Lack of Ethics, Lack of Results
“Bad Blood: Secrets in Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou Alfred A. Knopf, 2018 352 pages.
Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford University dropout, had big aspirations. She wanted to create a miniature blood-testing device that required only drops of blood instead of the vials required for most traditional tests. Many people found her pitch exciting, and she gained the support of high-powered investors, and partnerships with Safeway and Wallgreens. Unfortunately, her company Theranos failed to deliver on any of the promises they made. In “Bad Blood,” John Carreyrou expands on his initial groundbreaking reports in the Wall Street Journal, exposing a company built on lies, where loyalty was valued above anything else, lies and exaggerations flowed freely, and intimidation ran rampant.
Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2003. She originally had the idea for a wearable patch that allowed doctors to dispense medicine and monitor changes in patient’s blood. Encouraged by Channing Robertson, a professor she met at Stanford who would later join the Theranos board, Holmes soon switched her focus to build a portable machine that patients could have in their homes to run a wide variety of common medical tests. This machine went through many different iterations, but never actually offered the results it promised. In 2013, Wallgreens entered into a pilot test with Theranos, with their machines appearing in Arizona stores. These machines were incredibly unreliable, failing when testing potassium levels, often falsely reporting dangerously high levels in healthy patients. Scientist and engineers at Theranos told Holmes and Sunny Balwani, Theranos’ COO, that the machines were still a prototype, but Holmes was more concerned with keeping up appearances than offering accurate results. Through Carreyrou’s reporting, the culture of Theranos is revealed as one where loyalty was valued about anything else and those who dared to question Holmes or Balwani were either fired immediately or were in such miserable working conditions that they eventually resigned. There was also a strong sense of paranoia at Theranos. Visitors had to sign a nondisclosure agreement as they entered the building and former employees were threatened with lawsuits when Holmes or Balwani thought they were sharing secrets about the company.
“Bad Blood” reads like a crime thriller, and this is a story that gives credence to the proverb “truth is stranger than fiction.” The majority of the book is told in the third person, and is about what was happening at Theranos before John Carreyrou began reporting. The last quarter is reminiscent of “All the Presidents Men.” Carreyrou details how former employees of Theranos were followed by private investigators, intimidated by lawyers, and how Theranos threatened him for his reporting. In a bold move, Holmes begged Rupert Murdoch, a Theranos investor and owner of Newscorp, the Wall Street Journal’s parent company, to prevent the story from being published. He chose not to get involved, leading to a damaging expose. “Bad Blood” is the story of a company lacking ethics, who intimidated anyone who dared to question them and made promises it could never fulfill. It is an engaging and riveting cautionary tale.
Elizabeth Weislak is the Youth Services Coordinator for Alamance County Public Libraries. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org