Theranos, The Trial of Elizabeth Holmes, ch. 9: the cold $96 million (updated 19 Nov)

On which may well hang how many years Elizabeth Holmes spends in prison. Yesterday’s testimony by Brian Grossman, chief investment officer at PFM Health Sciences, may be the prosecution coup de grace in drawing a picture in bold colors, no pale pastels, of deliberate deception and fraud.

Previous testimony spun tales of family offices and highly wealthy individuals such as Rupert Murdoch (and not so wealthy such as Alan Eisenman) being easily lulled by the Social Network spinning. They were gulled by the whiz-bang technology–Elizabeth Holmes’ and Sunny Balwani’s nanotainers, miniature Edison labs–as well as their fake claims of Theranos labs on Army medevacs and false letters from multiple international pharmaceutical manufacturers vetting their technology. Safeway and Walgreens executives had a more complicated tap dance, coming on board at not much past the idea stage, and staying in through a combination of Wanting To Believe, Competitive Embarrassment, and Heads Wanting To Stay In Place at having to write off hundreds of millions of dollars in public companies. 

Mr. Grossman in fact was and is the managing and founding partner, as well as CIO, of PFM. It’s located not on Sand Road but in (relatively) sober San Francisco. Founded in 2004, PFM specializes in early-stage and diversity health-focused investment, and currently manages over $2 billion in public and private funds. Lark Health is one of their recent investments [TTA 14 Oct]. Their Crunchbase profile demonstrates active investment in multiple operating companies. He and his firm are of some substance.

Something about Theranos got his attention–not the social networking, but the all-in-one miniature labs that condensed thousands of feet of lab into a small box. He was told that the entire Phoenix market could be served with labs fitting into about 200 square feet. Grossman knew a competitor, Quest Diagnostics, would need hundreds of thousands of square feet of space to match that. 

What caused him not to be skeptical? Of course, the mythical military involvement and pharma endorsements first, but then….

  • Projections of $30 million in 2014 income from pharma companies–alone. Needless to say, no income in 2012 or 2013 would raise a red flag for some, but not necessarily for PFM in early-stage companies.
  • Four-hour turnaround on lab results in retail, one hour in hospitals–carefully concealing the wildly uneven results from the Edison labs resulting in third-party labs being used for retail, and his own personal result of over a day on a full venous draw, not a finger stick.
  • Holmes was “very clear that this technology was not a point-of-care test, not a point-of-care testing platform, it was a miniaturized lab,” he said. That alone smelled like a 20-ounce porterhouse steak off the grill. 
  • While Balwani nixed Grossman speaking with Walgreens and UnitedHealth, Channing Robertson of Stanford, who helped Holmes start Theranos, vetted their labs as extremely advanced technology–one with which competitors would spend years catching up–for a serious investor, sauce, potato, vegetables, and trimmings on that sizzling steak

Unlike the picture the defense is painting of Balwani controlling Holmes, Grossman took care to note that Holmes, not Balwani, did most of the talking at the time. While he found the company highly secretive, he, unfortunately, discounted it. So in went PFM’s $96 million in February 2014, which included $2.2 million from a designated ‘friends and family fund’ which had investments from low-income people.

Three years later, PFM also won its own fraud case against Theranos, settling its lawsuit for about half–an estimated $40-50 million (WSJ; CNBC claims $46 million). The timing was good–it was while the company still had some money to claw back [TTA 26 June 2017].

What happened to PFM and other investors shook up Silicon Valley for years and, as much as some may deny it, health tech investment plus tarnished the image of women heading health tech companies. Some of the reasons why this case has received international attention. CNBC, The VergeNBCBayArea

Updated. Where the prosecution would go in its final days of its case–they may be wrapping this week–would they have trouble topping this for the jury, after piling similar fraud high and wide? But, in this Editor’s estimation, they brought it all back home for the jury by putting Roger Parloff, author of the 2014 Fortune cover story, ‘This CEO Is Out For Blood”, on the stand. His articles, recordings, and notes put into sharp relief and in summary the full fraud–all the fraudulent statements the company presented, versus the reality presented by the witnesses and evidence in the courtroom. At the time, the Fortune article fueled the current investors and served to bring in more, such as the DeVos family. Parloff over a year later wrote a column stating that he had not only been misled, but also failed to get to the bottom of what he termed “certain exasperatingly opaque answers that I repeatedly received”. Parloff was also the “beating heart” of a 2019 HBO documentary, “The Inventor”. CNN Business

Updated 19 Nov: But now it will be the defense’s turn to surprise. 

The New York Times, in a well-padded piece, speculates on the obvious–whether Holmes will be put on the stand to directly testify about  “how Sunny made her do it”–Sunny Balwani’s private psychological manipulations, all of which seemed to be well-hidden at the time. Stand by, it may get lurid.

But first for hilarity. The prosecution rested. The defense’s first move was to request that the court acquit Holmes on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Then amazingly, Holmes took the stand. Judge Davila dismissed one fraud count against Holmes, leaving only 11. We’ll pick this up next week.

To be continued….

TTA’s earlier coverage: Chapter 8, Chapter 7, Chapter 6Chapter 5Chapter 4 (w/comment from Malcolm Fisk)Chapter 3Chapter 2Chapter 1

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

Leave a Reply

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