The Theranos Story, ch. 69: Elizabeth Holmes ‘faked it till she made it’–like other Silicon Valley startups? (Updated)

Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous, and Busted, Silicon Valley Style. As promised by the prosecution in the cases being brought against Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO/founder of Theranos, and separately with COO Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani, they are proceeding with filings that connect Theranos’ continued defrauding of investors with Holmes’ extravagant lifestyle and desire for fame. “The causal connection between Defendant’s fraud and the benefits at issue is strong,” the filing stated, going on to detail how the fraud funded hotels, private jet travel, and “multiple assistants” paid by the company who also assisted with her personal needs.  “In addition to the tangible benefits that she received from her fraud, she also was the beneficiary of a great deal of favorable attention from the media, business leaders, and dignitaries”. Sustaining the illusion was necessary to continue the lifestyle and recognition.

Countering the prosecution filing on Friday was–of course–a defense filing that attributed Silicon Valley’s ‘fake it till you make it’ startup culture as a rationale for Holmes’ and Theranos’ actions. That filing states “founders in this area frequently use exaggeration and dramatic promises to generate needed attention for their companies and attract capital.” The “culture of secrecy” that concealed Theranos’ fraud?  “…if it is admitted Ms. Holmes surely could present evidence that other Silicon Valley start-ups used similar practices, and that persons at Theranos were aware of these practices.” In November, they also filed to block as ‘unfairly prejudicial’ any mention of Holmes’ lifestyle as irrelevant to her guilt or fraud. 

Another fake was pretending that problems didn’t exist and everything was just ducky. The prosecution also introduced emails that confirmed Holmes’ direct awareness of problems with the blood tests in 2014. One example was from her brother Christian, who worked in product management. It requested a meeting to discuss a customer complaint where it was “pretty obvious that we have issues with calcium, potassium and sodium specifically.” According to the filing, “Theranos emails contain many examples of customer complaints routinely being escalated” to Elizabeth Holmes and other senior company personnel. At trial, the evidence will show that defendant shaped Theranos’s response to those complaints, prioritizing the company’s reputation over patient safety.” This Editor would argue that it’s no different with car manufacturers (Ford and the now lower-case GM) than startups to spin a response, but the proper reaction to clinical product faults would be to pull back the offending tests and solve the problem before going any further. But the Edison lab and their technology didn’t work.

Updated with further analysis. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Theranos crossed the ethical line between massive hype (expected) and outright fraud (not), which is why the defense is fighting so hard to keep Silicon Valley Lifestyle and Startup Culture out of the case unless it can be spun their way. A key: Holmes’ emotional state and a psychiatric evaluation have also been introduced by the defense, countered by the prosecution. In this case, the fraud was based on dual ethical nightmares, the first worse than the second: faking of medical results, then defrauding small and large investors by faking company performance. Too many just wanted to believe, like the X Files. But we should not forget another high-profile hype and fraud that happened around the same time, Outcome Health [TTA’s articles here].  Outcome Health’s fraud was strictly financial–ad performance falsification leading to fraud and money laundering. They defrauded Big Pharma advertising and some of the largest global investors like Goldman Sachs. The Federal lawsuits on Outcome have gone very quiet after settlements, plea bargains, and COVID halting court actions.

Thanks in large part to Theranos and Outcome Health, that startup culture is mostly kaput. The lessons are learned–we believe. A modicum of modesty along with a large dose of telehealth/telemedicine/data analytics is The 2020-2021 Thing. A lasting effect? Perhaps. Small-batch blood testing is only now recovering from being radioactive.

Before the start of the company’s collapse in 2016, Theranos had raised a reported $900 million ($700 million in some accounts) and was privately valued at $9 bn. Few of the investors clawed back their money. Fraud doesn’t work. It never works.

The trial in Federal District Court, San Jose, is now scheduled for jury selection 13 July. It was moved just before Christmas from 9 March by Judge Edward J. Davila due to California’s COVID-19 surge (MassDevice). So here we are five years later It promises to be popcorn-worthy, with possible appearances by famous men such as Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis. CNBC, Bloomberg For those interested in the full sturm und drang by chapter, it is here.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *