I read Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou after binge-listening to the podcast The Drop Out about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal. Both were recommended to me by my friend Anne who lives and works in Silicon Valley, and I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing and then reading.
What Holmes was trying to achieve is laudable – preventative medicine through affordable and accessible blood testing from your home or local pharmacy. To do this she founded Theranos (a play on the words therapy and diagnosis), and became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Everyone wanted to believe in this story of a successful young woman in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, a woman who dropped out of Stanford at aged 19 and founded a company that promised a revolution in blood testing, making it possible to run hundreds of tests cheaply, with just a drop of blood from a finger. No more people dying unnecessarily because they hadn’t got tests early enough, no more people being scared of needles, no more being stuck with 1950s lab technology.
Elizabeth’s look – blond hair, heavy eye makeup, unblinking blue eyes and the black polar-necks of Steve Jobs – and her unusually deep voice, enabled her to build an image and a story that got her taken very seriously. Often, it should be noted, by powerful retired men. She assembled a power board, of mainly former high ranking officials in government and the military, with a distinct lack of medical expertise, who didn’t scrutinise the company at all, allowing it to side-step regulators, maintain extreme secrecy about what was really happening in Theranos’ testing labs, promise the world and then find work-arounds when it failed to deliver. This included running blood tests on old-style machines built by other companies.
Whilst Elizabeth did the TED talks and appeared on the cover of numerous magazines, invested in a slick and expensive advertising campaign, met Presidents and Presidential candidates and attracted more and more investors, many of the company’s employees just couldn’t take it any longer. Particularly when Theranos wellness centres were rolled-out in Walgreens stores and when patients began to receive wildly inaccurate results, leading to unnecessary health scares, with the resulting stress and financial burden, or not being diagnosed with infectious diseases when they should have been.
At this point in the story in steps John Carreyrou, an investigative journalist on the Wall Street Journal, without whom, and without the bravery of a number of terrified whistleblowers, the real story of Theranos would have taken a lot longer to come out and Elizabeth Holmes might not now be awaiting a criminal trial.
This book is un-put-downable. It is incredible that the valley belief in ‘fake it until you make it’ could go this far. But I couldn’t help thinking someone should take the kernels of these ideas and try again. The vision was a great one, it was its execution that was criminal, dangerous, unethical and almost unbelievable.