BAD BLOOD: SECRETS AND LIES IN A SILICON VALLEY STARTUP
Author: John Carreyrou
Data: Random House, 451 pages, $27.95
Theranos was the brainchild of Elizabeth Holmes, a young and brilliant biotech scientist with a burning desire to be a billionaire. “Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is a quintessential story of American greed at its worst.
Holmes dropped out of Stanford at age 19 because she had better things to do: namely, make money. In 2005 her company, Theranos, promised that one drop of blood could be used instead of painful venous blood draws. Her device would “read” 800 tests. (Later this was changed to “a few drops.”) It was an eye-catching phrase. Holmes called her company “The Greatest Start-Up in the Valley.”
An ardent fan of Steve Jobs (her “god”), she labeled her product the “iPod of health care” and was certain it would at some point be in every home in the U.S. Her product would build a disease map for everyone through Theranos’ blood tests and then reverse the illness because doctors could prescribe meds that would stop the progression of the disease.
But the company was in a state of perpetual chaos largely due to Holmes’s irrational unpredictability. The health of thousands of patients was put in jeopardy because of bogus readings. The company’s laboratories were fake. Companies or hospitals such as Johns Hopkins would request samples or complete reports but she never did.
Carreyrou writes about the machinations that drove the company between the years of 2005 and 2015. He explains for the reader the meticulous system that Holmes set up. She ran a tight ship. She wanted a 24/7 commitment from the people working in the top echelon on down. Workers were quitting in droves because of burn-out. A “hatchet man” was adept at, as they called it, “disappearing employees.” Things started to unravel in 2007 when former employees were found to be stealing “intellectual property” and started a company somewhat similar to Theranos. Shouting matches broke out in the executive offices.
In 2015, the company was valued at $9 million. The following year it was worth exactly zero. CEOs, politicians and mega-billionaires everywhere had been bamboozled into giving millions to Holmes because they trusted that she was a genius.
She ultimately forfeited much of her stock in Theranos and turned over $500,000. Furthermore, she is prohibited from serving on the board of any public company for 10 years.
Swept up in fame and seeking to become wealthy, she was too blindsided by the glory the media showered on her to see that Carreyrou and other financial analysts had discovered Theranos for what it was and was not. There were systems failures and malfunctions every day. The handheld devices that could monitor blood glucose levels and could “read” many substances in the blood were spurious. In fact, because the information was not giving out the right data, people’s lives were in danger because doctors were unable to treat patients with what they needed.
This is a riveting story about a complex technology. If you were shocked reading about the collapse of Enron, you should read this book. Holmes’s rise to fame turned into a story about a person and a company’s crashing and burning. Too many secrets. Too many lies.
Mims Cushing lives in Ponte Vedra Beach and has written three books.
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