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A 19-year-old college student had a revolutionary idea that she imagined would make her rich and famous. She quit college and founded a start-up, attracting incredible attention, investors like Lawrence Ellison of Oracle, and a board of directors that included Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. She dressed just like Steve Jobs, in black turtlenecks. She had huge, mesmerizing blue eyes and a very deep voice for a woman. She was sought after for interviews, TED talks, and hailed as a pioneer in medical advances. She claimed that the cost savings using her technology would be in the billions.
Her technology concept was cheap, reliable blood testing done with only a fingerprick, using a device that could test for up to 240 different things. She claimed that she was driven by integrity and the desire to help others.
. . . [T]here’s a tremendous responsibility. I think about it all the time in the context of my mom. And the information that we’re generating, she does all of her tests through us, knowing that we’re right, every single time, and knowing that we’re not compromising on quality, and knowing that we’re, in every action that we take, approaching this with a seriousness that it deserves, in the context of what it means to say to someone, “You don’t have breast cancer” or “You do have breast cancer,” has driven our culture in a huge way.
At one point, her company Theranos was valued at more than $9 billion, more than Quest Diagnostics, the well-known and well-established medical lab company. She claimed that her technology was like a smart phone, where the old lab testing methods were clunky old mainframes.
Initially, she foretold a future in which pharmaceutical drug trials could be given constantly updated, non-invasive information about the real-time affect of their drugs on real live patients, and sought to partner with drug companies. When that failed to pan out, she foretold a future in which every home contained its own minilab for easy, non-invasive blood testing.
As a person with chronic illness, I’d love to be able to get blood tests without a prescription. Theranos championed this cause, getting a law passed in Arizona to allow people to order blood tests on their own.
Many people claimed that Elizabeth Holmes, the woman about whom I am writing, had imagination and vision, and that she was a prophet, a visionary. She did, and she was, but the vision she had was not the one they imagined she was sharing with them. She was a serial, bald-faced, unrepentant liar. She constantly spoke of Theranos’ developmental technology that did not yet exist as though it was up and running and fully tested.
She actively cultivated the Steve Jobs thing with the turtleneck. She is suspected by many (including me) of deliberately lowering the pitch of her voice to sound more commanding and powerful. Margaret Thatcher did that too, and I don’t necessarily criticize her for it. Holmes wanted to be seen as the type of woman who can succeed in the man’s world of the tech industry.
However, clearly she was engaging in this type of theater to the betterment of her company. Zero Hedge has an interesting summary of the laudatory, adulatory paens to Holmes that were written in 2013 to 2015 here.
Although her company, Theranos, was able in 2014 to contract with a major drugstore chain, Walgreen’s, to do blood testing in its stores (here’s an account from 2015 of one person’s experience), Walgreen’s sued Theranos in 2016 for $140 million in damages after two years’ worth of blood testing was voided and corrections were issued. Theranos claimed that no one was harmed by the inaccurate tests, and insisted that their standards were the highest and that their methods would be vindicated.
The journalist John Carreyrou of the WSJ piece went on to write more than two dozen articles about Holmes and Theranos, and recently published a book on the subject which is being made into a movie with Jennifer Lawrence.
Forbes, which once claimed Holmes had a personal worth of $4.5 billion, now claims she is worth “nothing.” Imagine that.
*Photo credit here.