Bad Blood

Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

[Amazon Link]

Pun Daughter enthusiastically recommended this book to me. It's a lurid tale of entrepreneurial capitalism gone very wrong. Also still quite popular, despite being published last year; it took a number of tries at Portsmouth Public Library before a copy became available off the shelf. It's written by the WSJ reporter, John Carreyrou, who was primarily responsible for revealing the rot.

It's the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley health-tech startup led by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes. It lasted 15 years, fueled by deep-pocketed private investors and prospective customers that Elizabeth beguiled with her charismatic description of promised futuristic diagnostic machinery: just a droplet of a patient's blood, obtained via a simple finger-stick, fed into Theranos tech would be able to quickly diagnose disease, and measure levels of countless enzymes, lipids, sugars, and minerals.

Bad news: none of this ever worked well, most of it never even came close to working. Theranos machines couldn't even get reliable results for potassium levels in blood samples.

But, geez, what a yarn. Elizabeth seemed to see herself as a girl Steve Jobs, down to dressing in a black turtleneck. She even (Carreyrou acknowledges) had a way of creating a Jobs-like "reality distortion field", persuading her listeners that she really had a workable vision that was going to revolutionize the medical tech field.

The difference was that Jobs really did, at least a lot of the time, have tech in the pipeline to eventually bear out his boasts. Elizabeth seems to have had a cargo-cult belief that if she got the outer trappings right, the technology would somehow magically be created. By the force of her personality and vision. And also having her boyfriend (and company president) "Sunny" Balwani browbeat the employees incessantly.

She acquired a lot of glitz along the way: George Shultz (the former Secretary of State), General James Mattis, Henry Kissinger. Theranos got a visit from Joe Biden, and Elizabeth was featured at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser during the 2016 campaign. She also brought in famous high-priced lawyer David Boies, both to sit on the board, and sue people.

But life inside Theranos was pretty miserable, because if you suspected there was not a lot of substance behind the hype, and brought your concerns to upper management, you were politely (well, not that politely) asked to pack your things and leave. And also threatened with legal action if you said anything about Theranos' "trade secrets". (The main "trade secrets" being: "Our stuff doesn't work, we don't know how to make it work, Elizabeth is a bullshit artist.") The company's chief scientist, Ian Gibbons, committed suicide by acetaminophen overdose just before he was to testify in court.

Eventually things fell apart. Elizabeth and "Sunny" are due to go on trial for fraud and conspiracy next year.

So: a massive waste of time, talent, and money. But the lawyers—damn, they made out pretty well. Not just Boies, but also the lawyers for the folks he sued, and threatened to sue. In a just world, Boies would be looking at jail time too.

Last Modified 2019-10-07 11:12 AM EDT