When Inc. magazine’s Jeff Bercovici reported last August that billionaire Trump-supporter Peter Thiel had repeatedly expressed interest in the idea of harvesting the blood of young people to maintain his own youth, it left an indelible mark on Thiel’s public persona, as captured by headlines like “Peter Thiel Wants to Inject Himself with Young People’s Blood” and “Here’s Why Peter Thiel May Be Interested In Younger People’s Blood.” The television show Silicon Valley eventually featured a tech mogul who hires a young “transfusion associate” to provide him with fresh blood on-demand.
Thiel’s ultra-libertarian politics and history of supporting vaguely nefarious projects—such as his successful plot to kill Gawker, his controversial application for New Zealand citizenship, and his recent suggestion that political corruption could be a good thing—have earned him the aura of a Silicon Valley fiend. His interest in Ambrosia, an obscure startup that injects older customers with blood drawn from youthful donors, was the perfect detail to round out his villainy.
So it came as a shock Wednesday when TechCrunch reporter Sarah Buhr published an article that claimed the story about Thiel’s blood interest was untrue. Bercovici had reported that Ambrosia founder Jesse Karmazin told him that Jason Camm, the “chief medical officer” for Thiel Capital, approached Karmazin in July 2016 to express interest in Ambrosia. That reporting, Buhr wrote, was false: “According to Karmazin…he was never contacted by Thiel or anyone associated with Thiel Capital.”
On Twitter, Buhr amplified that claim. An unnamed source “on the Thiel team” denied that Camm had ever contacted Karmazin, she wrote, and Karmazin himself insisted that Bercovici “made that part up.”
Although Buhr didn’t present her story as a major case of journalism fraud—she didn’t even contact Bercovici before publication—that’s exactly what Karmazin was alleging. If he was telling the truth, Bercovici was guilty of lying about one of the most consequential figures in Silicon Valley.
The record indicates exactly the opposite, however. According to emails obtained by Gizmodo, and Bercovici’s accounts of conversations with Karmazin and Thiel’s own associates, the original story remains accurate: Karmazin did tell Bercovici that Camm contacted him to express interest in Ambrosia’s young-to-old blood transfusions. What’s not so clear is why Karmazin decided to change his story—or whether anyone in Thiel’s orbit has pressured him to do so.
TechCrunch was not the first forum in which Karmazin began to distance himself from his earlier statement that Peter Thiel was interested in his company. He first denied the connection earlier this month at Recode’s Code Conference, where, according to CNBC, he “stressed that Thiel is not an Ambrosia customer.” On the same day, Gizmodo reporter Bryan Menegus asked Karmazin what kind of contact he’d had with Peter Thiel’s circle. Karmazin’s response: “None. I don’t know how that rumor started. So we haven’t had any contact with them. So I don’t know any information about that.” In an interview with Newsweek published a week later, he claimed to be unfamiliar with Thiel’s interest in parabiosis—despite the fact that Bercovici’s story had quoted Thiel talking knowledgeably about the process. TechCrunch’s report was the first to reflect Karmazin’s new claim that Bercovici had lied about their conversation last year.
Karmazin initially declined to elaborate on his comments to TechCrunch. When informed that Gizmodo had obtained emails between him and Bercovici that cast doubt on the credibility of his recent statements, he responded that they were an “an off-the-record correspondence,” adding: “Well, let me be clear, I have no connection to Peter Thiel.”
Those emails document the fact that Bercovici spoke with Karamazin on July 22, 2016; later sought clarification regarding the capacity in which Jason Camm contacted Ambrosia; and exchanged pleasantries with Karmazin after the article was published. They show that Karmazin didn’t want Bercovici to mention Camm’s contact, but also that he congratulated Bercovici about the same article, which did in fact mention Camm. At no point in the conversation did Karmazin attempt to correct Bercovici:
On Friday, Jul 22, 2016 at 1:58 PM, Jesse Karmazin wrote:
Hey Jeff, it was a pleasure to speak with you today. Please let me know if you have any questions or want to chat more, via email or phone. Below are some links for background for the young plasma field.
Thanks again for your interest!
On Sunday, Jul 24, 2016 at 10:32 PM, Jeff Bercovici wrote:
Great speaking with you too. Thanks for all the material, looking forward to continuing the conversation. Hope you had a great weekend.
On Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016 at 2:44 PM, Jeff Bercovici wrote:
Quick question—you mentioned that Jason Camm from Thiel Capital contacted you. Was it about investing or was he asking as a scientist/practitioner? I looked him up on LinkedIn and it looks like he does angel investing but is also basically the chief health officer for Thiel Capital and Peter Thiel’s personal health concierge. In fact his LinkedIn profile even alludes to parabiosis, I think — it says his interests include “optimizing blood markers and novel techniques to improve health.”
On Sunday, Jul 31, 2016 at 7:56 AM, Jesse Karmazin wrote:
Hey Jeff, I really shouldn’t comment specifically on individuals. That was an error on my part and ideally wouldn’t be included in a writeup. Sorry about that.
But, I’m happy to answer any other questions you have. I did very much enjoy our chat. Are you planning on writing about this?
On Monday, Aug 1, 2016 at 9:56 AM, Jesse Karmazin wrote:
Hey Jeff, just saw the article. It is very nicely written and I’m impressed with the amount of information you included.
On Aug 1, 2016 at 2:10 PM, Jeff Bercovici wrote:
Thanks, Jesse! Glad to hear that. FWIW I didn’t see your previous note until last night. Since the story is primarily focused on Thiel it would’ve been difficult to remove the mention of Jason Camm but in any case it was too late for me to make more edits (especially as I’m officially on book leave, as of last Friday).Hope all the attention this story is getting is useful for your project. I would love to figure out a way to cover parabiosis in the book, potentially in a chapter about the crossover between life-extension medicine and sports medicine. If it would be possible to observe some of the work you’re doing in Monterrey, something like that might make a great chapter-opening scene. Let’s definitely stay in touch on it.
On Monday, Aug 1, 2016 at 11:12 AM, Jesse Karmazin wrote:
Sounds good. Have a great time on book leave.
Bercovici told Gizmodo that Karmazin volunteered Camm’s name after he inquired about investor interest in Ambrosia. Karmazin initially demurred, according to Bercovici, and explained that the company hadn’t done much outreach beyond advertising a clinical trial. There was one exception, Bercovici recalls Karmazin saying. Bercovici’s notes from the conversation, which Gizmodo has obtained, show that Karmazin told Bercovici “someone’s approached me sort of surprisingly early,” but they don’t mention Camm by name. Bercovici says that, during the interview, he immediately Googled Camm’s name and found his LinkedIn profile, which served to memorialize the mention of Camm’s name for the purposes of his reporting.
Bercovici’s statement to TechCrunch, added after publication of the article, also implies that Camm did not dispute his reporting about Camm’s contact with Karmazin:
I spoke with Jason Camm in August 2016, at the SENS Research Foundation’s Rejuvenation Biotech Conference. While our conversation was off the record, I can say at no point has Camm or anyone else from Thiel Capital denied to me that he called Karmazin.
In an interview with Gizmodo, Bercovici added that Thiel spokesperson Jeremiah Hall never raised any factual objections to the Inc. story after it came out. “I’ve talked to Jeremiah about Thiel’s support of Trump,” he said, “and he’s never said anything in the article was wrong or should be corrected.”
Taken together—the emails with Karmazin, Bercovici’s encounter with Camm, the lack of pushback from Hall—the evidence here clearly indicates that Bercovici’s story was right all along. Karmazin had multiple opportunities to correct Bercovici, both before and after publication.
For now, Karmazin is sticking by his new story. “I don’t think Jason Camm ever contacted me about Ambrosia,” he wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “Jeff’s reporting was a misunderstanding.” When asked why he did not point out this error before or after the story was published, Karmazin replied, “I don’t know.”
This story involves Peter Thiel, of course, so it’s natural to ask if something is going on beneath the surface. After all, why would Karmazin risk looking like a liar for the sake of denying that his startup drew the interest of a wealthy and powerful Silicon Valley investor?
We posed the following question to Karmazin: “Did anyone at any company owned or founded by Peter Thiel encourage, pressure, or instruct you to deny that you had contact with Jason Camm?”
His response, in its entirety: “No comment.”
TechCrunch received a wave of criticism for Sarah Buhr’s article, and eventually added a correction regarding Bercovici’s characterization Camm’s contact with Karmazin, an apology to Bercovici for not contacting him before publication, and a lengthy response from Bercovici himself.
On Twitter Wednesday, Buhr told Bercovici, “Jeff, we’re going to have to agree to disagree here. I’m confident in my reporting. Happy to talk [with] you about this privately.”
Yesterday, she said she regretted not speaking to him beforehand. “At the time, I felt Jeff’s story spoke for itself,” Buhr told Gizmodo. “I now wish I had reached out to him for clarity.”
TechCrunch’s editor-in-chief, Matthew Panzarino, said the site would “continue to do more reporting” on the story.
Peter Thiel and Jason Camm did not respond to requests for comment.
This story was produced by the Special Projects Desk of Gizmodo Media Group. If you have any insight into why Karmazin has changed his story, please get in touch.