The story of Theranos, a multi-billion dollar tech company, its founder Elizabeth Holmes, the youngest self-made female billionaire, and the massive fraud that collapsed the company.
I love watching documentaries, and during the pandemic, I whizzed through a whole bunch of them! I was happy to find one based on Elizabeth Holmes and her ill-fated company, Theranos. I also read a book written by one of journalists who helped to break the story (Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou). I still find it fascinating how many people were drawn into this web Elizabeth Holmes spun, especially given the calibre of people she managed to convince to invest in Theranos and work for it.
To give some background information, Theranos was a health technology company that made headlines when they developed a device called Edison which could supposedly perform a lot of blood tests quickly – the hook? The device only needed a pinprick of blood. Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, it turned out to be smoke and mirrors. Not only was Theranos faking its results, but its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was charged with several counts of fraud.
Before Elizabeth Holmes went on trial, this scandal wasn’t mainstream news worldwide, and as someone with a little bit of a biomedical background, I found the whole thing fascinating. Using an all-inclusive pinprick blood test for 200 different assays (laboratory tests) sounded impractical.
However, I got the feeling early on in the documentary that it wasn’t so much about changing the medical industry as it was Elizabeth Holmes wanting to become a visionary – and I think the psychology behind that is interesting to explore. When you elevate someone like Steve Jobs to Godlike status, how far will other people go to obtain the same thing without putting in the work?
And the idea itself wasn’t the problem. While it may have seemed improbable, who knows? If Holmes had owned up to her company’s shortcomings, perhaps someone out there could have come up with a workable solution.
Instead, Theranos operated under complete secrecy by claiming that they didn’t want anyone to steal their idea(s)/intellectual property. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in the medical industry. Things need to be peer-reviewed and examined. Yet somehow, they managed to get their test into stores and operate clinics.
In the end, after several whistleblowers came forward, the project fell apart. I was surprised to see so many researchers working for Theranos, but the biomedical industry is a tough one to get into (waves hand). I probably would not have turned down a job with Theranos either.
There is a lesson to be learnt here – I think ambition can get in the way of logic, particularly in the biomedical industry. It’s also worth noting the lengths Elizabeth Holmes and co went to ensure the silence of those working on the Edison.
Overall, it’s a fascinating story and documentary – check it out!