Skip to content

The week in business – BetaBoston


Sacha Baron Cohen sues Somerset dispensary over ‘Borat’ billboard

Sacha Baron Cohen is suing a Massachusetts cannabis dispensary for using his character Borat on a billboard for the company, according to a lawsuit documents filed Monday in US District Court in Boston. The actor, best known for his titular role in the “Borat” films and his characters Brüno and Ali G, said Somerset dispensary Solar Therapeutics Inc. was not given permission to use his likeness or character in the ad, which has been on display on a Massachusetts highway for several weeks, according to court documents. The billboard shows Baron Cohen posing as Borat beside the words “It’s nice!”, a reference to one of the character’s popular catchphrases, and “Happy 4/20!” Baron Cohen, along with his company Please You Can Touch, LLC, are suing the dispensary and its president Edward Dow III for at least $9 million in damages, according to the suit. “By use of the Billboard, the Defendants falsely have conveyed to the public that Mr. Baron Cohen has endorsed their products and is affiliated with their business,” the lawsuit said. “To the contrary, Mr. Baron Cohen never has used cannabis in his life. He never would participate in an advertising campaign for cannabis, for any amount of money.” According to the lawsuit, the actor has mocked “stoner culture” throughout his career and does not believe cannabis is “a healthy choice.” ― CAROLINE ENOS



Massachusetts startups raised $17.4 billion in first six months of year

Massachusetts startups raised $17.4 billion in venture capital in the first six months of 2021, exceeding the total amount brought in last year and breaking all-time annual records, according to a report from PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor. The flood of money backing private companies spanned biotechs such as Adagio Therapeutics and Affinivax, cybersecurity firms like Snyk and Aura, and e-commerce players Thrasio and Perch. The $775 million raised by Perch, which owns dozens of small outfits that sell goods online on Amazon, was the largest deal in Massachusetts so far this year. The latest numbers demonstrate that as the state emerges from COVID-19, the funding market for startups is gaining strength, particularly for those positioned to capitalize on trends that got a boost during the pandemic, such as shopping online and relying on cloud software. “Many innovators and entrepreneurs are now focused on the abundant opportunities to develop technologies and build companies that address the needs of a reopening economy and a structurally different post-COVID environment,” the report said. Also encouraging VC spending: the boom in companies going public, both via traditional initial public offerings and by merging with so-called blank check companies, also known as special purpose acquisition companies. So far this year, 218 companies have gone public the traditional way and raised $80 billion, making it the busiest since 2000, according to data from Renaissance Capital. Another 34 startups have gone public in the first half of 2021 via SPAC mergers, PitchBook-NVCA said. Among Boston firms, indoor farming company Agrify completed an IPO in January, and payments startup Flywire went public in May. Meanwhile, mergers and acquisitions, such as Microsoft’s $20 billion purchase of Nuance Communications, have proceeded at typical rates seen in recent years. With attractive areas for startups to attack and lucrative opportunities to go public or be acquired, it’s no surprise that venture capital investment is booming, according to Thomas Chemmanur, a finance professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Chemmanur highlighted green tech, biotech, and software, including cybersecurity, as particularly attractive to VCs this year. But the trend could come to a halt quickly, he warned. “I suspect VC investment will cool down if the IPO market cools down — there is a strong connection between the two,” he said. For venture capital investment, Massachusetts ranked third in the country, behind California, where startups raised $72.5 billion in the first half of the year, and New York, where startups brought in $20.9 billion. ― AARON PRESSMAN




Out-of-state insurers say they won’t cover Biogen’s Aduhelm

At least half-a-dozen private health insurers in some of the nation’s largest states are balking at covering Biogen’s controversial drug for Alzheimer’s disease, saying it is an experimental and unproven treatment despite being approved by the federal government one month ago. Six affiliates of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Florida, New York, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania indicated in policies posted online they will not cover the Cambridge biotech’s drug, Aduhelm, because they consider it “investigational” or “experimental” or because “a clinical benefit has not been established.” Aduhelm, which is priced at $56,000 a year, is intended to slow cognitive decline in patients with early Alzheimer’s symptoms, regardless of their age. James Chambers, an associate professor of medicine at the Tufts Medical Center Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies, said that insurers have occasionally opted not to cover expensive specialty medicines for rare diseases, but that he’s never seen firms refuse to pay for an approved drug that could be prescribed to millions of people. The Food and Drug Administration approved Aduhelm on June 7 over the objections of its independent advisory committee and some medical experts who said the results of clinical trials were muddled at best. Helen Stojic, a spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, acknowledged that the insurer’s website says Aduhelm was “considered investigational/experimental” due to “insufficient evidence of a clinical benefit.” But, she said, the insurer hasn’t decided yet whether to cover it. So far, no private insurer in Massachusetts has said whether it will cover the medication. The largest, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, with 2.8 million members, is reviewing the trial results and conferring with doctors, and “will likely have a final decision” by the end of July, said spokeswoman Amy McHugh. The state’s second-largest insurer, Point32Health ― which was formed by the recent merger of Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and has 2.2 million customers ― is also scrutinizing the drug. A Biogen spokeswoman, Allison Parks, said Tuesday that the drug maker was “disappointed” by the out-of-state insurers’ decisions and that only a “very small portion” of potential patients would be affected. She said the insurers were mischaracterizing Aduhelm. “Typically, an experimental drug is one that has not yet entered clinical trials, whereas an investigational drug is one that is being studied in trials but has not yet received marketing approval from the FDA,” she said. “Aduhelm is approved by the FDA and is neither experimental nor investigational. ― JONATHAN SALTZMAN




John Hancock won’t require employees to return to the office until 2022

One of Boston’s most prominent white-collar employers won’t be requiring workers to come back to the office until January, and most of the returning employees will only spend three days a week there when that happens, according to John Hancock president Marianne Harrison. In a memo to John Hancock’s roughly 5,000 US employees, Harrison said the life insurer’s Back Bay headquarters campus will open to employees on a voluntary basis on Sept. 20. Returning to the office will be optional through the end of the year, Harrison said, to help ease the transition back, by regaining comfort with the commutes and other routines that were once a daily part of office life. Starting in the new year, many returning workers will adopt a hybrid model. The life insurer employs about 3,500 people in New England. Hundreds of them will work remotely because the company recently decided to close its satellite offices in Westwood and Portsmouth, N.H. About 900 people were based out of one of those two offices, and only a minority will regularly work out of the Back Bay campus — a two-building, 715,000-square-foot complex that has seen only a skeleton crew since the COVID-19 pandemic sent most people home in March 2020. ― JON CHESTO