times lost contact with the outside world due to stints in solitary confinement. In his spare time, he exercises (he reportedly can do 15 push ups now) and cares for prison cats.
From prison, Mr. Shkreli phoned in advice to company officials when he could. He hasn’t always been plugged in. He spent a few weeks in solitary confinement for unspecified violations and suffered a painful infection after needing dental fillings. Perennially slight of build, he has gained weight and plans to begin a weightlifting program, says Christie Smythe, an author writing a book about Mr. Shkreli who has visited him several times in prison. He can now do 15 push-ups in a row.
He has seen a prison therapist and taken on the job of caring for prison cats. He occasionally argues with his cellmates about proper grammar.
“The guards still mispronounce his name repeatedly, which he thinks is on purpose," Ms. Smythe says. Based on testimony at Mr. Shkreli’s congressional hearing in 2016, the “h” is nearly silent.
Asked about the arrangement by WSJ, one Phoenixus board member told the paper that Shkreli having a phone was "widely known."
Akeel Mithani, a Phoenixus board member, said in an email that Mr. Shkreli "gets treated like any other shareholder." He said the fact that Mr. Shkreli has a cellphone in prison is “widely known” but that his “business related communication is limited via his lawyers.”
For anybody wondering who might have exposed Shkreli by informing WSJ, the section of the story about the opaque deals that Shkreli has reportedly been directing from prison might hold a few clues.
As of the end of September, Phoenixus had $37.7 million of cash, according to the company’s private third-quarter financial statement. It reported $48.3 million of sales for the year to date, with a $10.3 million net loss after operating expenses including $9.4 million spent on unspecified “research and development,” the statement says.
Mr. Shkreli recently oversaw a series of Phoenixus deals it hopes will lead to new cash cows like Daraprim, people familiar with the matter say. In September, it signed a commitment to provide $20 million to Orphan Star Therapeutics LLC to work on drug candidates for several rare diseases, according to people familiar with the deal. Orphan Star’s public announcement didn’t name Phoenixus and the company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In January, Phoenixus told shareholders it licensed one of its drugs to Seelos Therapeutics ,receiving $1.5 million and 250,000 shares in Seelos.
Investors were given little information about the deals, they say. Seelos didn’t comment.
“We suspect a lot of self-dealing,” Mr. des Pallieres says, citing Mr. Shkreli’s checkered history. He is banding together with other investors to push for more insight into the company’s operations, and to force a sale.
Translation: Phoenixus's captive investors are tired of Shkreli, and are eager to get at least some of their money returned through a hasty deal. Outing Shkreli in WSJ virtually guarantees that prison officials will crack down - he can kiss his contraband cellphone goodbye. It might even earn him some more time in the hole.
The only question is: Will this buy investors enough time to until the Feds can force Shkreli to liquidate more of his Pheonixus stake?