The Theranos Story, ch. 70: the lab director turns Federal evidence

A Tasty Appetizer of what awaits in July in Federal District Court, San Jose, showed up in the Wall Street Journal today (paywalled, link to full article below). Theranos‘ lab director Kingshuk Das, MD will testify in Elizabeth Holmes’ trial that the Theranos lab and technology did not work accurately enough to use–and that the company’s leaders ‘pushed back’ against his assessment.

Dr. Das’ comments, revealed in new court filings, represent his most extensive (and only revealed, in this Editor’s estimation) remarks on Theranos. His one-hour interview with Federal agents took place on 1 February. They indicate that Federal prosecutors continue to dig for damning evidence prior to the July trial.

Dr. Das held the lab director, later medical director, position at the Newark, California lab facility in Theranos’ final years (December 2015 in the article, the LinkedIn profile states March 2016, to June 2018). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) had already put Theranos on notice for“deficient practices” in November 2015. The WSJ, around that time, revealed Theranos’ dodgy practices.

Dr. Das’ fully credible and extensive pathology training is listed in his LinkedIn profile. It includes his MD at Case Western Reserve, internship at UCLA, residencies in clinical pathology at Washington University (St. Louis) and USC, and return to UCLA for a fellowship in molecular genetics, then rising to Associate Medical Director, UCLA Clinical Laboratories. As for many others, Theranos was challenging,  could not have been good for his career, but perhaps gave him a taste of how to do entrepreneurship right. He has worked in several positions and is currently listed with consumer genetics tester Invitae as a molecular pathologist and founder of AnimanDX from 2018.

This Editor would bet that Dr. Das had far more to say than what was cited in the WSJ article. At least this is more like Joe Friday’s ‘just the facts’ (Dragnet) and not mired in the swamp of ‘motivations’ represented by the filings around Silicon Valley’s Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous, and Busted.

Full article at StockXpo. Hat tip to reader William T. Oravecz. For those interested in the full sturm und drang by chapter, it is here.

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.

The Theranos Story, ch. 68: the texts told the tech failure–and please omit Holmes’ ‘luxurious lifestyle’ and profane meeting language from trial

The trials of Elizabeth Holmes and ‘Sunny’ Balwani churn on towards a March 2021 court date. Two major revelations have entered the record from last Friday 20 November’s flurry of filings on both sides. 

  • The prosecution introduced panicky Holmes/Balwani texts, iMessages, and Skype messages indicating that Theranos was having major trouble with validating its lab technology from 2014 on. One text from Balwani described a lab as a ‘disaster zone’. “The spreadsheets are replete with admissions by defendant and Balwani that demonstrate their knowledge that their statements to investors were false and misleading and that Theranos’s testing was beset with problems.”  CMS in 2015 concluded that their California lab posed an “immediate jeopardy to health and safety.” The messages were from previous civil cases and collected by securities regulators, with many still under seal from those cases.
  • The defense for Holmes moved to prohibit prosecutors as ‘unfairly prejudicial’ evidence of Holmes’ wealth, spending, and lifestyle,  citing Federal rules of evidence and that this information is not relevant to Holmes’ guilt or innocence on the fraud charges. In 2015, Holmes was worth an estimated (by Forbes) $4.5 bn despite what is claimed as a moderate salary and not selling equity. The government has detailed her company-paid perks such as a luxury SUV, a rented luxury house, and luxury-level travel, in addition to a ‘substantial salary’. 
  • The defense is also seeking to omit any references to Theranos employees making claims about the technology, including Theranos sales representatives falsely claiming that the FDA approved the company’s lab machines. The grounds to omit are that Holmes could not be responsible for their false statements.
  • The defense also seeks to omit transcripts of a company meeting that used profane language to refer to reporting in the Wall Street Journal investigating the company and a competitor at that time, on the grounds that such language is par for the course in High-Tech-Land. Mercury News (may be paywalled)

Fox Business 23 November, 24 November. BNNBloomberg.

In a separate case, a former Theranos lab scientist, Diana Dupuy, has claimed that she was wrongfully terminated from her job with medical testing company DiaSorin nine days after receiving a subpoena to testify at the Theranos trial. DiaSorin is claiming the reason is unrelated to Theranos. The suit has been filed in US District Court in San Francisco. Anecdotally, many former Theranos employees have reported that Theranos has been a glaring black mark in their resumes that make them close to unhireable. Mercury News

The Theranos Story, ch. 67: the Holmes/Balwani indictments stay, Holmes’ defense strategy fails

What Elizabeth Holmes needs is Perry Mason and a good scriptwriter from the 1960s. On Tuesday, Judge Edward Davila hit the ‘REJECT’ button on Holmes and ‘Sunny’ Balwani’s six motions since August to have the July indictments by a grand jury–a second indictment of 14 July, then a third and operative charging document of 28 July, dismissed. In a single compact, well-reasoned order, all six motions were denied for both cases:

  1. Pre-indictment delay. The first indictment was made in June 2018. The findings were that the delays were due to defense motions which were agreed to by the government and the judge, then the pandemic which suspended all in-person court proceedings and then became remote. The separate trial dates were moved to October 2020 and then at defense requests due to preparation and witness travel, moved to March 2021. 
  2. Statute of limitations on the fraud counts from investors. Even the definition of investor was narrowly defined here as securities purchasers. However, the broader interpretation, for example business partners such as Safeway [TTA 8 Oct] and board members, are also included as investors. 
  3. The indictments did not provide fair notice of the charges. Fair notice was found. Again, investors include business partners and even their board members who had promissory or convertible notes.
  4. Duplicity of the multiple counts was not found.
  5. Failure to omit doctors as victims of the Theranos scheme; doctors were omitted after the first indictment. The judge did find some lapses in prosecution language.
  6. All the dismissal requests for the first indictment applied to the later two.

It seems as if the defense, particularly Holmes’, threw a lot at the wall to lessen charges against their clients, and none of it stuck. One wonders how Holmes (who did marry a wealthy man) but particularly Balwani, are affording all this legal churn.

Unless there are publicly released findings on Holmes’ mental defect defense, alleging her inability to discern right from wrong (a/k/a insanity defense lite, Twinkie Defense II, High Anxiety) [TTA 18 Sept], hold off on popcorn purchases till next spring. San Jose Mercury News (which incorrectly reverses the analogy, sorry), Wall Street Journal, and the Register (UK), which helpfully provides a PDF of the court order.

The Theranos Story, ch. 65: Elizabeth Holmes’ “mental disease or defect” defense revealed

Going the ‘Twinkie Defense’ one better? While this Editor was enjoying a much-needed break from the Insanity of the World, hurtling across the wires was the revelation that Elizabeth Holmes’ pricey defense attorneys have prepared a defense for her that includes evidence “relating to a mental disease or defect or any other mental condition of the defendant bearing on the issue of guilt.” Interpreted, her mental state may have affected her intent and judgment in her business dealings. 

According to the filing, the defense is introducing testimony from Mindy Mechanic, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at California State University at Fullerton. According to her bio, her “work focuses on the psychosocial consequences of violence, trauma, and victimization with an emphasis on violence against women and other forms of interpersonal violence. Her work has addressed the mental health consequences of violence, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression as well as other important physical and social health outcomes.” 

The defense attempted to introduce this evidence without further examination by the Federal prosecution. Unfortunately, US District Judge Edward Davila did not agree. Ms. Holmes will be examined by two experts for the prosecution: Daniel Martell, Ph.D., a forensic neuropsychologist for the forensic litigation consulting firm Park Dietz & Associates, and University of California San Francisco psychiatrist Renee Binder, MD. Over the objections of the defense, the examination will be videotaped. The trial will commence with jury selection on 9 March 2021 [TTA 27 Aug].

Most of our Readers who care about this will be wondering, after they’ve picked themselves off the floor laughing at the above notion, that any person with a mental defect of this type could have fooled the savviest Sand Road VCs, Stanford/Hoover Institution luminaries, an admiral, a Marine general later Secretary of Defense, and Rupert Murdoch for years, to the tune of nearly $1 bn. That they should be gulled and fooled is disturbing enough. What is equally disturbing is the desperation of the defense to attempt an ‘insanity defense lite’ that sources and justifies Ms. Holmes’ inability to discern right from wrong.

This then proceeds to exactly what was the ‘interpersonal violence’ or post-traumatic stress that caused her judgment to warp quite this way. Was it her upbringing, which apparently was a bit upper-middle-class flaky–the ‘it’s not High Anxiety, it’s parents!’ reason? Was it a head trauma (the Howard Hughes defense), drugs, or surgery gone wrong? Did Sunny get Blue (in more than one way) on her? Stock up on the popcorn–la scandale Theranos has just gotten even more interesting. CBS Bay Area, Bloomberg News, Forbes, MedCityNews

A historical footnote. The term ‘Twinkie Defense’ came into usage in 1978 during the defense of the murderer of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and the better-known supervisor Harvey Milk. While not used per se by the defense team, the testimony of a psychiatrist for the defense that the murderer excessively consumed junk food, including Twinkies, as an indicator of depression and a sign of diminished capacity was hyped by the press as the ‘Twinkie Defense’. The term has passed into the vernacular. Ironically, both trials are occurring in the Bay Area.  Hat tip to The Crime Report.

The Theranos Story, ch. 64: Holmes’ trial moved to March 2021

What a difference two years makes. Once the subject of breathless headlines and breaking news, the latest news on the trials of Elizabeth Holmes and Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani in la scandale Theranos earned hardly any notice in the healthcare press. Only this Editor’s search for an update found information that the Federal court trials, due to the pandemic and corresponding difficulty with trial preparation and jury selection, have been moved to 2021. Pretrial hearings for both have been moved to October and December.

So not to further punish our Readers who are dreaming of mountain lakes and ocean beaches, your Editor, a/k/a Glutton for Punishment, has summarized the Court’s next steps. 

  • The Holmes and Balwani trials have been severed–legalspeak for separated
  • Holmes will go first starting on 9 March 2021 with jury selection in the Federal Court, San Jose, Judge Edward J. Davila presiding. Balwani’s trial will not start until Holmes’ trial is concluded.
  • The next court hearings for Holmes will be 6 October (pretrial motion), 2 December (status), and 16 February 2021 (status)
  • Balwani will have a status hearing on 8 December

In early August, the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutor added a 12th fraud charge to Holmes’ list, relating to a patient’s blood test. A grand jury was empaneled in June during the midpoint of the pandemic, leading to Holmes’ legal team attempting to obtain 21 broad categories of documents on the jury selection. Their intent is to overturn the indictment as improper.

No need to stock up on popcorn till a month before Easter 2021, but it will be munch-worthy as rumored witnesses will be ‘faces’ such as General James Mattis (ret.), former board member and customer; Henry Kissinger; and Rupert Murdoch. This Editor’s bet is that these aged titans will not appear, with the exception of the youngest, General Mattis. More likely to be called to appear, in this Editor’s view, are executives from Walgreens who did the deal with Theranos, the last-ditch investors at Fortress Investment Group, major investors such as Partner Fund Management, and early unrepentant backer Tim Draper of Silicon Valley VC Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

The Federal charges are summarized in TTA 13 May]The full sturm und drang by chapter are here.

CNBC, US Department of Justice, Northern District of California published notice  The 14 June indictment (15 pages)

The Theranos Story, ch. 62: Holmes’ attorneys request breaking ‘shelter in place’ orders for trial prep, charges shrink–and a coronavirus testing patent twist

Even the ‘Bad Blood’ trial has a Coronavirus Twist. The trial of Theranos former CEO Elizabeth Holmes surfaced last week in the midst of the Public Health Emergency in the US District Court in San Jose, where Holmes is scheduled to go on trial in August. Williams & Connolly lead attorney Lance A. Wade filed a motion with Federal Judge Edward Davila to permit Holmes’ attorneys to travel, serve subpoenas and meet with potential witnesses, which would include health care professionals and testing laboratories, all in preparation for the trial. Judge Davila basically swatted it aside, stating “I have to tell you sir, I read [the document] and I was a little concerned,” the judge said. “You’re basically filing a motion in essence asking the court to violate orders in the midst of a national crisis.” Wade stated that it would be nearly impossible to prepare Holmes’ defense without violating shelter-in-place orders and public health warnings. While both the judge and the lead counsel agreed that much could be done remotely to prepare for trial, Wade maintained that it would be ‘almost impossible’ to complete it. 

The trial date may change at the next hearing on 15 April, since the judge has requested both the prosecution and defense to propose alternative trial schedules. Jury selection is scheduled to start in late July. 

A prosecutorial deteriorata? In February, the nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy were reduced by the judge, who dismissed the two conspiracy charges related to defrauding patients and directing doctors to misrepresent Theranos to patients. He also severed Holmes’ trial from former president and live-in Sunny Balwani’s. One wonders that, between the reduction of charges and the delay which has made The Biggest Healthcare Fraud of the 21st Century old news, whether Holmes and Balwani will serve any significant Club Fed time at all. Law360. CNBC, Observer

Another Corona Twist is that a SoftBank/Fortress Investment shell company, Labrador Diagnostics LLC, which happens to own several Theranos patents, sued a small company, BioFire, developing COVID-19 tests. Labrador now states that the patent infringement doesn’t entail the COVID tests but others over the past six years. Our Readers will recall that SoftBank/Fortress was a ‘last ditch’ investor in Theranos in December 2017, collateralized by the patent portfolio. The Verge

Comings and goings, wins and losses: VA’s revolving door spins again, NHS sleep pods for staff, Aetna’s Bertolini booted, Stanford Med takes over Theranos office

VA’s revolving door spins again with #2 person fired, but VistA replacement implementation moves on. James Byrne, deputy secretary, was fired on 3 Feb “due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne’s ability to carry out his duties” according to secretary Robert Wilkie. Mr. Byrne, a Naval Academy graduate and former Marine officer, had been VA general counsel, acting deputy secretary starting August 2018, then confirmed five months ago.

Mr. Byrne’s responsibilities included the Cerner implementation replacing VistA and other IT projects (HISTalk), of which Mr. Wilkie stated in a press conference today (5 Feb) “will not impact it at all” (FedScoop). The termination comes in the wake of a House staff member on the House Veterans Affairs committee, herself a Naval Reserve officer, stating that she was sexually assaulted at the VA Medical Center in Washington (NY Times). Axios claims that the White House was disappointed in the way the VA handled the investigation. At today’s presser, Mr. Wilkie denied any connection but attributed the dismissal to ‘not gelling’ with other team members. The launch of Cerner’s EHR is still on track for late March. The turnover at the VA’s top has been stunning: four different secretaries and four more acting secretaries in the last five years. Also CNBC, Military Times.

NHS’ sleep pods for staff to catch a few ZZZZs. A dozen NHS England hospitals are trialing futuristic-looking ‘sleep pods’ for staff to power nap during their long shifts and reduce the possibility of errors and harm by tired clinicians. Most of the locations are in the A&E unit, doctors’ mess, and maternity department. They are available to doctors, nurses, midwives, radiographers, physiotherapists, and medics in training. The pods are made by an American company, MetroNaps, and consist of a bed with a lid which can be lowered along with soothing light and music to aid relaxation. The pods may cost about £5,500 each but are being well-used. Other hospitals are fitting areas out with camp beds and recliner chairs. The sleep breaks take place both during and end of shifts before returning home and average about 17-24 minutes. Everything old is new again, of course–dorm areas were once part of most hospitals some decades back and doctors’ lounges with sofas were popular snooze-gathering areas. Guardian (photo and article)

Mark Bertolini bumped off CVS-Aetna Board of Directors. The former Aetna CEO, who was the engineer of the sale to CVS Health two years ago, isn’t going quietly out the door with his $500 million either. The high-profile long-time healthcare leader told the Wall Street Journal that he was forced off the BOD. He maintains the integration of the Aetna insurance business is incomplete, contradicting CVS’ statement that it’s done. Mr. Bertolini and two other directors are being invited out as CVS-Aetna reduces its board following, it says, best practices in corporate governance. Looking back at our coverage, Mr. Bertolini had hits, bunts (ActiveHealth Management) and quite a few misses (Healthagen, CarePass, iTriage). According to the WSJ, the contentious nature of the statement plus the departure of the company’s president of pharmacy is raising a few eyebrows. And recently, an activist shareholder, Starboard Value LP, has taken a stake in the company. CVS is demonstrating some innovation with rolling out 1,500 HealthHubs in retail locations as MinuteClinics on steroids, so to speak.  Hartford Courant (Aetna’s hometown news outlet) adds a focus on how many jobs will be remaining in the city with a certain skeptical context on CEO Larry Merlo’s promises. 

Stanford taking over Theranos Palo Alto HQ space. HISTalk’s Weekender had this amusing note (scroll down to ‘Watercooler Talk’) that the 116,000-square-foot office building in Stanford Research Park will now house the Stanford medical school. Theranos had been paying over $1 million per month in rent for the facility. The writer dryly notes that Elizabeth Holmes’ bulletproof glass office remains. This Editor humbly suggests the floor-to-ceiling application of industrial-strength bleach wipes and disinfectant, not only in the lab facility but also in that office where her wolf-dog used to mess.

The LA Times reports that Ms. Holmes is also defending herself without counsel in the Phoenix civil class-action lawsuit against Theranos. On 23 January, she dialed in to the court hearing’s audio feed and spoke for herself during that hour. One has to guess that she doesn’t have much to do other than read legal briefs. (Perhaps she sees herself as a cross between Saint Joan and Perry Mason?) Last fall, Ms. Holmes was dropped by Cooley LLP for non-payment of fees [TTA 9 Oct 19]. Williams & Connolly continues to represent her in the criminal DOJ suit, where prison time looms. 

The Theranos Story, ch. 61: Elizabeth Holmes as legal deadbeat

Did her lawyers expect otherwise? This weekend’s news of Elizabeth Holmes’ legal team at Cooley LLP withdrawing their representation services due to non-payment should not have caused much surprise. Cooley’s attorney team petitioned the court to withdraw from the case, stating that “Ms. Holmes has not paid Cooley for any of its work as her counsel of record in this action for more than a year.”

Cooley was representing Ms. Holmes in a class-action civil suit in Phoenix brought against her, former Theranos president Sunny Balwani, and Walgreens, charging fraud and medical battery. (When they withdraw, will she seek public representation based on poverty?)

Perhaps Ms. Holmes is the one who’s setting priorities, as the civil suit would be for monetary damages, and no money means there will be none for the plaintiffs to collect. The DOJ charges are a different story. She is on the hook for nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy related to her actions at Theranos. Conviction on these could send her to Club Fed for 20 years plus a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for each charge. [TTA 16 June]

Last Wednesday, both Ms. Holmes and lawyers for her and Mr. Balwani were in Federal court in San Jose on the wire fraud and conspiracy charges, demanding that the government release documents from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that allegedly would clear them. After an hour, Judge Davila set 4 November as the next hearing date. 

Defending oneself does not come cheap, but after your company’s value crashes to $0 from $9bn, one might be looking for change in your Roche-Bobois couch and wondering if your little black Silicon Valley-entrepreneur formal pantsuit/white shirt ensembles will last through the trial. CNBC 2 Oct, CNBC 4 OctFox Business, Business Insider

The Theranos Story, ch. 59: there’s life left in the corporate corpse–patents! And no trial date in sight.

You can get blood out of this. Really! The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) awarded five–count ’em, five!–patents to Theranos in March and April. All of them were filed between 2015 and 2016, when the whispers of fraud were getting louder, as were the legal threats.

The five patents are:

1. Systems, devices, and methods for bodily fluid sample collection, transport, and handling
2. Systems, devices, and methods for bodily fluid sample transport
3. Systems and methods for sample preparation using sonication
4. Systems and methods for sample preparation using sonication (cell disruption)
5. Rapid measurement of formed blood component sedimentation rate from small sample volumes

The CB Insights Research article has the details on what they cover, including patent application illustrations. It’s not stated, but looking back to TTA’s many articles, in this Editor’s judgment, the heir to these patents cannot be Elizabeth Holmes or her many investors now feeling the lint in their pockets, but the company holding the last note, the $65 million (not $100 million) loan from Fortress Investment Group LLC, part of Japan’s SoftBank Group [TTA 28 Dec 17]–collateralized by the portfolio of over 70 patents. Hat tip to HISTalk 19 April

If you hunger for a deep dive into the design of Theranos’ blood analyzers that never really worked, and can appreciate that the miniLab was what “one expert in laboratory medicine called “theater … not science”, this Design World article is for you: Schadenfreude for Theranos — and satisfaction in how engineering doesn’t lie

Meanwhile, back in the US District Court in San Jose, California, we learn that the trial of Ms. Holmes (now engaged to William “Billy” Evans, a 27-year-old heir to the Evans Hotel Group, which has three West Coast resort properties and who is also a techie) and former Theranos president Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani has been delayed indefinitely. Originally reported to be summer entertainment with a start date of 8 July, the judge set the next status conference for the case for 1 July, but refused to set a trial date, which means that the trial may not begin till next year. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the defense is seeking materials from the FDA and CMS, which are, according to defense lawyer, lawyer Kevin Downey, are “in many instances exculpatory.”

Ms. Holmes’ lawyers are also seeking information on the communications between John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal, the FDA, and CMS. In a motion filed last week, they accused Mr. Carreyrou under the guise of investigative journalism of “exerting influence on the regulatory process in a way that appears to have warped the agencies’ focus on the company and possibly biased the agencies’ findings against it.” Stat

The bubbly Ms. Holmes and Not-So-Sunny Balwani are facing Federal charges of two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud. They each face a maximum of 20 years in prison and up to $2.7 million in fines.

The Theranos Story, ch. 55: ‘Bad Blood’s’ altered reality on ‘Mad Money’; it was all Bad Blitzscaling

[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Rock-1-crop-2.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]

She lied and the lies got bigger and bigger and eventually the lies got so big relative to reality that it became a pretty massive fraud. 

The hyperbolic Jim Cramer of CNBC’s ‘Mad Money’ settled down for a chat with John Carreyrou, the author of ‘Bad Blood’, to dissect what Mr. Cramer touted as ‘the best business book since Phil Knight’s book about starting Nike, ‘Shoe Dog”. Mr. Carreyrou outlines Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani went ‘live’ with fingerstick tests far too prematurely, burned through money, lied to the board, and (schadenfreude alert!) lied to attack dog David Boies, her attorney. There was also a real lack of ‘due diligence’–real diligence–on the part of companies like Safeway and Walgreens. A reveal coming out of this interview is that Walgreens hired a lab consultant, Kevin Hunter, as early as 2010, who ‘smelled a rat’ even then–and Walgreens executives ignored him, frightened that Ms. Holmes would go to CVS. Wrapping Ms. Inexplicable Me up, Mr. Carreyrou attributes her mindset to ‘noble cause corruption’; she really did believe that her blood testing machine would do good because the outcome would be good for society. Thus every corner cut was justified….which explains a lot, but really excuses nothing. The ten-minute video is over at ValueWalk (the transcript is only partial).

LinkedIn’s hyperbolic co-founder Reid Hoffman, like him or not, does have a way with words, and this article in Fast Company is a decent discussion of a new term that he actually coined, ‘blitzscaling’ which is pursuing rapid growth by prioritizing speed over efficiency in the face of uncertainty. It’s quite a lure he sets out to his classes at Stanford, that the only way to have a successful business in winner-take-all (or most) markets is to do this, and if you do it right you’ll have the next Google, completely ignoring the fact that 99.99 percent of businesses don’t need to change the world, just to get to breakeven, get to profitability, and endure (or get bought out). He springboards off this to where Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani Went All Wrong. The answer? Product failure=Mortal Risk–to the patient. They needed to meet a Walgreens deadline thus went out prematurely with their nanotainer testing knowing it did not work. The best quote in the article?

There’s a big difference between being embarrassed and being indicted.

The Theranos Story, ch. 54: cue up ‘Tainted Love’ in the courtroom

[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Rock-1-crop-2.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]Tainted Love, Labs, and Lucre Indeed. Drop the needle on the Gloria Jones version from 1964 or the Soft Cell version from 1981.

Consider that the very fates of Ms. Elizabeth Holmes, the now not-so-Sunny Balwani, and the formerly $9 bn Unicorn Theranos may hinge on the nature of their personal relationship and its influence on the governance of the company.

There are two legal actions against the company and the two principals, one by the DOJ for criminal fraud [TTA 16 June] and by the SEC on (civil) securities fraud [TTA 15 March].  Both are out on $500,000 bail on the DOJ charges. The possibilities on the latter can be up to 20 years in Club Fed, plus $250,000 in fines and clawing back of investor funds, if any can be found.

While Ms. Holmes settled with the SEC, paying a fine and exiting the company, Mr. Balwani did not and is fighting the charges, though this declaration was made before the DOJ charges.

Bloomberg Markets brings up an interesting set of dynamics which can play well with potential jurors and make the prosecution’s case far more convincing for a Northern California jury. To wit, in 2009 when she started running out of money, Ms. Holmes turned to Mr. Balwani, her boyfriend, for a $12 million line of credit. In return, he became president and COO. The nature of their relationship was kept strictly hush-hush to the board and investors. Secrecy was ratcheted up at the company and management started to break down. And the timing: a week after Mr. Balwani left, the news of bad patient test results and problems with their lab started to break big.

Jurors, even in Silicon Valley, love drama and personal intrigue–especially the type that underscores deception and $900 million in fraud perpetrated by a Stanford dropout who clumsily attempted to channel Saint Jobs and a somewhat schlubby dude who Should Have Known Better. Far more than gullible corporate suits at Walgreens and hedge funds….add to it the personal stories of patients harmed by bad Theranos tests and you get an emotional story worthy of Law & Order.

Do expect Ms. Holmes to bring up her Saint Joan if not a female Saint Sebastian analogy. Burning at the stake versus being shot full of arrows are too memorable images which she’ll try out. Add a #MeToo spin of a young woman coerced by an older man–a tale of at least tit-for-tat to get the $12 million. 

The rompin’ soap opera is likely to start next year. Stay tuned…. 

The Theranos Story, ch. 53: No more blood to squeeze out of this particular rock

[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Rock-1-crop-2.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]Rock. On. The latest chapter in the Last Throes of Theranos is the action by plaintiffs Robert Colman, Hilary Taubman-Dye, and other indirect Theranos investors to settle their lawsuit before there is nothing left. The settlement was made late last week in the US District Court of Northern California for an undisclosed amount.

The plaintiffs originally proposed a class action which would have included about 200 other individuals investing through various funds.This was denied by the District Court in early June, but the ruling permitted individual lawsuits. The class action would have been under California state law, as indirect investors are not eligible through Federal securities law.

Mr. Colman was an early (2013) investor through Lucas Venture Group and Ms. Taubman-Dye was a third-party investor through SharesPost in 2015 [TTA 30 Nov 16]. Their charges centered around Theranos’ false and misleading statements made by the company, They were excluded from the share buyback a few months later when there were still some funds in the company [TTA 29 Mar 17] and before Fortress Investment Group put in their funding (December). Their legal action was brought not only against Theranos, former COO Sunny Balwani, and former CEO/founder Elizabeth Holmes but also–interestingly–the SEC (Law360). 

A sidelight to this is that there is an HBO documentary about Theranos in progress. The filmmaker Alex Gibney has sought to make public video depositions from two Theranos cases, according to the WSJ (paywalled). Judge Cousins ordered Theranos to work with Mr. Gibney’s lawyer to determine what excerpts of recordings will be released. Mr. Gibney better get his skates on while there’s still interest in the barely-breathing Theranos–or Ms. Holmes pulls the full Saint Joan reenactment in a Home for the Very, Very Nervous. MarketWatch, Bloomberg, Becker’s Hospital Review  Our TTA coverage is indexed here.

The Theranos Story, ch. 52: How Elizabeth Holmes became ‘healthcare’s most reviled’–HISTalk’s review of ‘Bad Blood’

[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/holmes-barbie-doll-1.jpg” thumb_width=”125″ /]A Must Read, even if you don’t have time for the book. During the brief Independence Day holiday, this Editor caught up with HISTalk’s review of John Carreyrou’s ‘Bad Blood’, his evisceration of the Fraud That Was Theranos and The Utter Fraud That Is Elizabeth Holmes. Even if you’ve read the book, it’s both a lively recounting of how the scam developed and the willingness–nay, eagerness!–of supposedly savvy people and companies to be duped. The reviewer also reveals that Mr. Carreyrou wasn’t the first to raise questions about Theranos after raves in the press and kudos from the prestigious likes of Eric Topol. Mr. Carreyrou’s first article was in October 2015 [TTA 16 Oct 15] whereas Kevin Loria wrote the first exposé in Business Insider on 25 April 15 which raised all the fundamental questions which Theranos spun, hyped, or otherwise ignored–and Mr. Carreyrou eventually answered. (Our blow by blow, from him and other sources, is here.)

The review also picks out from the book the scabrous bits of Ms. Holmes’ delusions; her makeover to become the blond Aryan female Steve Jobs mit Margaret Keane-ish waif eyes–something she took far too literally; the affair between her and Sunny Balwani, certainly in violation of the usual ethics–and her Hitler in the Bunker, April ’45 behavior as Theranos collapsed around her. 

The review concludes by telling the healthcare community something we need said plainly, often, and written in 50-foot letters:

Theranos is a good reminder to healthcare dabblers. Your customer is the patient, not your investors or partners. You can’t just throw product at the wall and see what sticks when your technology is used to diagnose, treat, or manage disease. Your inevitable mistakes could kill someone. Your startup hubris isn’t welcome here and it will be recalled with great glee when you slink away with tail between legs. Have your self-proclaimed innovation and disruption reviewed by someone who knows what they’re talking about before trotting out your hockey-stick growth chart. And investors, company board members, and government officials, you might be the only thing standing between a patient in need and glitzy, profitable technology that might kill them even as a high-powered founder and an army of lawyers try to make you look the other way.

In other words, what you (the innovator, the investor) is holding is not a patient’s watch, it could be his heart, lungs, or pancreas. (Musical interlude: ‘Be Careful, It’s My Heart’)

The Theranos Effect is real in terms of investment in small companies out there on the ‘bleeding edge’. The cooling is mostly salutory, and we’ve been seeing it since late last year (see here). But…will we remember after it wears off, after the fines are collected, the prison time is served?

The Theranos Story, ch. 50: DOJ indicts Holmes, Balwani for fraud (updated)

[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/jacobs-well-texas-woe1.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The other shoe drops into this bottomless well. If Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani thought that the March SEC action [TTA 15 Mar] would be it, they were misinformed. Today, the Department of Justice, US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, charged them with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud. According to CNBC, they were arraigned in US District Court in San Jose Friday morning. Both were released on $500,000 bond each and ordered to surrender their passports. Holmes’ parents appeared with her in court.

If found guilty, both Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani face up to 20 years in prison, plus $250,000 in fines and clawing back of investor funds. 

“Wire fraud” in US law is fraud that is enabled and takes place over phone lines or involves electronic communications. By appearing online, making phone calls, emailing materials such as marketing materials, statements to the media, financial statements, models, and other information, Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani defrauded potential investors. Patients and doctors were defrauded by ads and other types of solicitations to use Theranos’ blood testing services at Walgreens, despite the fact that they knew the test results were unreliable.

Both Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani will have plenty of time to explain their sincere belief that their test devices and methods would be validated with time…but they had to, in Silicon Valley parlance, fake it till they made it. Indictments of this type take about two years to conclude, especially if they are big (as a formerly $9 bn valued company is) and tangled. Ms. Holmes will undoubtedly release statements on how she is being martyred like Saint Joan, how this doesn’t happen to men in Silicon Valley, and that they are allowed to fail but she can’t. Perhaps she was under the spell of the 19 years-her-senior Svengali Balwani. (Minus the Jobsian black turtlenecks, one anticipates her next choice of wardrobe. Sackcloth tied with a rope? Chain mail?)

Expect the doors to shut soon. Fortress Investment Group, which loaned Theranos $65 million (of a reported $100 million) in December 2017, was reportedly coming for the assets (as they are wont to do) by the end of July, according to the Wall Street Journal and other sources. 

Ms. Holmes is–finally–removed as CEO. Theranos announced that David Taylor, the company’s general counsel, has been appointed CEO as well as general counsel, while Ms. Holmes will remain as founder and board chair. None of this is reflected on their website. In fact, Mr. Taylor is nowhere to be found on the website’s leadership page. 

The estimable John Carreyrou, who broke the story in the WSJ and is the author of Bad Blood [TTA 13 June], on The Street’s Technically Speaking podcast at 06:00 shared this insight on how Theranos got away with bad tests. While both FDA and CMS highly regulate lab testing and the machines that perform them, neither actively police “lab-developed tests, which refer to tests fashioned with their own methods and devices” for blood testing. Basically, according to Mr. Carreyrou, Holmes and Balwani, our Bonnie and Clyde, “drove a truck right thru that loophole and took advantage of it.” Far beyond B&C, $1 bn of investors’ money is the Federal Reserve of banks.

On the indictment: WSJ, CNBC. The Northern District release on the indictment is here. Another essay by Mr. Carreyrou published 18 May is available to those who can get past the paywall. Hat tip to Bill Oravecz of WTO Consultants.

Updated: For additional coverage of what’s next in the legal vein for Holmes and Balwani, see the NY Times on potential defense strategies for the duo, including that they truly believed what they were saying to investors was true and they were bamboozled like everyone else, ‘materiality’–that investors didn’t use the statements as a basis for investing, and ‘prove it’. Will they take a plea deal? Stay tuned. 

The Theranos Story, ch. 49: CEO Holmes reportedly raising funds for a new company–and feeling like Joan of Arc

[grow_thumb image=”https://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/jacobs-well-texas-woe1.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]Here’s the place where your money will go if you’re an investor. John Carreyrou has now compiled his reporting for the Wall Street Journal on Theranos into a new book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, and it is a Must Read for this Editor and anyone interested in the nexus of Tech, Healthcare, and Hype. (The link goes to AbeBooks, a worthy marketplace for independent booksellers.)

According to Mr. Carreyrou, the founder/CEO Miss Elizabeth Holmes–still leading the company despite settling with the SEC on fraud charges, surrendering her voting control, barred from serving as a public company director or officer for 10 years, and still fighting civil lawsuits–is raising fresh funds for a new venture.

Your eyes did not fool you.

Theranos was a Dogpile of Deceit. From hacking standard Siemens blood testing machines to work with tiny samples, falsifying test results, faking up the Edison test machine, to company financials, it was one lie on the other, chronicled for our Readers in nearly 50 chapters and multiple references. 

Mr. Carreyrou was asked by former Timesman and Vanity Fair reporter Nick Bilton whether, in this unmistakable pattern, Ms. Holmes was a sociopath. Mr. Carreyrou wisely refrained from diagnosis based on a used DSM-V, being a reporter and not her psychiatrist. From Mr. Bilton’s interview podcasted on ‘Inside the Hive’:

“At the end of my book, I say that a sociopath is described as someone with no conscience. I think she absolutely has sociopathic tendencies. One of those tendencies is pathological lying. I believe this is a woman who started telling small lies soon after she dropped out of Stanford, when she founded her company, and the lies became bigger and bigger,” Carreyrou said. “I think she’s someone that got used to telling lies so often, and the lies got so much bigger, that eventually the line between the lies and reality blurred for her.”

Mr. Carreyrou, and by inference anyone who doubted her, like her CFO, and especially those who went public with criticism–well, we are the Bad Guys:

“She has shown zero sign of feeling bad, or expressing sorrow, or admitting wrongdoing, or saying sorry to the patients whose lives she endangered,” he said. He explained that in her mind, according to numerous former Theranos employees he has spoken to, Holmes believes that her entourage of employees led her astray and that the bad guy is actually John Carreyrou. “One person in particular, who left the company recently, says that she has a deeply engrained sense of martyrdom. She sees herself as sort of a Joan of Arc who is being persecuted,” he said.

Mr. Carreyrou was set upon by this ‘martyr’s’ legal pitbulls, one David Boies, until he wisely exited stage left with a bushelful of worthless stock [TTA 21 Nov 16].

(And what is it about Stanford University that fosters people like Ron Gutman, recently ousted from HealthTap over employee abuse and intimidation charges in what may be a Silicon Valley First? [TTA 3 May] Here we have someone who plays with people’s lives and health in vital blood testing. Aren’t some ethics courses long overdue?) 

Mr. Bilton makes the extremely fine point that Silicon Valley will continue to be magnetically attracted to founders equipped with a ‘reality-distortion field’ (as he termed Steve Jobs). SV will relegate Theranos to a biotech outlier. Yet as long as Silicon Valley MoneyMen like Tim Draper will back the likes of Elizabeth Holmes as long as they have a good line of (stuff), despite being embarrassingly proven not just (and only) wrong, but now perpetrating fraud, the Jobsian Myth and black turtlenecks will rise again like Dracula. (Another analogy comes to mind, but precocious children might be reading this.)

We haven’t heard the last of her.

An excellent interview by Tom Dotan of Mr. Carreyrou is podcasted on The Information’s 411 in “You’re So Vein”, which gets the award for Title of the Week (trial signup required, or listen on SoundCloud). Starting at 15:00, interesting comments on the why of Sunny Balwani and Ms. Holmes’ series of ‘marks’ including George Shultz. Also Gizmodo and Politico’s Morning eHealth newsletter.