Looking back, it’s puzzling that more people didn’t wise up to Elizabeth Holmes more quickly. The Stanford dropout who claimed to have invented a revolutionary medical technology that she was somehow never able to demonstrate was a bizarre person. As a rare top tech woman who idolized Steve Jobs, she spoke in a weird baritone voice and kept a closet full of identical black outfits—including many Jobsian turtlenecks—at home, where she spent about four non-office hours a day sleeping. She rarely blinked her eyes, which was a little unnerving, and she had a presence so alien that you expected to see a lizardy tongue flick out from between her lips at any moment.
Now you too can have the Elizabeth Holmes experience in Alex Gibney’s new HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Since Holmes embraced the idea of media adulation as her due, accumulating tongue-bath features in Fortune, Forbes, Glamour and Inc., gracing the studios of Charlie Rose and Jim Cramer, and hanging out socially with Katie Couric, Amy Schumer and, um, Jared Leto, Gibney had a fat archive of deluxe footage at his disposal—some of it shot in the stark white spaces favored by advertising directors, some of it even shot by the great Errol Morris (a veteran of many ad campaigns himself, whose classic crime documentary The Thin Blue Line seems to have been an influence on this film, especially on its occasional recreations and on Will Bates’s moody, meditative score).
The story is fairly well-known by now. Engineering student Elizabeth Holmes drops out of college in 2004 to found a company called Theranos, with which she intends to shake up the diagnostic blood-testing industry. Blood tests are expensive and they often require multiple tubes of blood, gruesomely drawn from patients’ arms. Holmes says she always hated this procedure and found it inadequate. Having a blood work-up done once a year only provided an annual snapshot of a person’s health; if there were some convenient way for people to get their blood tested every month, the ongoing evaluation would be more like a movie. Holmes’s better idea is a machine she calls The Edison, a sort of magic box in which up to 200 tests can be conducted on a single drop of blood in a matter of minutes. Nobody ever actually saw this machine work, because it never really did. (The Edison was of course named after the legendary Thomas Alva—”the first celebrity businessman,” as Gibney puts it: a man who “invented himself.” Holmes is a big Edison fan, too.)
To sell her idea to investors and other audiences, Holmes tells the story—over and over and over again — of a beloved uncle who died from undiagnosed cancer. Protecting the lives of our loved ones, she says, incomprehensibly, is “a basic human right,” and she looks forward to “a world in which no one has to say goodbye”—meaningful pause—”too soon.”
Gibney has called in a number of Holmes’s colleagues and employees to testify to the disaster that Theranos eventually became. But the director’s most eloquent witness is an Israeli-American named Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Ariely feels that Holmes may have started out with virtuous intentions but somehow wound up mired on the dark side. He looks at her journey as a “cautionary tale” for Silicon Valley—a place where the millionaire masters of tech talk about the future as if it were a place they actually visited. They tell spellbinding stories, and as Ariely says, “Stories have emotions; data doesn’t.” The reason so many people invested their belief and their money in Holmes and her magic box—without seeing any testing data whatsoever—was, according to Ariely, because they were drawn to “believing [her] story and being moved by [it] and being able to tell themselves a story.”
By 2014, without ever having demonstrated the utility of her new blood-testing technology, Holmes’s company was valued at $10-billion. By 2018 it was worth zero—literally: nothing.
What happened? In 2015, a Wall Street Journal reporter named John Carreyrou got a tip from a disaffected Theranos employee: Holmes’s little black boxes didn’t work, and in fact almost all of the blood-testing the company did was being carried out on common, old-school testing machines from manufacturers like Siemens. Theranos—which is to say Holmes herself — lied about all of this. And even after Carreyrou’s devastating story landed, she continued lying—in the film, we watch her doing it, on one TV show or at one media conference after another, with a rigid space-girl smile glued to her face at all times. “I realized there was something wrong with her mind,” says Fortune magazine’s Roger Parloff, an early enthusiast.
Things went south very quickly. The Theranos compound became heavily staffed with bodyguards and pitbull lawyers to intimidate any employees who might be tempted to talk to the wrong people. A deal to install Theranos testing stations in Walgreens stores in Arizona collapsed, and the SEC and CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) swooped in. Very soon Holmes and her COO, Sunny Balwani (her burly boyfriend—”a Mark Cuban character,” according to one sour observer) were charged by the SEC with “massive fraud;” Holmes was fined $500,000 and surrendered control of her company. Then, last June, she and Balwani were indicted on several counts of wire fraud and conspiracy-to-commit in connection with their falsifying of consumer blood-test results. They still await their day in court, as do, presumably, their bitter investors. When last seen, Elizabeth Holmes was still denying everything.