The bizarre collapse of Theranos jumps to the screen, but the woman behind it remains an enigma

The bizarre collapse of Theranos jumps to the screen, but the woman behind it remains an enigma

“I realized there was something wrong with her mind … What is coming out of her mouth is not mapping onto reality as you or I know it.”

— Writer Roger Parloff in the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

Barring a last-minute scheduling change, on Monday afternoon Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes will stride into a state-of-play hearing in a California courtroom. Holmes, for the few who have not been following, faces charges of defrauding investors, the medical community and patients, as the multibillion-dollar Theranos unicorn turned out to be just that, by which I mean, mythical.

The scandal was so bizarre, by which I mean brilliant, that it has already led to The Inventor, a riveting Alex Gibney documentary for HBO, and an ABC podcast series, The Dropout, which will be made into a miniseries for Hulu with Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon in the lead role. A full-fledged movie, with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead, is in the works.

It’s a bit of a pile on.

Here’s my thought: The great business stories that attempt to make the leap to, for want of a better word, entertainment, tend to feature women in supporting or broadly caricatured roles. I have previously cited a champagne-sipping Margot Robbie in The Big Short, explaining, in a bubble bath, mortgage-backed securities. (“Whenever you think subprime, think s-t!”)

The challenge ahead for the unreleased projects will be not in casting the male supporting roles.

It lies in cracking the psychopathy of Holmes.

No one yet has fully unravelled the mystery of a woman who imagined a system of fast, accurate and affordable blood tests that would change the medical world.

It was a biotech fantasy.

The near $10-billion (U.S.) valuation dissolved into a puff of smoke.

Holmes remains defiant.

Beneath her trademark uniform of black turtleneck and black slacks, her seemingly artificially low voice and the Clockwork Orange stare that caused former employees to marvel at the unnatural infrequency of her blinking reflex, Holmes remains unknown.

Her carefully curated image includes dropping out of Stanford and launching her company at the age of 19. That story was woven into a masterful narrative about a black box called the Edison, into which would be placed a nano-vial of a patient’s blood, which could then be tested for hepatitis or syphilis or prostate cancer or HIV.

All it took was a mere prick of a finger. No more syringes.

“One tiny drop changes everything” was one Theranos branding line.

“Goodbye, big bad needle” was another.

The magical list of analyses ran to the dozens. The technology was, of course, proprietary, which allowed a veil of secrecy to descend upon the Palo Alto operation.

Business magazines gave her cover treatment. Bill Clinton gushed. Photo ops vaulted Holmes into the rare orbit of female CEO celebrity.

Part of the alleged con was redirecting the vials of blood from the Edison (later renamed the miniLab) to standard laboratory testing. Part of the brilliance was building a corporate board stacked with the sort of old-boy marquee director that could lend the imprimatur of establishment authenticity to the enterprise. George Shultz (one-time U.S. Secretary of State), Sam Nunn (former senator), Henry Kissinger (needs no elaboration) and others.

A key to detecting corporate trickery: study the board to see how many members actually understand the business the business is in.

Part of the undeniable appeal was in presenting the breakthrough technology as an affordable means by which financially strained Americans could take control of their patient data.

The giant pharmacy chain Walgreens signed on, an enormous step that Theranos predicted would result in the rollout of the technology to the entire Walgreens chain with more than 8,000 stores spread throughout the U.S.

Holmes personally persuaded legislators in Arizona to allow patients in that state to obtain Theranos blood tests at Walgreens wellness centres without a doctor’s prescription.

The breakthrough drew in more high-profile investors, including Rupert Murdoch for $125 million.

Arizona was the retail test bed. The alleged Theranos fraud never made its way beyond its borders.

Credit for cracking the case goes to the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, who published the first reports on the company’s non-working methodology despite fierce intimidation from the company.

Carreyrou’s investigation led to his writing the authoritative book on the case, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. It is that book that is being taken to the big screen with Jennifer Lawrence.

There will be, or should be, a rich buffet of supporting roles, from the Theranos skeptic who was Carreyrou’s source and who also happens to be George Shultz’s grandson, to the puffed-up board members, to the hard-working Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

A trial date has yet to be set, which is part of what will be attended to on Monday. The documentary evidence runs to millions of pages.

An unbowed Holmes is now, reportedly, engaged. And still an unknown.

Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email:

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