In late 2015, blood analyzing biotech company, Theranos, was worth around $9 billion thanks to the leadership of its wunderkind CEO Elizabeth Holmes. In October of that year, The Wall Street Journal published a heavily researched and reported expose from John Carreyrou revealing that Theranos’s technology can only do a small fraction of what the company was purporting. Within a year, the company’s value was effectively $0.
Theranos is one of the most prominent examples of overzealous marketing in Silicon Valley at best, and outright fraud at worst. Holmes started the company during her sophomore year at Stanford, and dropped out of school shortly thereafter to run it full time. For years, Theranos grew and grew through Holmes’ charisma and Jobs-ian persona. But the company’s technology was never properly vetted, and prominent investors (which included James Mattis, Rupert Mudoch, and the Waltons) invested only becasue of the CEO’s power of personality.
Theranos became one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent “unicorns (a private company with a valuation of $1 billion or more)” to go belly up. There are many lessons for investors, creators, and disruptors in Silicon Valley to learn but documentarian Alex Gibeny isn’t sure they have.
“I think there is a tendency in Silicon Valley to believe that Elizabeth was just a bad apple in an otherwise pristine barrel,” Gibney says. “I don’t necessarily share that view. So you’d hope that some lessons would be learned.”
Gibney’s documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, premieres on HBO on March 18. It tells the story of Theranos from plucky little start-up to multi-billion dollar fraud in exacting detail. It also takes a close look at the kind of paranoid, trade secret-protecting culture that allowed Theranos to thrive.
“This whole idea of fake it till you make it, this idea that somehow Silicon Valley can move fast and break things in any realm, is problematic when it comes to healthcare,” Gibney says. “You need rules and regulations to protect consumers when it comes to public spaces. We’re seeing, now, people are really beginning to understand what Facebook and Google and others are doing in terms of mining our own data.”
The exploratory and experimental nature of the tech industry in Northern California has proved to be a fertile breeding ground for some of our most ubiquitous modern technologies. With The Inventor, Gibney is presenting a story in which that “move fast and break things” mantra doesn’t serve the public well. Healthcare is too complicated and important an industry for the kind of project, Theranos was trying to build.
Not only that but Holmes was also just your garden variety con(wo)man. Despite originally believing in her company and her product, it’s clear that somewhere along the line, Holmes was actively defrauding investors and eventually consumers. Theranos, the company, is now dead but criminal litigation against Holmes is still on the way.
Gibney is confident that Holmes will be convicted for the crime and do at least some jail time. The charges could get her up to 20 years. Still, regardless of how the fraud case proceeds, Gibney says that there are lessons that we can take away from the Theranos scandal, even in Silicon Valley has been hesitant to.
“By and large, our society doesn’t really do a very good job of protecting whistleblowers, and it was very hard for the (Theranos whistleblowers) to come up,” Gibney says. “I think also Theranos very much tried to find a gray zone between two overlapping regulators. And some of the regulators had been weakened in the past by industry groups.”
So in conclusion: protect whistelblowers, strengthen regulations, and don’t trust anyone in a black turtleneck.