Theranos, The Trial of Elizabeth Holmes, ch. 3: Safeway, Walgreens execs testify to deception, frustration with Holmes, failed pilots and labs (updated)

It’s Tuesday, and it’s another court day in Silicon Valley’s Big Trial, this time with the former C-level executives of Safeway and Walgreens who did the partner deals with Theranos–and rued the days Elizabeth Holmes walked in their doors. Updated for additional Tuesday testimony reports.

Former Safeway (supermarket) CEO Steve Burd returned to the stand for more prosecution questions and a turn with the defense. Mr. Burd had formed Safeway Health to introduce Theranos in 2010, after Ms. Holmes personally negotiated a deal with Safeway without attorneys. Ms. Holmes definitely wove a spell on Mr. Burd. “There are very few people I had met in the business that I would actually say are charismatic. She was charismatic, she was very smart, and she was doing one of the hardest things you can do in a business, and that’s to create an enterprise from scratch.” Always decisive, ‘she owned the room’.

From that point, and after an unusually high 100 hours of due diligence (updated, ArsTechnica 13 Oct), it was full speed ahead. But the potholes turned up fast after Ms. Holmes had convinced Safeway to invest in the company, claiming that they could run 95% of tests on one cartridge and that they could handle the volume from hundreds of store testing sites. During a pitch to the Safeway board, board member Michael Shannon offered his blood draw for a PSA test, the screening test for prostate cancer. The Theranos Edison machine “made a bunch of noise,” but never delivered a result, even after Ms. Holmes said something about getting it later (updated, ArsTechnica 13 Oct).

By the time the pilot started with regular blood draws, from the testimony, “there were results that didn’t make any sense. Samples were lost and samples were not properly cooled. He also said tests took days to come back when other companies could deliver in 24 hours. In an email to Holmes, Burd wrote: “I am genuinely concerned that Safeway’s lab reputation gets worse by the day.” By 2012, Safeway had built out 98% of 960 planned stores to hold Theranos testing sites, but had long since blown past the $30 million estimate. Multiple launch dates were missed over two years. By November 12, Mr. Burd had reached the end of his tether. “I can only recall having been discouraged once in the last 62 years. That said, I am getting close to my second event. ” and “This does not feel like a partnership, I’ve never been more frustrated.”

Theranos never rolled out to the public with Safeway. Mr. Burd retired from Safeway after a long career in May 2013.

Apparently the defense cross conducted by Kevin Downey is concentrating on The Big Chance that Safeway took with Theranos, after all a ‘startup’ that never built out their technology for consumer use, and all the regulatory hurdles the company faced. Mr. Burd confirmed it but he and the board reviewed the agreement and included requirements such as a CLIA waiver to operate the lab devices, negotiating preferred network status with commercial health plans, and a network of partners. Most of all, Safeway negotiated the right to terminate the agreement if the pilot failed and Theranos did not obtain FDA clearance. On the redirect, the government maintains that Theranos started in 2003 and purported to be making money (!!).

Up next for the prosecution was Wade Miquelon, former CFO of Walgreens. Walgreens was the only Theranos partner to put Theranos centers in their store. He testified to the presentation he received in 2010 which was similar to those received by investors. It included claims that Theranos’ technology could “run comprehensive blood tests” from a finger stick in real time and that it had partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies and military organizations–some of which were semi-true, the rest fictional. Apparently, some of the validation reports from pharmaceutical companies were false–while they had logos, there was one from Schering-Plough where its name was misspelled and never noticed by anyone at Walgreens. The prosecution had already established to the jury in opening arguments on 8 September that the Pfizer report endorsing the technology had also been faked. It had been written by Theranos, with a Pfizer logo added. 

Mr. Miquelon testified that he was never told that third-party labs were being used.“My understanding is, the blood would be tested on the [Theranos] Edison device,” adding later, “My understanding was that the base level testing would be able to do 96 percent of the testing done at labs.” He stated that third-party testing would be to check calibrations and accuracy. Relying on such testing would be beside the point of cost and time savings. 

Mr. Miquelon’s testimony will continue on Wednesday.

KTVU2’s coverage is nearly all tweets so it’s assembling a picture from many fragments. Ars Technica on Mr. BurdUpdated: Additional information on Mr. Miquelon: Fortune, Washington Post

Walgreens sued Theranos in 2016 for $160 million invested [TTA 9 Nov 2016]. The company was one of the few able to claw back substantial funds, a paltry $25 million, in August 2017. Safeway settled in June 2017 for an undisclosed amount. They had built out 800 centers and cost the company $360 million before the agreement was axed (updated for cost, ArsTechnica 13 Oct).

If you have access to the WSJ, their coverage details a trail of forged documents, massive fundraising–and losses, and partner deception. The NY Times ran an interesting ‘color’ article on the atmosphere in the San Jose courtroom. The trial is settling into a groove. Two court artists (complete with art) have interesting impressions of Ms. Holmes and the participants. The spectators appear to be primarily retirees with the time to line up for the 34 seats in the courtroom and 50 in an overflow room, though the testimony goes over the head of many. Ms. Holmes’ family and partner accompany her daily. And two jurors have departed, one a Buddhist who became uncomfortable with the idea of punishing Ms. Holmes. Judge Davila has already extended trial hours one hour to get through the stack of witnesses a little faster.

Our previous coverage: Chapter 1, Chapter 2

To be continued….

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