You are the members of the WeCareEthics Consulting firm that specializes in advising boards of directors and/or the executive teams of corporations on their global ethics, compliance, and risk management. You are also frequently brought in to help management or the board with an actual ethical crisis.
The GeneFutura Board of Directors has just retained WeCareEthics to deal with a variety of potentially problematic ethical issues that have recently come to a head, though they appear to have been brewing for a while.
Your assignment is to review the facts that have been presented and provide the GeneFutura Board of Directors with an analysis of the most salient and critical ethical issues, as well as a detailed action plan and proposal for what the Board should do next to manage the various issues underway.
GeneFutura Founding and Early History
It’s 2025. GeneFutura is one of the largest and most successful genetic engineering firms in the world. The company is based in the United States but also heavily present in several other major global markets. GeneFutura has its European headquarters in Paris, where they moved after leaving London following the disastrous Brexit from the EU in 2019. The main operations in mainland China are in Shanghai where one of the company’s major research centers is located. Apparently, there are additional disclosed and undisclosed company locations within China that the international media has been investigating and looking for without success. Also, in Asia, GeneFutura is heavily invested in the world’s now largest start-up ecosystem in Seoul, Korea where joint ventures with other technologies (robotics, AI, and others) are being incubated, and in East Asia, specifically Bangalore, India, important data-based research and development takes place. Finally, GeneFutura was prescient enough to invest in Brazil after the Bolsonaro regime passed laws that invited genetic engineering firms to invest tax free in the very robust and extensive animal husbandry industry. GeneFutura’s Latin American headquarters are in Sao Paulo, where animal-oriented gene editing research is being carried out. They also have very significant satellite operations out in the field in various parts of Brazil.
GeneFutura was founded in 2015 by charismatic inventor, serial entrepreneur, and all-around media-darling, Marta Mockenburg, who at age 25 had become a multi-billionaire (net worth of US$3.5 billion) by launching one of the first and most successful ancestry tracking home kits called MeMyself&I. After launching that successful company, Marta’s next act was to dabble in robotics in the bio-area, looking to develop robotized body parts like hands and feet for those born without them or who had lost them in accidents or war. The name of this company is BioLimb (or as Marta sometimes affectionately describes it "MyWarBaby").
Marta has built an empire on smarts, laser focus, and what some have called sheer ruthlessness. Her career has not been without controversy. The ancestry kits, when first launched, were embroiled in a bitter intellectual property battle with a less successful rival You&Yourself – founded by a former classmate, roommate, and friend of Marta’s, Rosa Roderick, when they both attended Yale together. Rosa claimed Marta had stolen their concept and process.
Marta had beaten Rosa in taking the concept to market and in going IPO, cashing in on the concept in a huge way and leaving You&Yourself in the dust. Rumor in the marketplace was that Marta had stolen the concept from Rosa and had gotten away with commercial murder. A sealed and confidential legal settlement followed after years of acrimonious and bitter lawsuits up and down the federal courts. There were also rumors at the time in the media that Marta had deployed possibly unethical or even illegal measures, hiring a detective to follow Rosa’s daily routine, taking photographs of Rosa on vacation in the Caribbean, talking to neighbors and friends, rumors of dumpster diving, and the preparation of a very embarrassing dossier on Rosa to use in the later settled litigation. While none of this was proven publicly, the rumors of these questionable business tactics by Marta have continued to this day.
Since this litigation was settled confidentially, Marta has built a formidable empire in GeneFutura, mainly on a combination of aggressive start-up company acquisitions – she championed the purchase of several start-ups in Asia (namely in Korea and China) and Brazil. She is also well-known as a charismatic leader who systematically attracts (or some would say, poaches) scientists from competitors and major research universities (including Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia University, and Technion University), with enormous pay packages in her aggressive, and perhaps unbridled, ambition to create the world’s premier destination for all things bio-engineering, CRISPR, and gene editing.
GENEFUTURA GOVERNANCE AND EXECUTIVE SUITE
Another area in which Marta has excelled through her indisputable business acumen, accomplishments, and scientific knowledge, and her rock-star charisma and perseverance, is to have attracted an absolute who’s who of luminary board members to build the presence and reputation of GeneFutura.
The eleven-person GeneFutura board currently consists of the following members (in addition to Marta who is both CEO and Chair):
- A retired General and former United States Secretary of Defense
- A former First Lady of the United States
- A retired United States Senator
- A well-known geneticist and Fortune 100 CEO
- Three Fortune 500 CEOs in different fields – energy and utilities, retail/fashion, and the defense industry
- There are three additional board members who are all friends or family of Marta including:
- A 20-year-old hacker whiz-kid nephew
- Marta’s brother who’s never done much with himself except own restaurants that he purchased with his sister’s money
- Marta’s latest ex-boyfriend, a well-known tech entrepreneur known as “Ted Tech”, a former dark-web denizen who now runs a legitimate alternative internet, AI, and quantum cybersecurity firm
Marta and the Board have received an undue amount of attention from the media, partly because Marta has been very open and vocal about promoting (or maybe bragging about) the people on her Board (at least the famous ones) and constantly citing how important they are to the business. The attention has also been partly because the media has been covering GeneFutura and its CEO’s very public, charismatic, glamorous, movie-star persona.
Usually, the Board meets quarterly at one of the GeneFutura operations worldwide, where they spend two days meeting on board business and typically add 3-4 days of sightseeing and side trips with their families (depending on the location), at the company’s expense.
Marta is the controlling shareholder of the company. Although she does not have a majority of the shares since the company went public, she does hold a 65% majority of voting power through special classes of shares, thus pretty much holding the power to approve or veto any board decision.
In addition to owning a majority of the voting power in GeneFutura, Marta also holds relatively large interests in several other companies, among them:
- A large farm in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil – she personally owns 30% of this company and various leading Brazilian families own the rest
- A start-up ecosystem company in Seoul, Korea – she personally owns 20% and the rest is owned by various global investors including the investment wing of Saudi Aramco
- A robotics and engineering firm located in Myanmar that produces minute and customized robotic parts that are sold to a wide variety of tech companies, including GeneFutura. Marta owns 33% of this firm with several powerful local families.
The executive team of GeneFutura consists of a small group of five senior executives:
- A chief financial officer (CFO) five years out of business school with an MBA and with no experience as a CFO in a previous setting. The CFO came to GeneFutura through a recommendation from the board member who is the former United States Secretary of Defense and is also her father-in-law.
- A general counsel (GC) who was hired at the inception of the company when he was a second-year associate at a Silicon Valley law firm and has risen to the level of general counsel. The GC does not have an internal legal team to speak of and uses outside law firms for all needed transactional work – mainly M&A contracts and regulatory filings and applications.
- Regional executives for each of the main locations in which GeneFutura operates:
- In Shanghai, China, an American expat who is SVP and regional president, and was one of the original staff of GeneFutura when it was first founded
- In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the ex-vice president of the country is GeneFutura’s Latin America SVP and regional president, the son of the current Brazilian president
- In Paris, Theresa May’s eldest son is the SVP and regional president for all of Europe – EU and non-EU Eastern European and Russia markets
There are several experiments and products that GeneFutura is currently developing including the creation of new vegetable and animal life forms – from microbes engineered to eat plastic to designer doggies designed to tickle every dog fancy of the jet set. Most of the research and experimental work of GeneFutura is centered in their Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Bangalore campuses.
The CEO’s Very Public Personal Life
Another series of events has marked Marta’s very public, some would say mercurial and meteoric rise to biotech stardom. Marta leads an intense and very public social life replete with live Instagram postings of some of her travels, as well as dates with new beaus, not to mention that there are always crushes of paparazzi wherever she goes. She is known as a highly eligible bachelorette and someone who serial-dates famous men. Among her conquests and discarded beaus are a Hollywood movie star, a Russian world champion wrestler, a Silicon Valley founder (a brief fling marked by both of them tweeting and Instagram posting their dates ad nauseum) and currently, teen pop idol (and heartthrob) 18-year-old Thor Nielsen, 17 years her junior. The last posting they made together was at a Halloween costume party dressed in revealing clothing. Marta seems to love the public attention though she feigns not to when asked.
A social media storm has been brewing and is now heavily trending on Twitter with the hashtag #GeneFuturaDeepFake in which links are provided to an apparent selfie-video posted to the internet of Marta caught in compromising positions with one of her ex-lovers. Since GeneFutura doesn’t have a properly constituted PR and communication function, Marta hires the Moonshot PR firm owned by her brother’s girlfriend, Moon Cohen. Additionally, an IT cybersecurity firm, WeNoIT, recommended by Moonshot, has been engaged to look into the authenticity of the video.
The same week the #GeneFuturaDeepFake comes out, it is also being reported by leading media (The Financial Times and The New York Times in separate scoops) that the Brazil GeneFutura lab has apparently been secretly working on a non-animal gene edited prototype of a human. The purpose of this scientific activity is to create a menu of gene options for the wealthy and other elites everywhere so they can have an opportunity to design their children from scratch – including eye color, hair type, skin color, heart, muscle tone, athletic capabilities, and IQ qualities, among other genetic manipulations. These options are to be priced from the least expensive – one option such as eye color, for example, will cost each couple $100K. The more a couple wants, the higher the pricing is, all the way up to $2 million per baby for the full suite of services.
As the WeCareEthics Consulting team, the Board has asked you to review all of the foregoing facts and provide a board level presentation at their next Board meeting, this time in Bangalore, India, providing both your analysis of the key ethical issues raised by the facts as well as a recommended plan of action to deal with these issues.
This case was prepared for the Daniels Fund by Andrea Bonime-Blanc, CEO, and Jacqueline Brevard, Senior Advisor, GEC Risk Advisory, and consultants to the Ethics & Compliance Initiative.
© Daniels Fund 2019. All rights reserved.