As her trial comes to a close, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos remains a captivating mystery
Found guilty of four counts of fraud, there's a reason the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her start-up Theranos has captured public attention – it's absolutely insane
Our obsession with scammers in popular culture goes well beyond the usual Netflix addiction – although the upcoming Inventing Anna looks to be absolutely doozy. From Anna Delvey’s Manhattan graft to Billy McFarland’s Fyre delusion, those who lie, cheat and steal their way to the top have always been the subject of fascination. Their spectacular fall from grace isn’t even the most intriguing part of the stories — it’s the how and the why.
How could they carry on such elaborate feats of deception so brazenly? And why were so many drawn into something that looked suspicious from the outset?
These questions and more are what has former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes in the news once again as her trial in the US draws to a close, and with it, her spectacular rise and fall in the Silicon Valley set.
The subject of The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, her story is certainly intriguing: the scam, the money (she duped investors into putting over $400 million into the company), the fact that she could have seriously endangered people’s health to the often, downright bizarre: viewers are convinced Holmes ‘faked’ her voice, deliberately making it deeper in a bid to be taken more seriously. Her family deny this is the case.
What exactly happened?
Hailed as the female Steve Jobs (right down to the black turtlenecks), and named by Forbes as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, her company was valued at over $9 billion with more than $400 million in venture capital.
Holmes Theranos in 2004, a tech company who promised to “democratise healthcare” by collecting data from blood droplets instead of larger vials; she insisted she had the technology and know-how to determine thousands of illnesses by using only a single drop of blood (she had a fear of needles herself).
It took eleven years and numerous rounds of investment before the lies began to unravel. A piece by The Wall Street Journal came out in 2015 on a secret investigation of Theranos detailing that the startup was struggling with its blood-test technology — essentially, it claimed that Theranos didn’t do what it said on the tin.
After settling with the Securities and Exchange Commission following charges for “massive fraud”, in 2018 Holmes was stripped of most of her control of the company. She and her partner were accused of raising millions of dollars by making misleading statements about, mainly, how well their blood-testing device worked amongst other things.
Essentially, the confident and charismatic Holmes built what was a billion-dollar company based on a fear of needles, a pack of lies and ambition that saw her blind to anything else but continuing her web of intricate deceit. Or, the ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ way of thinking.
Similar to McFarland, she doctored documents claiming Theranos had annual sales of $100 million, when sales were just $100,000 and the SEC complaint also says that the investors got binders of printed information that included reports that appeared to be written by pharmaceutical companies that had worked with Theranos, but were actually written internally.
Will she go to prison?
This is to be determined. In a separate suit, Holmes agreed on a plea deal to a number of charges, admitting to the fraud which said that she must also return millions of shares (reportedly over $750 million) to the privately held company, pay a $500,000 fine and she cannot serve as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years. She and the company did not admit the allegations of widespread fraud.
However, of the eleven criminal charges against her, she was only found guilty of four (one count of conspiracy to defraud investors and three counts of wire fraud against investors). Her sentencing hearing date is yet to be set and Holmes looks likely to appeal, although she will likely spend at least a few years in prison if her appeals fail.
Elizabeth Holmes in popular culture
With all the drama, it’s little surprise that Holmes is the subject of two documentaries and a podcast — The Dropout — as well as an upcoming movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. HBO’s The Dropout series tells the story of the scandal with Amanda Seyfried playing the role of Holmes. It is currently being filmed.
She may have not played with fire but Holmes has blood on her hands in some form — the world is just baffled how she managed to get away with it for so long.