Questions Arise Over This Bay Area Biotech CEO's Doctorate Degree and His Time at the University of Pennsylvania

Published: Mar 21, 2017

Questions Arise Over This Bay Area Biotech CEO's Doctorate Degree and His Time at the University of Pennsylvania March 20, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

Gabriel Otte, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Freenome, is facing a likely minor controversy over his academic credentials.

Otte left the University of Pennsylvania prior to completing his PhD program, but some of his company’s publicity materials have suggested he completed the degree. Other instances where he has given talks or publications have indicated he had the PhD. Some of this appears to be mistakes or assumptions on the basis of the writers of the materials, or perhaps omissions on Otte’s part.

On the one hand, it’s become a bit more of an issue because he apparently left the university under a bit of a cloud, or at least, some misunderstandings. On the other hand, all of his company’s investors say Otte was very straightforward about not having completed the PhD program.

Otte, with his co-founder, Riley Ennis, were both cited on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for life science entrepreneurs. Freenome utilizes a liquid biopsy diagnosis platform that detects the cell-free DNA sequencing of cancer.

Otte’s former advisor, Shelley Berger, is director of UPenn’s Epigenetics Institute, and a professor at its medical school. Berger told Buzzfeed, “There were many issues about Gabe’s work in the lab and Gabe leaving.” She went on to say, “In one instance, Gabe reported experimental results to me for which the primary physical data could not be found and hence, in my opinion, the information was unpublishable and hence not submitted to any journal.”

Otte declines to comment on that period and his reasons for leaving the university. Otte was a graduate student at the Genomics and Computational Biology group at the university from September 2011 to October 2014. His work there reportedly is not related to his work at Freenome. He left the university shortly after spending a summer at a biotech accelerator in New York City, where he worked on Acorn, a social media app with his younger brother. Shortly after, he moved to Northern California and abandoned Acorn, then co-founded Freenome.

On March 1, Freenome announced it had raised $65 million in a Series A financing led by Andreessen Horowitz. Seed investors Horowitz, Data Collective (DCVC) and Founders Fund also contributed. They were joined by GV (Google Ventures), Polaris Partners, Innovation Endeavors, Asset Management Ventures, Charles River Ventures and Spectrum 28.

“From the day we first met Gabe, he has been incredibly upfront about the fact that he doesn’t have a PhD and left Penn before finishing his PhD work,” said Vijay Pande, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and member of Freenome’s board, to Buzzfeed. “Separately, we have done our own due diligence on Gabe and the technical details of the work he’s doing at Freenome and we’re thrilled to be one of his investors.”

In addition, Erin Gleason, a spokesperson for Founders Fund, said, “Gabe did not misrepresent his background to our team, and his academic credentials had no bearing on our investment in Freenome.”

Otte made an announcement on Freenome’s website today, headed, “I don’t have a PhD.” He notes that he spoke inconsistently on the topic, which misled some people. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who complete their doctorates and go on to produce great research at academic institutions. That wasn’t the right track for me. I’ve realized, all it takes to do something great—is to do something great.”

His possible misrepresentations about his PhD are relatively minor compared to some of the threads in the Buzzfeed article. The examples from Buzzfeed suggest Otte’s at least allowed the assumption to be made. Of more concern are hints made by Berger and several unnamed people at the university that Otte fabricated data. Buzzfeed notes he co-authored five papers that were published from 2013 to 2016, and they are all technically sound. Aside from Berger’s statement, which doesn’t go so far as to accuse Otte of making up data, the unidentified sources appear to be citing rumors.

Perhaps to head off any further doubts on the subject, Otte today stated on the website, “To be clear, before we engage with patients, there will be rigorous testing of our labs and tests, as well as peer-reviewed publications. This has always been our plan, and in fact much of the round we just raised was geared towards funding necessary studies, as I mentioned in press articles at the time. We’ll do this as quickly as we can, but we will also take as much time as is needed to do it right, as we always have, with strong scientific rigor.”

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