Gut microbiota has become a hot – albeit unsexy – area of science in recent times, with building evidence demonstrating how the little things living inside us can have a big impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. It’s unsurprising then that in the era of 23andMe, it wouldn’t be long before poop-testing became the latest service to gift to yourself or a friend and find out more about what you’re really made of.
uBiome really took the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” when they decided to tackle the poop taboo with their trendy startup, making money out of people paying to pop a stool sample in the post. The San Francisco-based company was founded by Jessica Richman, Zachary Apte, and Will Ludington, who met as scientists in the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. Together, they developed technology to sequence the human microbiome. Customers could purchase kits to sample their gut, genitals, mouth, nose, or skin. The DIY samples were taken by the customer at home and posted with a completed survey, the answers to which could supposedly give insights on that person’s specific microbiome map.
The fecal gold went from strength to strength in a new age of privatized internal investigations which has seen people surrendering their DNA and bodily fluids to strangers. Predictably, the startup was received with high praise by the ill-informed "lifestyle" brand goop (who have been caught up in their own scandals), who named co-founder and CEO Jessica Richman as one of their celebrated Innovators in The Greater goop Awards 2018 (an accolade which has since been removed).
The migration to the drain began in 2019, when the FBI raided uBiome’s headquarters and all testing was suspended while Apte and Richman were put on administrative leave (shortly after they had married). In September of the same year, uBiome had filed for bankruptcy, and by October they shut down.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has come after the pair for allegedly making false claims about the integrity of their research, test results, and the likelihood of claims being accepted by insurance companies – two details that were allegedly manipulated to assure investors that uBiome’s revenue was secure. The SEC argued they had "painted a false picture of uBiome as a rapidly growing company with a strong track record of reliable revenue through health insurance reimbursements for its tests… It depended on duping doctors into ordering unnecessary tests and other improper practices that Richman and Apte directed and which, once discovered, led insurers to claw back their previous reimbursement payments to uBiome."
Talk about bottoming out.