Tuesday 31 August 2021
She was once a female Silicon Valley icon. The world’s youngest female self-made billionaire. Now, she’s a disgraced former CEO, on trial for fraud. Is this where the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos finally ends?
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One story every day to make sense of the world.
Today, a once celebrated tech star is going on trial…for fraud.
When Elizabeth Holmes first appeared on the scene in Silicon Valley, she had all the hallmarks of a successful tech founder:
Like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg before her, she had the drive and the guts to drop out of a prestigious university to found her business, Theranos.
And like Steve Jobs, she had a signature style: black turtlenecks.
She looked the part – and she had the right backstory.
But most of all, she had this incredible business idea:
“We’d like to see a world in which every person gets access to this basic testing and the types of test that get done are ones that provide insight into the onset of disease in time to do something about it.”Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos promo video
She wanted to make blood testing quicker, cheaper and pretty much painless.
And she was doing it by developing technology that could run a whole range of tests on a really tiny amount of blood. Just a few drops from a finger-prick.
Big vials of blood wouldn’t need to be sent off to a central lab any more. Because Theranos had developed its own mini testing machines – one called ‘the Edison’, one called the ‘minilab’ – that could go almost anywhere.
Theranos would bring small blood testing labs to supermarkets, local pharmacies – and, maybe one day, to people’s homes.
It was an idea that could revolutionise healthcare.
A lot of people believed Theranos had a really exciting future. The company had a board packed with big, powerful names from tech, politics and defence.
High net-worth investors piled in too: media mogul Rupert Murdoch was one of them, so were the Walton family, the heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune.
In 2013, just ten years after its founding, Theranos was going big: it signed a partnership with the pharmacy chain Walgreens to put testing centres into over 40 stores.
By 2014, the company had a $9 billion valuation and Elizabeth Holmes had become the youngest, female, self-made billionaire.
There was this huge buzz around around her:
“A healthcare pioneer is being compared to visionaries like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Elizabeth Holmes is part of the new Time 100 list just out.”CBS news
But within the space of a few years, everything had changed. In 2018, Elizabeth Holmes was charged with two counts of conspiracy and 10 counts of wire fraud…
Now she’s due to appear in court to face those charges.
So how did it all come crashing down?
From the beginning, there were some voices that questioned Elizabeth Holmes: people who thought that this revolutionary technology sounded just too good to be true.
But she always had an answer for them:
“Every time you create something new there should be questions, and for me that’s a sign that you have actually done something that’s transformative.”Elizabeth Holmes, CBS This Morning
Theranos cultivated all of this hype, but it was never transparent about how its testing technology actually worked.
You could just write that off as typical Silicon Valley secrecy: the company did have some valuable intellectual property to protect.
But in the health tech industry Theranos was unusual because it never released any peer-reviewed reports about its devices.
By 2015, Theranos was getting flak for this. An article was published in a major US medical journal criticising the company for its lack of transparency.
Next came a series of reports from the Wall Street Journal, questioning whether its small testing machines actually did what Theranos claimed they did. The results the devices produced were full of errors.
The reporter, John Carreyrou, spoke to company insiders; whistleblowers who revealed that for most of its tests, Theranos was actually using commercially available lab equipment, not its own inventions.
Here he is talking about what he discovered:
“And so for the rest of the tests on the menu – and they had about 250 tests on the menu – they had hacked machines made by the German conglomerate Siemens. They had modified them so that they could accommodate small blood samples. And then there was a third bucket of tests they just did the old regular way with venus draws, drawing the same amount of blood as everyone else and running them on commercial analysers.”John Carreyrou
From there, things really started to unravel.
Inspectors from a government health body went to investigate the lab and found a whole list of faults.
In July 2016, they revoked the blood-testing licence for the lab at theranos HQ in California – and barred Elizabeth Holmes from operating a lab for two years.
Theranos wasn’t just in hot water with health regulators. It was also being investigated for lying to its investors about what the company’s tech could do.
In 2018, Elizabeth Holmes and her business partner were charged with massive, years-long fraud.
“The company and Holmes have gone from Silicon Valley unicorn to allegory as Holmes was indicted on federal wire fraud charges today.”KBCW
It’s a story that shocked the tech world.
Everyone in Silicon Valley will be watching rapt as the trial starts.
Elizabeth Holmes has pleaded not guilty to the charges against her. But if she is convicted she could face up to 20 years in jail.
To win their case, prosecutors will have to prove that Elizabeth Holmes intentionally deceived investors and customers about the Theranos tech.
Elizabeth Holmes certainly made a lot of grand statements about what her company could do…
But will that be enough to secure a conviction?
Perhaps Elizabeth Holmes really bought into her own hype.
Today’s episode was written and produced by Ella Hill.
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