Elizabeth Holmes Didn’t Get To Where She Is Today By Batting Her Eyes
Maybe it’s a perverse sign of gender progress that one of the biggest fraud scandals in recent Silicon Valley history came under a woman’s watch.
For years, let’s face it, women never got far enough into the upper strata of the high-tech game to have a shot at that kind of superlative.
Elizabeth Holmes did, and filmmaker Alex Gibney methodically tracks how everything fell apart in The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
In some contrast to the title, which has the ring of a UFC promotion, The Inventor calmly follows Holmes’s spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall as the founder of Theranos, a tech firm that promised to develop a cheap, simple, one-drop blood test that could replace the elaborate multi-vial standard of the blood test biz.
Dropping out of Stanford at the age of 19 to launch Theranos, Holmes spent the next 11 years building a gleaming multimillion-dollar lab and office facility in which her team developed Edison, the machine that could take this single drop of blood and within hours spit out more than 200 test results, identifying everything from rare cancers to pregnancy.
Serious, single-minded and charismatic, Holmes would ultimately coax more than $900 million from investors who included the likes of former Secretary of State George Shultz, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger and the former CEOs of several major Fortune 500 companies.
By 2014, Fortune estimated the value of Theranos at more than $9 billion, and Holmes had arranged for its first major public rollout. Pharmacy giant Walgreens partnered with Theranos in Arizona for a test series of “wellness centers” that enabled ordinary folks to give that drop of blood at Walgreens and get their faster, cheaper results courtesy of Theranos.
In her frequent public appearances, Holmes was upbeat and modest. All she really wanted to do, she said, was make a vital early-detection health care tool affordable to everyone.
Toward that end, she slept four hours a night and worked the rest of the time, taking all her meals at the office. When she wasn’t working, she shared an apartment with Sunny Balwani, her COO, whom she had met at Stanford when she was 18 and he was 37.
She had a few quirks, the people interviewed here say, like never blinking. Ever. But a few quirks hardly made her stand out in the high-tech world that produced the likes of Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and her personal hero, Steve Jobs.
Holmes only had one problem. Edison didn’t work. She wanted it to do more things than physics would allow, and when her engineers told her so, she refused to believe them, because that’s what she had promised investors. So the overloaded machines broke down and produced results that were too often unreliable.
This forced her to fall back on a technique apparently common in Silicon Valley and also used more than a century earlier by the man after whom she named her machine, Thomas Edison.
Once you claim to have developed something that in reality does not yet work, you tap dance until you can get the time and money you need to determine whether it actually could work.
Holmes and Balwani were dancing as fast as they could until 2015, when the Wall Street Journal published an article that detailed how Theranos was failing to deliver what it promised.
Almost immediately, that $9 billion valuation was revised to zero. Holmes tried to hang on, claiming she had no idea the lab had problems and vowing that she would now fix them. It was way too little, way too late.
Holmes left Theranos in 2017. In 2018, the company formally shut down. Holmes and Balwani, who by now had broken up, were indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple fraud counts, to which they pled not guilty. They currently await trial, which hasn’t stopped Holmes from pitching ideas to her old friends and colleagues for new startups.
None of this story is new, nor has it become old. Holmes is also ticketed, as we speak, to be the focus of a feature film based on the Wall Street Journal reporting and starring Jennifer Lawrence. Tentative release date: next year.
The question for Gibney’s documentary is whether it can explain the “why” of all this, and often it seems to find the wall around Elizabeth Holmes harder to pierce than the wall around Theranos.
It finds Holmes brilliant in many ways, certainly as a marketer and promoter. She’s camera-friendly, though the few shots at the end of The Inventor suggest her battles have taken a toll.
She insists she’s a dreamer who learns from failure, and the few people who venture into psychoanalysis here say they don’t think she sees herself as a scam artist. They suggest she believed what she was selling.
That in turn suggests a kind of psychosis, perhaps an inability to see anything other than what she wants to see. In that context, watching her never blink gets a little eerie, though Gibney lets viewers make any such inferences on their own.
Gibney talks to former employees who say she inspired great loyalty almost to the end. Though she did ultimately fall prey to whistleblowers, numerous Theranos employees say they wanted so much to believe in her mission and vision that they brushed aside any evidence things weren’t going there.
Conversely, Gibson also raises this question: Does attributing her behavior to myopia and true belief let her off too easy?
When she launched the Walgreens deal, Theranos claimed it was analyzing all that blood with its own equipment, when it fact it was outsourcing 85% of that work to existing commercial labs. Holmes also had Theranos tell investors it had earned $100 million in a year when it earned $100,000. Assuming she did all that in pursuit of long-term good doesn’t make it any less illegal.
Someday someone undoubtedly will develop a simpler, faster, cheaper blood test. Someday a woman will found a legitimate $10 billion company. Elizabeth Holmes was almost both those women. Instead, at least at this point, she’s another shooting star that burned bright and died young in Silicon Valley.