A week before then-candidate Donald Trump descended an escalator at Trump Tower to launch his first Republican presidential campaign, a pharmaceutical company made what at the time was the largest initial public offering ever by a biotech company.
The flush of cash highlighted Axovant’s then-29-year-old CEO, Vivek Ramaswamy, whose jump from hedge fund analyst to biotech executive attracted headlines and put his net worth in the hundreds of millions. Since that 2015 offering, Ramaswamy spun out other pharmaceutical companies, founded an “anti-woke” financial firm, wrote two books and became a semi-regular cable news commentator.
Ramaswamy has run an unusual campaign that has gained traction in recent weeks. He is polling even or even above other declared or likely Republican presidential contenders with more experience. A CBS News presidential poll conducted in late April found Ramaswamy polled at 4 percent — on equal footing with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, who has not officially jumped into the race.
His performance raises the question of whether his self-funded campaign and voracious media presence can rocket him even higher in a crowded presidential primary. Ramaswamy’s campaign told POLITICO he’s prepared to put over $100 million into his campaign — enough to sustain long operations in early primary states, although well below the cost of a national presidential campaign.
FEC filings reveal that so far he spent $10.5 million of his own money on his presidential ambitions in the first quarter, a total that has allowed him to hire staff — primarily to staff his elaborate digital operation — and spend more than $1 million on digital and TV ads in key primary states, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising.
POLITICO took a look at how his fortune came together, and his path to wealth is different from previous self-funding candidates.
While Ramaswamy has not yet filed a mandatory personal financial disclosure (his campaign asked for a deadline extension in order to be “thorough”), he released 20 years of his individual income tax returns online and to reporters. The filings date back to 2002, the year in which he turned 17 and reported earning $2,000.
He reported over $1 million in annual income for the first time in 2011, when he worked at QVT Financial, and has since reported earning more than $240 million, driven by $174 million in capital gains for 2020.
The biggest source of wealth for Ramaswamy is equity in companies he has founded, several of which are publicly traded. Filings provide insight into how the 37-year-old Ohio native made hundreds of millions of dollars through a network of companies focused on prescription drug development before pivoting to politics.
On Feb. 22, the day after he formally announced his presidential bid, Ramaswamy sold four million shares in Roivant, a biotechnology company he founded, at $7.95 each, according to public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The cash value of that transaction would have been just shy of $32 million prior to taxes. The filing indicated Ramaswamy, who stepped aside from the firm’s day-to-day operations in 2021, still owns more than 54 million shares.
Axovant, the company that had raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in a 2015 public offering, was one of several subsidiaries of Roivant. Axovant’s first drug, intended to treat Alzheimer’s disease, ultimately failed in clinical trials, leading the company to pivot before eventually dissolving. But drugs developed by other Roivant subsidiaries have since garnered FDA approval.
In 2022, Ramaswamy founded Strive Asset Management, an investment firm that branded itself in opposition to the environmental, social and governance framework used by some firms to make investment decisions, amid a broader pushback against so-called “ESG” from conservatives. The firm, backed by billionaires including Peter Thiel and Bill Ackman, said it was managing more than $230 million in assets after two weeks of trading last August, although Ramaswamy’s compensation is not public.
Ramaswamy stepped away from the firm to run for president in February; its major investors have not backed his presidential campaign. Thiel has recently signaled a withdrawal from politics while also suggesting support for DeSantis. Ackman indicated support for Ramaswamy’s campaign when he initially launched but later backed off, saying in an April tweet that he thought the country needed someone “closer to the center.”
Ramaswamy’s investment is still just a small fraction of what other self-funded presidential primary candidates have gone on to spend, with vastly varying degrees of success. Two Democrats spent far more in the party’s 2020 primary: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured more than $1 billion of his own money into a last-minute campaign but ended up winning only one primary contest, in American Samoa, while fellow billionaire Tom Steyer also spent more than $340 million of his own money in that race to little avail. (Estimates of Ramaswamy’s net worth — typically in the hundreds of millions — suggest he does not have Bloomberg-levels of cash ready to throw into his campaign.)
The troubles for self-funded candidates are not just limited to those in presidential contests — only six of the 44 congressional candidates who spent at least $1 million on their own races won in 2022, according to OpenSecrets. Half lost primaries.
But Ramaswamy — who is also fundraising, bringing in a bit over $850,000 from donors in the first six weeks of his campaign — would hope to follow Trump’s 2016 path, when the New York real estate magnate, branding himself a political outsider and successful businessman, poured more than $66 million of his own money into his campaign.
Ramaswamy is trying to portray his self-funding as a positive.
“I don’t have years of political lists and campaign bases to draw from or existing donors,” he told Fox News in a recent interview. “Frankly that actually gives me some latitude many of those professional politicians don’t have because those donors — especially megadonors — have expectations. I don’t dance to anybody else’s tune.”
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