Blood Money In Silicon Valley

I’ll be honest, the only bloody thing I’m into is a strong Bloody Mary. And after seeing The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, you’ll need to make mine a double.  HBO’s new documentary on the rise and fall of college dropout Elizabeth Holmes is filled with shocking revelations.

Even the least cynical among us knows that corporations lie and many fudge the truth. But most of the time the lies reflect inflated balance sheets that cost investors money. But with Holmes’ blood testing scheme company, called Theranos, we’re lucky we’re not discussing a body count.

What A Prick

Holmes’ idea was to revolutionize blood testing using a machine called an Edison. It would require only a few drops of blood from a prick of your fingertip, and be able to diagnose hundreds of diseases. The Edison is (was?) a machine about the size of a RONCO Food Dehydrator. Both contraptions made amazing promises, the difference being that the Food Dehydrator worked.

It was named after über-inventor Thomas Edison, who famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” You get the feeling that Holmes and her team expanded that math exponentially and at the end, still didn’t have a light bulb that worked.

The Inventor documentary has good pedigree. It’s brought to us by Oscar winner Alex Gibney. It’s well researched and well interviewed. He talks with former employees (whistleblowers), as well as journalists who met with Holmes in the heyday of Theranos as well as the one who filed the report that finally brought down a surprisingly-resilient house of cards.  It all paints a fair but damning picture of Theranos specifically and Silicon Valley in general.

Cult of Personality

Rene Russo once told me that “there’s a little sociopath in all of us.” After you meet Elizabeth Holmes, the driving force behind all of this, you’ll believe some are more sociopathic than others.” Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19, because she was sure she knew more about business and medical technology than all the well-informed and educated naysayers. She was a dynamic force, elbowing her way into the boys club that is Silicon Valley.

Her pitch was a noble vision. To get more people tested more often, allowing them to catch hundreds of diseases early. Imagine getting diagnosed with brain cancer or pancreatic cancer within weeks of the first hidden, nearly undetectable  cells showing up!

And all this was going to be done at a fraction of the cost the big companies charge while being done on the portable food dehydrator Edison machine. It’s the dream of a socially conscious investor looking for something to change the world for the good.

It was Holmes’ sheer force of personality that lined up investors and board members from across the political spectrum. We’re talking former generals and Secretaries of State. She had sit-down interviews with a former President, and even had Joe Biden singing her praises.

No one could say no to her.

Walgreen With Envy

She eventually landed a huge deal to launch a test program with Walgreens, which helped keep the company afloat, even though most things inside the Edison didn’t work and were downright dangerous to operators.

The only problem: she didn’t get FDA regulatory approval. This meant creating a workaround using blood drawn in the traditional way and tested using the machines from the big companies that she vilified in her pitch. But even that didn’t bail her out.

Test results were uneven, with some failure rates north of 40%. 40 percent! As one former employer put it: there’s gonna be a lot more syphilis thanks to Theranos!

Culture Clash

While shortcuts and desire to get Edison to market are blamed, the doc also takes aim at the perpetual heady optimism of Silicon Valley. For every Google and Facebook, there are dozens of failures that still lured in hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital (pets.com anyone?)

It is a place where ideas are currency. Sure, if you have a couple of people on board with a successful tech background (meaning they launched an app at some point), that helps. But overall it’s a place where money may grow on trees, but all the trees are on a very few, heavily guarded orchards.

It reminds you a lot of the failed Fyre Fest. A Bro-driven culture making extravagant, over-the-top promises of an experience like none other. Only in that situation, a bunch of entitled, rich bloggers and partiers were victims, trapped on Exuma. Believe me, there are worse places to be trapped.

In this case, it appears people were told they were sick when they weren’t and, even worse, were told they were fine when they weren’t.

The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation

Pour yourself a Bloody Mary and watch The Inventor, but don’t get so drunk you leave your broker a voicemail telling him to put all your money in Enron and MySpace, cuz you’re just sure they’re about to make a comeback.

Cheers!

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