“Who wants to come live rent free in Palm Springs in exchange for helping me assemble rape kits?” tweeted Madison Cambell last week, referring to the materials used to gather DNA and other evidence after a sexual assault.
The 25-year-old entrepreneur’s plucky tone belies the controversy that surrounds her startup, Leda Health, which plans to launch the first commercially available DIY rape kit this year, allowing evidence to be preserved and authenticated using the blockchain. It’s backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists and angel investors, including former Bebo CEO Shaan Puri.
Leda’s kit offers a rape survivor, who is unable or unwilling to use traditional avenues to report the rape, “the empowerment to collect evidence within the comfort of their own home,” Campbell said in an episode of the “Forward Thinking Founders” podcast earlier this month. “I'm using blockchain, Ethereum, to create an immutable, timestamp and record,” she explained.
Branded a “terrible idea”
Cambell (who didn’t respond to Decrypt’s request for an interview) has said that her experience when she was raped as a student at the UK’s Edinburgh University, inspired the project. But experts think it’s a terrible idea, and a huge regulatory backlash has greeted her plans.
Attorneys general from New York, Michigan, and other states have sent Leda Health cease-and-desist letters and subpoenas; victims rights associations have warned that the kits “could be harmful,” and medical and forensic professionals say they leave out other aspects of sexual assault exams that are crucial to survivors.
Meanwhile, blockchain skeptics have panned the use of the technology for such a purpose, as well as the idea of VCs profiting from victims’ vulnerability with a kit not proven to be legally admissible in court.
VC’s accused of profiting from victims’ misfortunes
The critics’ main contention is that the DIY kits could prevent victims from reporting a crime to the authorities, and seeking time-sensitive medical assistance.
“A number of Silicon Valley investors are putting their money and influence into a campaign to gaslight rape victims into not seeking medical treatment, despite the warnings of top law enforcement officials,” tweeted software engineer James Mishra, who claims to have worked as a licensed sexual assault counselor.
(6/25) Leda Health's marketing is misleading to victims and may cause them to not seek critical and time-sensitive medical treatment.
Furthermore, rape kits in a hospital are protected. There needs to be a strong "chain of custody" or the kit will not be admissible in any court.
— James Mishra (@rishmishra) January 18, 2021
He called out investors who have backed the project.
(14/25) While victim advocates, law enforcement officials, and members of Congress aren't falling for Campbell's claims, Silicon Valley tech investors are.
Campbell rebranded "MeToo Kits" to "Leda Health" and started raising money. pic.twitter.com/siWf5LOC3f
— James Mishra (@rishmishra) January 18, 2021
Decrypt reached out to some of those named but only Puri—who moved 25% of his net worth into Bitcoin in December—responded. He declined to comment but confirmed that he was a Leda Health investor. The former Bebo CEO is now a director at Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch, and an angel investor, spending about $2.5 million in 25 startups a year.
Determined to launch
Brooklyn-based Leda Health has made efforts to assuage its critics. The startup is building a blockchain-enabled, HIPPA-compliant app to work with the physical kits; it’s also partnered with organizations that provide emergency contraceptives and STI testing.
Campbell said that Leda Health will initially target universities—rather than marketing the product directly at rape victims. It also has a bigger mission; it wants to transform existing systems of sexual-assault prevention, care, and justice.
The start-up argues that three out of four sexual assaults go unreported, and points to roadblocks with the public sector model of rape kit testing—a fact highlighted by attorney Wendy Murphy in her response to Misra’s post.
This thread is dangerous. Hospital rape kits ruin FAR more cases than they help. In 30 years I’ve seen only a handful of cases where DNA helped prove a case. Over 85% of rape cases involve people who know each other & the defense is consent-meaning the rapist admits the act. 1/3
— Wendy Murphy (@WMurphyLaw) January 18, 2021
But other legal professionals point out that a DIY kit raises serious evidentiary problems, "The kits bring up issues of chain of custody and whether the DNA evidence was properly collected,” Monica Beck, managing legal counsel for the Fierberg National Law Group in Michigan told CNN when the kit was first announced.
However, no one really knows whether DIY evidence would be admissible in court. Rape kits donated by another private manufacturer were used for the first time in Monterrey County, California last April, under a temporary protocol adopted in response to the difficulty of using traditional channels during the coronavirus pandemic.
I’ll do it!
— Melanie Cristol (@MelCristol) January 17, 2021
And, even as critics such as Misra call for criminal action to be taken against the young founder, new supporters of the project are heading for Palm Springs.