As someone who grew up in Silicon Valley during its most profitable boom, I still have a soft spot for it. One thing Silicon Valley is brilliant at is wrapping capitalist ventures in a shroud of idealism and “changing the world” (hilariously skewered by the creators of the HBO show “Silicon Valley”). We all wanted to grow up and create the next startup. Forget working for the government, or for a university. The best way of improving the world is through private venture. It’s hard to deny that the Valley has had its successes. Its very nature has made it susceptible to fraud of various degrees, and the most egregious, absurd and horrifying fraud of them all is Theranos.
The story of Therenos is inseparable from the story of its founder Elizabeth Holmes, and recent documentary “The Inventor” places her at the forefront. Starting from her first days at Stanford, the documentary paints a portrait of a young woman who had a precocious talent to mesmerize. So talented, in fact, she could convince established scientists and investors ranging from Henry Kissinger to prominent venture capital firms to fund her fledgling company whose aim was to create a small device that could run hundreds of blood tests with a small prick of blood.
From its inception in 2003, Theranos’s only trajectory was upward. Magazine profiles, glowing endorsements from former presidents: Elizabeth Holmes was a bona fide goddess. However, the main problem was that her company’s product never worked. And nobody could find out. “The Inventor” interviews several former employees-turned-whistleblowers who describe the chaos within. A chemist describes having to reach into malfunctioning machines containing disease-ridden blood with his bare hands. Others describe Sunny Balwani, one of Theranos’s leading men and Holmes’s former lover, monitoring their every move. Blood tests supposedly ran by the Theranos Edison machine were simply run on Siemens machines.
Theranos is ultimately a story of tragedy on too many fronts to count. Ian Gibbons, an extremely qualified biochemist brought on to be Chief Scientist of the company, committed suicide days before having to appear in a deposition regarding patent theft. Tyler Shultz, a former research engineer, and grandson of Theranos investor and former Secretary of State George Shultz, describes essentially being thrown under the bus by his own grandfather. Whistleblowers were followed by private investigators and feared for their lives.
“The Inventor” uses footage from famed documentarian Errol Morris’s interview with Holmes. As she looks directly into the camera, wearing a black turtleneck she used to wear to emulate her hero Steve Jobs, and speaking in her artificial baritone, it’s genuinely difficult to ascertain whether she is lying directly to our faces, or whether she genuinely believes her innocence.
Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, points out the unique ethos of Silicon Valley, in which people put out flag posts miles away and confidently proclaim “we are going to reach it,” without ever figuring out how. People who don’t believe it are pushed aside as “old-fashioned,” needing to be “disrupted.” But perhaps disruption isn’t all that it’s panned out to be. Perhaps forethought, research and genuine understanding are actually more valuable. One can only hope that the story of Theranos teaches everyone who works in technology the lesson that “build fast and break things” is not always the answer.