“Cause baby now we got bad blood….”
A Woman on the Rise
In 2015, it seemed as though Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout who created the blood-testing company Theranos in Silicon Valley, was going to change the world. Holmes claimed that her company Theranos could perform hundreds of vital blood tests on their patented “Edison Machines,” using only a simple finger prick and a few drops of blood. What’s more, these tests would cost far less than a traditional blood test at the average doctor’s office.
Elizabeth Holmes was lauded as a visionary in the medical field, who promised to revolutionize the standards of modern American healthcare. At its peak in 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 Billion dollars, making Holmes the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. She was celebrated by many, receiving endless amounts of praise for her work, even earning a highly coveted spot on Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.
Of course, there were doubters. People felt that what Holmes was claiming to do was impossible. You could not accurately perform such tests with such a small amount of blood. But it never mattered to Elizabeth Holmes what people had to say. She seemed to easily laugh and shrug it off. “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world,” she would often say in interviews when asked how she dealt with the pressure.
Elizabeth Holmes appeared to be the real deal.
But just a few states over in Arizona, a medical assistant by the name of Brittany Gould tried to take her own Theranos test.
Gould, who was pregnant at the time, was impressed by the low price and promising statistics of the company. Having suffered three previous miscarriages before, she decided to take a blood test in order to make sure her unborn child was healthy.
Yet what she found was startling. Her test results showed that her levels of HCG, a pregnancy hormone, were dropping rapidly. She and her medical practitioner concluded that Gould must have suffered another miscarriage due to her low hormone levels. Overcome with grief, Gould then decided to terminate her pregnancy and have an abortion.
However, her doctor, Audra Zachman, was perplexed by how different the results between Gould’s tests were. “I felt very uncertain of the validity of the results,” said Zachman. And so she decided to have Gould take another test, this time with Quest Diagnostics. These tests showed normal levels of HCG, indicating that Gould did not miscarry, and her child was in fact healthy. She would later give birth to a healthy baby girl later that year.
Zachman tried to tell Theranos about what happened, and how the tests had been wildly incorrect. However she was dismissed by the company, and these false results were merely attributed to simple human error.
While it may seem like one rare case, there have been countless other stories of dangerous flaws within the technology and the company itself. Employees were being fired left and right for raising concerns over the validity of test results. Tests were not even being conducted on the “Edison Machines” as they were considered incredibly unreliable at producing accurate results. Lab technicians were told to delete data points that were deemed “outliers” with no protocol or regulations, in order for the company to pass quality tests. It was impossible for tests to be run with such a small amount of blood, and so employees were often forced to dilute it, creating such wildly different results.
Elizabeth Holmes knew about all of it. Elizabeth Holmes was a liar. And her black turtleneck facade was beginning to crack.
As Elizabeth Holmes is currently on trial for defrauding patients and investors, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, the question everyone is asking is how did a company as promising as Theranos, fail so dramatically?
The most obvious and glaring reason is the fact that the technology itself did not work as well as Holmes claimed. A Theranos whistleblower has recently testified in court that the “Edison machines” used by the company were extremely unreliable.
“On any given day, about 25 percent of the Theranos machines failed tests, a rate far higher than competitors’ devices”, Erika Cheung, a former lab technician said. She would later describe the process of “Cherry-picking data” or deleting statistical outliers with no regulation or protocol.
Cheung has stated that claims that the company’s Edison machines were able to conduct roughly 200 tests were grossly exaggerated and that they could perform “a dozen at best.” Furthermore, Cheung qualified the tests “as accurate as flipping a coin for test results.”
Cheung’s testimony in court has been integral to the prosecution’s case, highlighting many of the dangerous practices in Theranos.
While the faulty technology of Theranos proved to be the ultimate cause of its inevitable failure, there were many other factors that contributed to its almost climactic ending.
John Carreyrou, a freelance journalist who has written several investigative articles into the shady practices of Theranos, claims that the toxic culture at the company helped expedite their downfall.
“There was sort of an Omertà in that from the early stages of the company — and it got worse and worse — there was really unethical behavior and employees who would try to raise questions were either fired, or marginalized, or left of their own volition,” Carreyrou said. Carreyrou also states that Holmes would pressure employees into signing airtight NDAs, preventing them from speaking to the media or regulator and revealing the truth about Theranos. Holmes would even go so far as to pursue lawsuits against ex-employees.
Carreyrou argues that the toxic culture of secrecy that Elizabeth Holmes created, only served to stunt the company’s process and cause them to fail.
“You could argue that if the culture at Theranos hadn’t been so toxic, they could have made better progress and maybe even gotten there,” Carreyrou said.
Yet one of the most glaring issues isn’t even with the machines or the company itself really. The issue was Elizabeth Holmes herself. Behind her phony voice and black turtleneck a la Steve Jobs, Elizabeth Holmes simply did not have the credentials to back up her ambition. At her core, she was essentially just a manipulative and fraudulent businesswoman. Not a medical professional as she seemed.
Holmes was a Stanford dropout with no medical training, who filled her board of executives with diplomats and former secretaries of state – essentially those who also had no medical experience whatsoever. She even hired her brother, with no medical or scientific background, giving him the power to make clinical decisions about the blood testing.
“The whole notion that she had dropped out of Stanford without any medical training, any science training really to speak of, and suddenly revolutionized a field of medicine — from my experience reporting on health care, that’s not really how these things happen,” Carreyrou said.
Another of Holmes’ issues was that she attempted to adopt the “Fake it ‘til you make it” practice that is popular in Silicon Valley. This method tends to work best with computer software, with companies being able to put out their product and fix some of the issues or bugs as the public is using it. Yet this system does not work well with medical technology, in which peoples’ lives are put at risk.
In short, Theranos did not fail simply because of their machines. The bizarre and highly toxic work culture, unprepared executive employees, and Holmes’ arrogance itself all proved to be detrimental to the company, causing it to fall into a burning pile of rubble.
Trial Of Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes is currently on trial after being indicted on 11 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, facing up to 20 years if she is convicted. She has pleaded not guilty.
The trial began in September of 2021, after being pushed back due to Holmes’ pregnancy and the Coronavirus pandemic.
The prosecution has argued that Elizabeth Holmes was well aware of the faulty technology, and still put her product out into the public sphere regardless of the danger.
“She chose fraud over business failure,” said Jeff Schenk, assistant US attorney and lead prosecutor on the case.
Meanwhile, the defense has argued that Elizabeth Holmes was not fully in control of Theranos, as the prosecution is arguing. They have claimed that many of the areas of fault within the company were under the control of others and that Holmes was never made aware of these errors.
They have also pointed to years of alleged abuse that Holmes had suffered at the hands of Theranos president and her ex-boyfriend Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani.
In a tearful and vulnerable testimony, Holmes discussed how Balwani would control nearly every aspect of her life and would force sexual acts upon her.
She and her defense team have shifted blame onto Balwani for much of the company’s misgivings.
Closing arguments for the trial of Elizabeth Holmes were delivered on Friday, December 17th, and the jury is still out on what her verdict will be.
Elizabeth Holmes Vs. The United States will serve as a landmark case against white-collar crime, especially in Silicon Valley, as it will hereby set a precedent for dealing with fraud and how to deal with the most extreme cases of fraud.