Louis Ziskin is a born entrepreneur. Possessed of a keen mind, nimble tongue and an ability to perceive financial opportunities where others retreat from the risks, his checkered life would make a great movie.
It just might turn into that. During one of several interviews this past month, he emailed a sizzle reel capturing the fascinating story behind his 2021 imprisonment in Thailand. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Executive SummaryIn 2016, an InsurTech called DropIn was the first one using video and drone technology to ease the process of taking first notice of insurance claims. Similar business models have developed over the years since journalist Russ Banham wrote about the reformed-felon-turned-entrepreneur Louis Ziskin, who launched the company. But DropIn ultimately failed. Here, Banham delivers Ziskin’s highly personal account of what happened—mainly Ziskin’s report on a series of incredible events—supplemented by some investigative journalism by CNN.
Related article: Reversal of Fortune: How One CEO Went From Behind Bars to the Front of Insurance Technology (2016)
In 2016, I met Ziskin in Los Angeles to write a profile of him for Carrier Management. He had an innovative idea to develop a livestream platform providing on-demand video streaming services to insurance claims adjusters. A policyholder using an app would summon a nearby drone as a proxy first responder to fly to the scene of a car accident or property destruction and record the damage in real time. He called his startup company DropIn.
Business took off from there, but Ziskin’s notorious background was a constant impediment. In 2001, he and two associates had been convicted on charges of smuggling millions of doses of the drug Ecstasy by air courier from Europe to Los Angeles. Each FedEx box contained as many as 50,000 tablets. It was the largest drug bust of its kind at the time. Ziskin was the mastermind, assembling all the pieces of a wide-ranging enterprise, albeit an illegal one.
“A compact man with a shaved head and impressive build, Ziskin has an almost Zen-like demeanor,” I wrote in 2016. “He’s very still and listens deeply. When he responds to a question, his comments are precise. He’s extremely articulate.”
Seven years later, he’s barely aged. Everything else has changed though. “It got to the point where my criminal history became a problem with insurers, and venture capital investors needed to grow the business to the next logical stage,” he said.
In 2019, DropIn’s board decided to replace Ziskin with a veteran CEO and chief technology officer, Joseph Shemesh. “Joe really understood the insurance industry and did a lot of great things, technology-wise,” said Ziskin, who remained an owner of the company. Shemesh died tragically in 2022, Ziskin reported. By then, Ziskin’s life had become a dystopian nightmare and DropIn had effectively dropped out of business.
Scene Two: Ex-Con Is Conned
Shortly after Shemesh was named CEO, Ziskin had time on his hands to drum up other innovative startup business concepts, two of which subsequently became DropIn subsidiaries. The first was AirQueen, a distributor of medical-grade nitrile gloves, a much-in-demand personal protective equipment (PPE) used in hospitals during the pandemic’s worst days. “The demand among medical customers was soaring,” Ziskin said.
The problem was the broken global supply chain, which had squeezed the availability of medical-grade nitrile gloves, a tear- and puncture-resistant industrial protective glove that protected hospital wearers and patients against infections and bloodborne pathogens. Buyers approached Ziskin for assistance in getting the gloves, given his success navigating the supply bottlenecks of international drug smuggling. “Who knew better than an ex-drug trafficker?” he said.
This photo of Ziskin was taken in 2016 by Russ Banham
AirQueen sourced millions of nitrile gloves from a third party representing a company called Paddy the Wagon in Thailand. The first container arrived at the port of Los Angeles and was trucked to an AirQueen warehouse, a former airplane hangar, in Van Nuys. Upon inspecting the merchandise, Ziskin could easily see they were counterfeit second-hand nitrile gloves. “They were bloodstained and had holes; it was pretty obvious they were medical waste that had been washed and dyed blue,” he said. “They weren’t even nitrile, they were made of latex, which can cause death among people with a latex allergy.”
Gloves supposed to prevent the spread of micro-organisms could spread disease. Ziskin said he immediately contacted the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Customs and other government agencies. He offered to email the agencies the import security file showing the items AirQueen had bought and the inspection reports from Paddy the Wagon stating that the gloves were medical grade. The gloves were stored in the warehouse, a former airplane hangar, he said, adding that he had video footage from the security cameras at the hangar creating a chain of custody indicating when the medical waste arrived and remained in place.
Meanwhile, another 13 containers were on their way to Los Angeles. “I had the bill of lading to prove that, too,” he said. “Nobody cared.”
Ziskin had paid the third party in Thailand more than $2.7 million for the nitrile gloves. While waiting for the government to respond, he booked a flight in May 2021 to Thailand to arrange for shipments of authentic nitrile gloves or retrieve AirQueen’s money. Neither option was forthcoming. “I decided to make a police report and, strangely enough, there was one of the guys we’d sent money to,” he said. “I looked over at him and he said he’d straighten everything out.”
A few days later, Ziskin and a handful of associates were handcuffed and arrested for kidnapping and attempted murder, among other charges.
Scene Three: Prison
The news was reported first by the Associated Press in Bangkok on May 20, 2021, and reprinted the next day in the Los Angeles Times. The articles alleged that Ziskin had hired the associates, which included U.S. and Israeli private detectives, to help him recover the money.
A meeting allegedly was set up at a restaurant with the person Ziskin had encountered at the police station, whereupon a scuffle ensued, ending with the man allegedly escorted outside and bundled into a “waiting vehicle,” the AP reported, “in full view of customers, restaurant staff and a CCTV camera.” The man allegedly was taken to a nearby rented room and “allegedly threatened with physical harm,” the AP reported.”
Video from the closed circuit cameras purported to show Ziskin at the restaurant when the alleged scuffle occurred. “It wasn’t me,” he said. “None of this is true. It was an elaborate set-up designed to protect what was a multimillion con game, repackaging used medical gloves as the real thing. The police and government officials were in on it, leading me to believe that this was more than a clever crime. It was state-sponsored medical terrorism designed to kill thousands of people in the U.S.”
Ziskin spent two days in a Thai prison awaiting a booking date. He denied the charges and posted $10,000 bail, a ridiculously low amount for someone charged with attempted murder and kidnapping, he said. The judge ordered him to remain in Thailand for six months, wearing an ankle monitor, until the trial commenced. Despite the cost, he booked a room at a top Thai hotel where he felt safe and exorbitantly tipped the hotel maid to dissuade her from planting drugs in the room.
As he awaited trial, the unfavorable media attention killed off DropIn’s current business and future prospects. “The whole story was made up, but the press bought it,” he said. “No one would do business with us afterward.”
In July 2021, following a months-long investigation into counterfeit PPE, CNN verified that three months before Ziskin was arrested, he had “warned two federal agencies—Customs and Border Protection—that [AirQueen] had received shipments filled with substandard and visibly soiled gloves from one company in Thailand.” The article affirmed that Ziskin had stored the tainted merchandise in a warehouse for safekeeping, rather than pass the gloves off as authentic, “in good conscience,” CNN stated.
“CNN was the only media company that actually did any investigating; the rest just reiterated what had been written in the Thai newspapers,” said Ziskin. “What really galls me is that after the CNN article came out vindicating me, the AP and the LA Times never did follow-up stories or corrected their online versions.”
A Google search of the keywords “Ziskin,” “nitrile gloves,” “arrest” and “Thailand,” appears to support his contention. No follow-up stories seem to have been written that cite the findings of CNN’s investigation and the online versions of both publications appear to be essentially unchanged.
After 84 days of investigating the charges, a Thai judge released Ziskin and his associates. Ziskin flew home to Los Angeles. He hasn’t recovered a dime of the $2.7 million. The loss of capital dealt a death blow to DropIn. “It’s no longer solvent,” he said. “Although my investors said, ‘Louis, you did 100 percent the right thing as a CEO,’ I couldn’t let go of my past, for which I take full responsibility.”
He has no plans to return to the insurance industry. “I paid my dues and did something positive with my life after prison, creating something that would save policyholders and the industry bucketloads of money, but most of the insurance CEOs I met with looked down on me as a criminal,” he said. “It’s their loss.”
Not one to navel-gaze, he is putting his particular genius and unflagging energy into DropIn’s second subsidiary, SuperCall Inc., a celebrity and charity video chat application. The app gives celebrities and social influencers the opportunity to be paid a set price for real-time video connections to their fans and followers via livestream—streaming media that’s simultaneously recorded and broadcast in real time over the Internet—the same technology that underpinned DropIn’s value proposition.
Along with his sizzle reel, Ziskin emailed a link to Ashley Benson, one of the stars of the television drama “Pretty Little Liars,” using the app to chat with more than 50 hospitalized children with various illnesses on Thanksgiving. “It was great to see SuperCall used in such a positive way,” Ziskin said.
Is he truly a changed man?
Just before my last of five interviews with the one-time drug kingpin, InsurTech entrepreneur and pioneering PPE provider, he told me he had to fly to Ukraine on a humanitarian mission, sponsored by White Ribbon U.S., an LA-based nonprofit that supports victims of domestic abuse. When he returned, he texted some photos of himself alongside Veronica Mudra, White Ribbon’s founder and CEO.
“The winters are frigid there right now, so I went to the front lines to deliver chemical heat packs and clothing to people in a desperate situation,” he said. “To be completely honest, I also looked for some business opportunities.”