The Theranos Story, ch. 57: was it Silicon Valley and Startup Culture bad practices pushed to the max?

click to enlargeTheranos is now formally in California insolvency proceedings (note on their website). Creditors may have enough awarded to them to go down to the local pizzeria to buy a slice or two. Hard lessons indeed for creditors and shareholders. But aside from the drama yet to come in the trial of Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny now Shady Balwani, a/k/a the Silicon Valley Trial of the Century, are there any further lessons to be learned?

For those of us who have not been closely following The Theranos Story, David Shaywitz’s kind-of-review of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood coupled with a thought piece in Forbes is especially appealing. Even if you’ve been tracking it closely like your Editor, it’s a good read. He posits that in three key areas, Theranos exhibited Startup Culture and Silicon Valley Ethics (or lack thereof) at the very extreme in these areas:

  • Secrecy: extreme compartmentalization, siloing, stratification, and rigid definition of roles that prevent information sharing. No outsiders in, or peer-reviewed research out.
  • Promises, promises, promises: a rosy picture to the point of delusion that masks real flaws
  • I Want To Believe: for various personal reasons, investors, press, and supports need to believe

Secrecy can and should work for companies in keeping proprietary information and competitive advantage intact. All startup and early-stage companies have to paint a positive picture in the midst of pitched struggle. The glass is always half full not empty even when the bank account is, but when the old ‘fake it till you make it’ becomes too strong, papering over the truth is the thing and the institutional absence of tough self-scrutiny (or a professional kicker-of-holes) prevents companies from fixing obvious problems–you get a delusional organization like Theranos edging gradually, then very quickly, into outright fraud. Finally, Theranos’ supporters had their own reasons for wanting to believe the technology worked. 

He goes on to state that the fraud that Theranos perpetrated was not only financial and in harm to health, but also in the hope that change is possible in healthcare delivery, we can challenge the way it’s always been done and win, and that technology can be empowering.

Will we, as a result, in Mr. Shaywitz’s words, take the ‘hit to hope’ to heart and become ‘excessively chastened and overcautious”? This Editor tends to be on the overcautious side when it comes to technologies such as IoT and AI because the potential for hacking and bad use is proven despite the hype, but far less so in challenging incumbents–even it it resembles tilting at windmills till they buy you.   

Will l’affaire Theranos change the Silicon Valley and Startup Culture for the better? Here is my ‘hit to hope’–that this excessively aggressive, conformist, borderline irresponsible, and secretive culture could change. This Editor doubts it’s even entered their leaders’ ‘deep’ thoughts, despite this best-selling book.

A more typical review of ‘Bad Blood’ is by Eric Topol, MD (!) in Nature–who certainly borrowed ‘The Theranos Story’ from this series of articles!

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

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