You know someone is probably in deep sh*t if they flee the country.
Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte, the married co-founders of fecal testing startup uBiome, were charged back in March in a 47-count indictment with defrauding investors and health insurance providers by falsely claiming their products were eligible for reimbursement. But rather than face the accusations, Richman and Apte have been fugitives hiding out in Germany, according to the U.S. government.
Their whereabouts were described by lawyers for the government in a related legal case, where prosecutors are attempting to seize two Miami Beach condominiums owned by Richman and Apte. The government lawyers argued that Richman and Apte should not be entitled to certain legal protections because they are fugitives “evading the consequences for their fraud on health care benefit programs and investors.”
Richman, 47, and Apte, 36, left the U.S. for Germany in July 2020, just months after federal agents raided their offices, according to the government. Days before leaving, they picked up a copy of their marriage certificate in Marin County, California.
Prosecutors reached out several times to attorneys for the pair since the indictment was unsealed in San Francisco federal court in March. Defense lawyers have informed the government that Richman is suffering from a serious medical condition that prevents her from traveling, and that Apte is her “caretaker.” Apte is also a German citizen. (Germany generally does not extradite citizens to countries that are not part of the European Union.) No further details have been provided about the medical condition, and the couple has made no plans over the past seven months to return to the U.S.
“The available evidence clearly indicates Apte and Richman are actively and deliberately avoiding prosecution by leaving the country and declining to return,” lawyers for the U.S. government said. “The fact that Richman may be ill does not justify her plan to evade this court’s jurisdiction over her criminal case forever."
Echoing the Theranos case and founder Elizabeth Holmes (who is currently on trial over fraud charges in San Jose), Richman launched uBiome with Apte to much fanfare in 2012. The San Francisco-based company promised to employ “microbiome” testing to examine the bacteria in people’s guts, and compare them with a database of other samples to uncover signs of disease. Along with its “SmartGut” product, UBiome also marketed a similar vaginal microbiome test called “SmartJane.”
At first, uBiome tried to sell its test directly to the general public for less than $100 each, but Richman and Apte soon realized that they would need to bring more revenue to attract venture capital financing, prosecutors alleged in their indictment. So they repackaged their tests for clinical purposes and billed insurers thousands of dollars for them (even though microbiome tests are generally not eligible for insurance reimbursement), the government alleged.
The pair used fraudulent documents and a “captive” network of doctors and other providers, who were given misleading information about the tests, to bilk insurers of at least $35 million in reimbursements, according to the prosecutors. Through their deceptive practices, they were also able to raise more than $64 million from investors — and they took $12 million for themselves by selling their own shares, the government alleged. In 2019, uBiome filed for bankruptcy, and Richman and Apte got married.
In a podcast earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal reporter described efforts by the newspaper to track down Richman and Apte, who they believed to be living somewhere in Central Berlin. A correspondent for the paper located a building used as a remote postal address for a number of individuals, and learned that Apte was among the people receiving mail there. However, the correspondent was unable to find out where Apte was actually living.
If uBiome was indeed a fraud, it wouldn’t be the first time Richman had engaged in shady behavior. Richman was included in a Business Insider's “30 Most Important Women Under 30 In Tech” list in September 2014. It was discovered later, however, that she was 40 at the time the article was written and had lied to get on the list. According to Business Insider, she also lied about her age to CNN to get on a similar list.