Martin Shkreli wants to be dealt back into the biopharma game, and now he's betting on the blockchain

“You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” Ernest Hemingway wrote nearly a century ago in his book "The Sun Also Rises," as two men consider jumping continents to escape their troubles. In this digital century, where you can post from nearly anywhere, that phrase could be updated to: “You can’t escape your own personal brand.”

But in Martin Shkreli’s case, it appears he doesn’t even want to try. Two months fresh out of prison—and despite a federal judge banning the famous “pharma bro” from working in the drug industry for the rest of his life—he’s looking to get right back in the mix, and this time he’s hyping the blockchain.

Shkreli has co-founded Druglike, which is described as “a Web3 drug discovery software platform” that aims to provide broader access to computing programs for designing potentially therapeutic molecules—a business that’s definitely “not a pharmaceutical company,” it takes steps to point out, even if other pharmaceutical companies also develop computing programs for designing potentially therapeutic molecules.

“Druglike is not engaged in pharmaceutical research or drug development,” the new venture said under its debut announcement’s “safe harbor statement,” which may stretch the definition of the term. 

Disclaimers around forward-looking statements in company press releases typically seek to remind potential investors that today’s plans are not tomorrow’s guarantees. Safe harbor declarations are not often used to preemptively emphasize that a business pitch (hopefully) circumvents the letter of a court order, if not the spirit.

This past January—while Shkreli was four years into a seven-year sentence for securities fraud after running “his company like a Ponzi scheme,” as a U.S. attorney said during his 2015 arrest—a senior U.S. district judge in Manhattan concluded (PDF) in a separate case that Shkreli should be banned for life “from participating in the pharmaceutical industry in any capacity.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James praised the conviction, declaring “Pharma Bro No More” in her office’s announcement. In a case joined by the Federal Trade Commission, the federal court found that Shkreli, as CEO of Vyera Pharmaceuticals—the company once known as Turing Pharmaceuticals—acted illegally to protect the company’s monopoly on Daraprim, when the price of the decades-old toxoplasmosis drug was jacked up by more than 4,000%. He was also ordered to pay back nearly $65 million in profits.

Now, after being released early from jail in May, Shkreli aims to disrupt the drug industry once again, albeit this time on nominally beneficial terms.

"We started Druglike because in our experience, traditional drug discovery software is too difficult and expensive to use," Shkreli, 39, said in a statement. "Druglike will remove barriers to early-stage drug discovery, increase innovation and allow a broader group of contributors to share the rewards."

The goal is to build a decentralized network of computers or even cellphones that can lend their processing power to drug development tasks, in return for payments made in Shkreli’s very own crypto coin, which could one day be worth real money or none at all.

The token MSI—short for Martin Shkreli Inu, named in part for the internet-famous dog breed and stamped with a picture of Shkreli wearing a hoodie—is as of this writing trading in the range of thousandths of a penny, according to the website CoinMarketCap.

Druglike claims its software will be made available to the public for free, with web-based tools for biological target identification, designing drug molecules and running virtual screenings for potential matches.

According to the company’s white paper (PDF), the tokens would be handed out to computers that work to solve the tricky math needed to get molecules to fit perfectly within models of target proteins, enzymes and receptors in the human body. This pay-for-processing approach could also be used to help solve problems in physics, engineering and logistics, the company said. 

By the end of March 2023, Druglike’s provisional road map (PDF) has it offering tools for protein analysis and pharmacodynamic modeling of a drug’s potential metabolism and toxicity—as well as plans to “begin building partnerships with wet-labs and CROs interested in future platform integration.” But remember, it’s not a pharma company.