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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bad Blood: The Story of Theranos

As long time readers of this blog know, Theranos is a company I've been covering since my very first post over two years ago. I'd been somewhat familiar with them since around 2013/14 - living in Silicon Valley and knowing many people in the biotech business there had always been rumors floating around as to exaggerated results and occasionally even faked demos. They were such an extreme example of what I've seen in startups over the last ~20 years they were a perfect vehicle for my blog to help highlight what was going on. 

The Wall Street Journal's John Carreyrou had reported 'questionable practices' at the company at the end of 2015, and despite heavy handed legal threats and constant denials by Theranos, things quickly started to unravel for the company and it's expected that the company will be bankrupt this summer, with possible criminal charges for the CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, to follow. Carreyrou has now written a book about Theranos called "Bad Blood", and covers the company's founding through to the present day. It was originally scheduled to be released later this year, but brought forward several months due to the impending bankruptcy of the company.

While I have followed Theranos closely, and know the facts of what's been happening better than most not directly involved, this is still a fantastic book that I both enjoyed and learned a few new things from. Despite it being a complex story of technology and finance, Carreyrou breaks it down in a straightforward way that anyone can follow, regardless of background. No need to understand tech or funding mechanisms - as long as you know what cheating, lying, and bullying are then you'll follow along without a problem. It's also Silicon Valley in a nutshell, and on almost every page there was something that reminded me of my own personal experience in startups, or those of close friends. I'd highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the story.

What I came away with was not what I was expecting though. I had thought that Holmes, and to a lesser extent, her boyfriend and company President/COO Sunny Balwani, would be the villains of the book, and the central characters it was built around. In the end, the memorable characters for me were the many employees who tried, over a period of nearly ten years, to draw attention to the fraud and dangerous actions of Theranos, even in the face of significant costs, both personal and financial. Many of them have suffered tremendous stress, such as through huge legal bills in the case of Tyler Schultz, or the death of a spouse through suicide in the case of Rochelle Gibbons. Despite threats of a lawsuit and being followed by private investigators, Erika Cheung wrote a complaint to the federal government that initiated lab inspections, shutdowns, and reports that sped the demise of the company. They didn't do it for profit, or because it was fun, or that they had an axe to grind, but because they knew what was going on was wrong, and someone needed to do something. Were it not for them, we'd be finding out about Theranos years later when people were dying through misdiagnosis and either lack of treatment, or incorrect treatment.

Even more frustrating was reading that those with the power to have done something failed to do so despite more than adequate evidence to do so. In 2008 the Theranos Board of Directors was warned of what was going on by both the head of marketing and the general counsel, yet something that would otherwise have had the CEO removed resulted in the removal of the whistleblowers instead. Many Board members of startups fail to take their jobs seriously, thinking it a once-a-quarter paid trip to California, and an important sounding line on their resume. Ultimately, they do have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders of the company, and I hope some of them see legal consequences for their actions - though I'm not holding my breath. Until that happens, I don't see the lack of oversight changing soon.

Senior management of both Safeway and Walgreens should also be ashamed of themselves - even when warned by their own due diligence consultant that something was very wrong with Theranos, Walgreens listened to Holmes and essentially had him removed. In any other deal I've ever been part of, should the person performing the due diligence be denied basic information and access then that would have been the end of the deal. Safeway spent $350 million doing up their stores with fancy "wellness centers" that were supposed to have been for Theranos - notice those nice wooden offices next to the pharmacies in your Safeway? That's what they were built for. They ignored the suspicions of their own chief medical officer and went on with the deal anyway.

Tech and business journalists also share some of the blame - like in too many cases, they simply accept the word of the company as to the state of their product and business, and fail to ask even basic questions. I've pointed out repeatedly on this blog how tech journalists are used in a 'whitewashing' of company PR, even when many experts are available to quickly debunk the most ridiculous of claims. It wasn't until Carreyrou came along that the serious questions were asked. Journalism like that doesn't come cheap though, and is a reason I subscribe to the WSJ, and I'd encourage you to do so as well.

Time and again the warning signs were there, and were raised by 'coal face employees' at all these organizations, only to be ignored by those at the top. Everyone looked at the glowing endorsements by the big names like Henry Kissinger or James Mattis, while ignoring the stream of people who knew what was going on and leaving their jobs in droves. Something I've always felt is that if you really want to know what's going on at a company, don't speak to the executive team or board, speak to the senior employees who actually make everything run - and if you can't speak to them because they keep quitting, then that's a huge red flag right there.

My first post on Theranos concluded with the quote below, and time has only strengthened my opinion:

"To be blunt - technology has gone beyond the capacity for most people to be able to comprehend, even some otherwise very intelligent and educated ones. That deluge of information 'overloads' most people and they fall back on the simplest of solutions - they look for authority figures who have already made decisions for them, or rely on the 'wisdom of crowds' and simply go along with the majority. Actual reasoning shuts down, and following that the idea that someone as smart and educated as you could have got it wrong just can't be entertained (or in the case of existing investors, ever acknowledged).

Something needs to change in how billions of dollars of funding, much originating from retirement funds, is distributed. The system is setup to reward certain behaviours, and good stewardship of this money, and the efficient application of efforts of thousands of workers to benefit our society, in my opinion are not among them. 

Theranos, and others like it, were simply inevitable and the symptom of a much deeper problem."

Theranos is all the flaws of Silicon Valley VC and startup culture bundled together and then cranked up to 11. Lives were ruined and even lost, over a billion dollars spent, and has it even changed anything? Even when federal agencies were admonishing the company for its practices ("massive fraud"), a VC complained publicly that was just the business model of every startup they'd been involved in. How many people have to die before some realize that funding a dating app is not the same as medical devices, and that lives are on the line? We'll see what criminal charges are forthcoming, but in the end the story of Theranos is just that of many Silicon Valley startups, "fake it 'til you make it", they just pushed it too far and got caught.


  1. “They look for authority figures who have already made decisions for them”.

    Indeed. Imagine, when regulators now tell us we will have risk weighted capital requirements for banks, we even, so naïvely, believe they know what the risks of banks are.


    1. Interesting post and blog there. I feel your frustration when you call out something, yet no-one listens until what you predict comes to pass.

  2. Tim Draper is *still* supporting Elizabeth Holmes. I don't know what's up with him, but at this point he's engaged in wilful neglect.


    1. Agreed that it's just weird he keeps backing her. I can only think he just refuses to admit he was dumb enough to have been taken in, a common response by the victims of a con. I made a short post on this


  3. Who is more evil? Cersei or Elizabeth Holmes...

    1. So, putting aside one is fictional and one is real...

      Cersei, through her selfishness and manipulation of the line of succession starts a war that kills many thousands and risks the entire destruction of Westeros down to the last living being, I'm going to go with her.