MArch Cuban, tech giant, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and star of ABC’s Shark tankIt moves across the world like a friendly Great White, all teeth, eyes, and relentless movement. When we meet one October morning in his office at Mavericks headquarters, the 64-year-old serial entrepreneur is wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt announcing his latest investment: Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. A man who made billions from tech, won an NBA championship, and became perhaps the most famous entrepreneur on reality TV, has been spending his time and fortune selling antifungal medications online for $7.34.
“In order to make things better,” Cuban explains. “This is what capitalism is about. Capitalism is not just, ‘Everyone should make as much money as possible.’ Capitalism is about finding solutions to problems and knowing what you can do to solve them.”
Cost Plus Medicines, which launched in January, is Cuban’s attempt to prove that disorder can be a form of charity. The for-profit online pharmacy aims to undercut the healthcare industry by selling generics for everything from asthma to glaucoma to rheumatoid arthritis for a fraction of the usual price. Cuban likes to say that the company’s real product is transparency: In an industry where hospitals can sell cancer drugs at 600% off, Cost Plus sells generics for what they cost to manufacture, plus 15% shipping and handling fees. The goal, Cuban says, is to become the largest provider of low-cost drugs in America.
Although Cuban wouldn’t say exactly how much of the company he owns, he does describe the new online pharmacy as a win-win. If established pharmacies continue to charge patients artificially high prices, Cost Plus could emerge as a popular lower-cost alternative. If the industry lowers consumer prices to compete, he will have almost single-handedly introduced reform in an industry that it so stubbornly resists. “The incumbents can come and imitate us, have a heart, have a conscience,” Cuban says. “That will be fine.”
For decades, politicians have been promising to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, and for decades they have mostly failed. For Cuban, the continued inability to tackle runaway drug prices reinforced his grim view of the political system’s ability to solve big problems. He just doesn’t think the health care system is broken. He also thinks the US government got it wrong.
For the man who expresses himself through assets and acquisitions (plus the occasional podcast episode), Cost Plus Drugs represents a billionaire’s search for meaning in a world that is increasingly suspicious of the power of the wealthy. Their Cuban counterparts in the 0.01% became major political patrons, created world-class institutions, and became patrons of the arts and humanities. He prefers to build his legacy the way he built his fortune: through entrepreneurship. Cost Plus Drugs is a kind of middle path between progressive reform and charitable giving, one that aims to disrupt predatory markets as a means of regulating them.
The project still has a long way to go to upend the $1.4 trillion pharmaceutical industry. Cost Plus Drugs offers about 1,000 drugs in the U.S. — a fraction of the drugs available — and doesn’t take most insurances yet, though Cuban says that will change in 2023. While some customers say Cost Plus has lowered their medical bills, it is. Also early to see if the model can scale. “Mark Cuban has successfully disrupted a very small slice of the health care system,” says Larry Levitt, executive vice president at the nonpartisan health policy organization KFF. “It remains to be seen if he can figure out a way to expand this segment.”
Cuban email address Available to the public, hundreds of investment presentations land in his inbox each week. He reads the first paragraph and deletes it 99% of the time, he says. But in 2018, Cuban received a cold email from Dr. Alex Oceansky, a radiologist, asking if he would consider investing in a company that sells generics for roughly the cost of production. He answered within five minutes. “The more questions I ask him about the drug side of things, the clearer there’s an opportunity there,” Cuban says.
You might not expect a businessman like Cuban to be drawn into the world of generics. But long before Oshmyansky’s email reached his inbox, Cuban was concerned with the inefficiencies of the healthcare industry. He had noted the controversy surrounding Martin Shkreli, Pharma Bros., who in 2015 raised the price of daraprim, a life-saving antiparasitic drug, from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. “If the drug bro can raise prices, then that means there is some price distortion,” Cuban says. “And there has to be a way to reduce it in the same way.” He adds that watching President Trump and Republicans in Congress work to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a viable alternative convinced him that the bipartisan system was not well-equipped to deal with health care.
Cuban pushed Oshmyansky, who launched the company as a nonprofit in 2015, to turn the project into a for-profit corporation, arguing that it would be more sustainable if it did not rely on fundraising. His wealth has created a long runway, and his fame has allowed him to spread the word about an institution that might otherwise languish in obscurity. “It’s not even Mark’s capital. His star is the magic key that unlocked a lot of this,” says Oshmyansky. “Mark’s platform is actually much more valuable than the capital he can provide.”
The company has had some growing pains. Its 33 employees have struggled to keep up with growing demand, even as the company’s list of medicines remains limited. (Selling each drug requires complex negotiations with manufacturers and regulators, and Cost Plus Drugs doesn’t yet offer drugs like insulin, misoprostol, or auto-injectors of epinephrine for peanut allergies.) Medicines on site, but they won’t run out for months. Some customers have complained that their medication takes a long time to arrive, or that customer service is slow. These are the growing pains of a simple team trying to service more than 1.3 million accounts, Cuban says.
Other customers say Cost Plus has actually helped them. Andrew Hames, a 37-year-old car salesman in Pennsylvania, says he saved more than $600 on a three-month prescription for a variety of diabetes and blood pressure medications. “It’s more than pushing a car for most people,” he says. “For some people, that’s rent.”
The Cuban, who has an estimated net worth of $4.6 billion, says he is not there to “earn the next dollar.” He is also not interested in running for political office, despite the long-running rumors. “It’s the only thing I know I’d enjoy,” he says. Instead, Cost Plus Drugs is part of the playbook for using his wealth in a new kind of charitable disorder. “I can move on to the next thing, and the next thing and the next thing,” he says. “But it will not be like a politician. It will be my capital.”
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