Why I Feel Suckered by Elysium Health
TL;DR: Elysium said they were going to clean up the supplement industry, but instead they are selling an unlicensed version of someone else's patented ingredient. You can get chemically identical Nicotinamide Riboside cheaper from amazon than from Elysium, but for bulk and subscription orders, the least expensive way is to order direct from ChromaDex (TruNiagen.com). Elysium's business practices have earned it an "F" (Update: Now C+) from the Better Business Bureau. I no longer do business with them.
I'm bitter, I admit it.
Okay, so I'm a little bit of a supplements guy, but I'd be a LOT MORE of one if I could trust what was in the bottles, which I can't.
The reason I know I can't is because of this 2015 New York Attorney General investigation that focused on a variety of herbal supplements from four major retailers: GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreens. Lab tests determined that only 21 percent of the products actually had DNA from the the plants advertised on the labels.
Canadian researchers had conducted the same kind of test in 2013 with a similar result: The New York Times reported that one-third of the 44 herbal supplements tested showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle.
Well there's no use fooling with St. John's Wort or any of the others if that's not what's in the bottle -- truly a waste of money.
So I was REALLY excited last year when I learned that a new company called Elysium Health promised to bring science and trust to the supplements industry. This struck me as a good business opportunity for Elysium, and a real service to those interested in health supplements.
Elysium's first product, which combined Nicotinamide Riboside and Pterostilbene, was really interesting. I knew that both substances were sourced from ChromaDex, and that I could get Niagen and Pterostilbene cheaper from amazon or buy buying direct from the manufacturer, and I did not like Elysium's subscription model, but I wanted to support what Elysium was doing, so I not only signed up for a subscription, but I also urged friends and relatives to do so, and they did.
Elysium Health debuted to much fanfare. In February of 2015, the Boston Globe listed the "scientific heavyweights advising Elysium Health," one of whom claimed that his job was "to scour scientific literature for new natural compounds that are shown to improve health and bring them to the company’s attention as potential ingredients in new products."
MIT Technology Review quoted Elysium as promising that "it will follow strict pharmaceutical-quality production standards...the nutraceuticals ...are a pig in a poke—you don’t know what you’re getting and you don’t know a lot about the science behind them."
Elysium was very direct about their business model. This is from their press release: "Elysium Health Establishes New Category Of Scientifically Validated Dietary Supplements."
That's what I wanted: A whole new category of health compounds vetted by scientists, and delivered by a company committed to purity and accuracy.
Scientific American was impressed, too: "Elysium is taking no chances when it comes to scientific credibility. Its website lists a dream team of advising scientists, including five Nobel laureates and other big names such as the Mayo Clinic's Jim Kirkland, a leader in geroscience, and biotech pioneer Lee Hood. I can't remember a startup with more stars in its firmament.."
So maybe I wasn't the only one who eventually felt suckered. But I also wasn't the first one to get suspicious about the way Elysium's business model was developing.
About two years later, Longevity Magazine quoted a former Harvard Medical School Dean critical of Elysium's marketing model: "“Some of these [scientists advising Elysium] may think that they’re being asked to do this because of their deep insights. That’s the part that’s a joke. They’re not. They are part of a marketing scheme where their names and reputations are being used."
The Boston Globe also apparently had second thoughts, publishing a more tentative profile last December suggesting that we were "still in the wilderness" on anti-aging medication, noting two prior companies (Sirtris and Elixir) that had come and mostly gone.
And then in March, the Boston Globe published a critical article asking which of two conflicting narratives more accurately described Elysium Health: Was Elysium selling supplements in a lightly regulated and evidence-free environment, leveraging the reputations of great scientists, with sales having primacy over health efficacy? Or was Elysium reforming the supplement industry by engaging great scientists and rigorously testing products to establish or refute health benefits? That was, for me, a key question.
And the same author who wrote the enthusiastic 2015 MIT Technology Review wrote a follow-up article in 2017 that voiced far more criticism of Elysium, suggesting that "High-profile boards can also sometimes give a company credibility it doesn't deserve," and noting that "some advisers [had] already concluded they were just window dressing," and that three Elysium advisors had stepped down from the board.
These articles seemed primarily concerned with conflicts of interest and scientific ethics. Why should scientists be lending their names to products that had not been proven efficacious?
That issue did not bother me at all. To me, science is about process and accuracy more than anything: If scientists want to attest (1) that Elysium Health is accurately stating what is in the bottle, and (2) that the science behind the substance is good science as far as it goes -- even if it is just mouse-studies -- I think that would be a terrific thing for scientists to do. I completely disagree that the role of science is to conceal from the public potentially valuable treatments until their efficacy has been established to some arbitrary confidence level that makes scientists feel safe.
My concern about Elysium's business was more practical: Where were all the new products? Where were the new products that their advisory board member was supposed to be scouring the literature to find? And where were the reliable versions of existing products -- a St. John's Wort that would pass a DNA test? It shouldn't have taken hardly any time at all to bring those to market.
To me, the concern with Elysium wasn't that Basis might not work; the concern was that Elysium was promising to introduce a new business model for supplements, but in fact appeared to just be pushing a single anti-aging compound with no demonstrated interest in any other products or in the supplement business in general.
Unbeknownst to me, before I had even heard of Elysium, Elysium had already gotten into a commercial dispute with its sole supplier, ChromaDex, Inc.
ChromaDex is the company that makes Nicotinamide Riboside (NR), a key ingredient in Elysium's Basis, which ChromaDex now sells directly as "Tru Niagen." ChromaDex licensed patents from the universities that discovered how to make NR. (Dr. Charles Brenner, who is the inventor behind some of those patents, is now ChromaDex's Chief Scientific Advisor).
Elysium had made a deal with ChromaDex to market a combination of Niagen and PteroPure, and called it "Basis." But the deal went south.
According to the court documents, Elysium thought they were entitled to a lower price than they were getting on the ingredients for Basis. But instead of finding a peaceful resolution, Elysium placed a giant order -- maybe a year's supply? -- then refused to pay for it, and hired away a couple ChromaDex employees, too.
ChromaDex responded by canceling the supply agreement, and suing Elysium for taking product and not paying for it. Elysium sued right back, alleging fraud and patent misuse.
While that lawsuit spun, Elysium filed another proceeding before the Patent and Trademark Appeals Board attempting to invalidate two of the patents that ChromaDex relies on to create NR.
A federal court in California will eventually decide who owes whom what, but we don't need to resolve that in order to be outraged that the lawsuit exists.
First, Elysium is probably spending at least $500K per quarter to avoid paying their $3M bill for ingredients that they have now sold.(1)
When I became an Elysium Health customer, I thought I was working with a company that was going to clean up the supplements industry, and instead I get from them in the mail something that feels to me an awful lot like contraband. I know I paid Elysium for it, and I know that Elysium has not, in turn, paid their supplier.
Second, the breach of contract suit in federal court is not the only litigation. On July 17, 2017, Elysium initiated a second set of proceedings before the Patent and Trademark Board of Appeals that has as its ONLY purpose to invalidate two of Dartmouth University's patents on orally ingestible versions of nicotinamide riboside (2) -- those are the Charles Brenner patents that Chromadex licensed from Dartmouth. What on earth does Elysium Health's business model have to do with invalidating university patents for health supplements? We'll return to that.
Third, so what ARE all those scientific advisors doing? As of today, there are seven Nobel laureates and 14 "science and medicine pioneers" listed on Elysium's website. How are those 21 big brains earning their consulting fees? Are they designing research studies? Are they scouring the medical journals for promising new supplements but they can't find any? Are they identifying safe supplements that cannot currently be reliably sourced? Are they certifying new manufacturing processes for purity? Are they reviewing new testing processes? Are they creating a certification scheme so that different types of risks can be identified for consumers? I have no clue.(3)
[Update Feb 2019: And the former Dean of Harvard Medical School is quoted as saying that many of Elysium's advisory board members who allowed their names and pictures to be posted on the company website know little about the scientific basis for use of the company’s supplement, and that one scientist had no real role in advising the company and never attended a company meeting. Even so, Elysium was paying him for his role on the board.]
So Elysium appears to have no interest in cleaning up the "pig in a poke" that is the supplement industry. Instead, they apparently want to become an ingredients company with their own stable of proprietary ingredients.
That's not what I understood as a "new category in the health industry," because lots of companies have their own stable of proprietary ingredients. What would be novel would be to market reliable versions of NON-proprietary ingredients. That was the problem I mistakenly thought they were trying to solve.
So let's look at Elysium's product pipeline of upcoming proprietary ingredients. This is from their website as of today:
It looks like five product pipelines. But then look at the disclaimers: It takes two years to develop a product. Not all products will ultimately come to market. Nothing will be sold until after rigorous human studies. Nothing is yet subject to clinical research. In other words, the company is more than two years old, but there is nothing imminent -- no Phase 1 clinical and no Phase 2 efficacy testing is underway in their product pipeline. And maybe nothing ever.
So then WHAT are they doing? Well, we have this from Elysium's Intellectual Property statement: "We actively seek opportunities to develop compounds using existing intellectual property and to generate our own IP on the foundation of Elysium-funded research. We have currently filed or licensed dozens of patents related to our work."
I couldn't find any patents issued to Elysium, although perhaps there are some patent applications. I suppose they formerly licensed patents from Chromadex but that deal is terminated. Is it still the case that they have licensed dozens of patents related to their work? If so, are those patents for ingredients they are developing, or patents for the photocopier they are using in the office? How can we know?
About the only activity I see is the litigation -- what looks like an irrational fight over $3M (I say "irrational" because the costs of litigation approach [UPDATE: far exceed] the amount in controversy), and an irrational challenge to the validity of Chromadex's patents (I say "irrational" because Elysium purports to have an entire business philosophy and a big product pipeline -- if they can't license an ingredient that they want, they presumably have plenty of other products they could develop with the dollars that would otherwise be spent on litigation).
All of this litigation gives the impression -- at least to me -- that the parties aren't really fighting over a Niagen supply contract or even over patented formulations or patented processes. What they are fighting over, I think, is control of the future market for what is likely to be shown to be an extremely valuable anti-aging supplement -- perhaps the most valuable supplement in history.
So maybe the Elysium is making a smart business bet that with the help of their attorneys at Skadden Arps and Foley Hoag they can either (1) destroy the patents that Chromadex has licensed from the researchers who discovered how to make NR, (which I guess would allow anyone to produce NR, and put Elysium's NR in direct competition with the world's largest vitamin manufacturers and distributors), or (2) impose so much legal expense on Chromadex that Chromadex would offer Elysium a privileged position in the emerging market for nicotinamide riboside.
Neither of those strikes me as particularly likely outcomes, which means I don't think that Elysium's apparent business model is very smart. And I don't see how it is consistent with Elysium's science-based research mission to be attacking other scientific researchers' intellectual property.
But more important, it's not what I thought Elysium was doing -- I didn't think they were playing legal hardball to try to corner a piece of the anti-aging market. I thought they were introducing a new category in the health industry that would offer consumers a trustworthy source of natural supplements. That's why I became their customer.
But they don't seem to be doing that, and I see no sign that they are about to start doing that -- in fact, they are investing significant resources elsewhere (in litigation).
And nobody has EVER claimed that Chromadex Niagen was unreliable -- certainly Elysium Health did not claim that when they were selling it -- so Elysium's attempt to invalidate Chromadex's patents does not make supplements safer or more reliable or more scientifically sound for the public. If anything, just the opposite.
That's why I say I feel like a sucker.
Thanks for reading! If you are interested in Elysium Health, you might also be interested in
(1) I don't know how much Elysium pays their lawyers, but that's about what ChromaDex says that it is spending to recover the debt Elysium owes, and Elysium's lawyers -- Skadden in New York -- should be at least as expensive as ChromaDex's counsel, Cooley in San Diego.
(3) Incidentally, archive.org's Wayback Machine copied Elysium's "Science" page in March 2016, at which time they listed 20 big brains and five industry innovators. The industry innovators are gone from the website now, and there have been some ins-and-outs with the big brains -- missing now are 2016 advisors Frank Hanley, Ross King, Donald Miller, Meir Stampfer, and Ajit Varki. I have no information about why they left or were replaced.
UPDATE: JULY 30, 2018. One commenter below helpfully suggests that based on this article the accuracy of the 2015 New York Attorney General adulteration conclusion was successfully challenged. I don't know if that is true or not, but other studies, like this Canadian one, and this one from the UK, continue to cast doubt on whether nutritional supplement bottles consistently contain what they say.
UPDATE: If Elysium has a response, I'll post it here. Since I am a customer, they know how to reach me.
UPDATE: A prior version of this article erroneously described Dr. Charles Brenner as ChromaDex's Chief Scientist. Dr. Brenner is in fact ChromaDex's Chief Scientific Advisor and Scientific Advisory Board Member.