Book of the week
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
It was a scam “almost too fantastical to be believed,” said Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in ScienceMag.org. Theranos, a Palo Alto, Calif., startup launched by 19-year-old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, at one point reached a market valuation of $9 billion on the promise of a game-changing product: an inexpensive blood test that, with just a finger prick, would provide readings for hundreds of health conditions. Top venture capitalists signed on. Joe Biden extolled Theranos’ achievement. Walgreens opened Theranos wellness centers in dozens of stores. “There was just one problem: Scientists and engineers at Theranos couldn’t produce reliable results.” And instead of correcting the problem, Holmes fired potential whistleblowers and mounted a vast misinformation campaign.
John Carreyrou is the Wall Street Journal reporter who exposed the fraud in 2015, and in Bad Blood he tells the whole story “virtually to perfection,” said Roger Lowenstein in The New York Times. The book’s first half introduces Holmes and the pitch that made her Silicon Valley’s most successful woman entrepreneur: Inspired by a childhood fear of needles, she had dreamed up a better blood test that would create a better, healthier world. But when Theranos’ devices and test methods fell short, Holmes started misleading regulators, faking data, and firing internal skeptics. She even claimed, falsely, that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were already using the company’s products. The final third of Carreyrou’s book—the story of getting the story—“reads like a West Coast version of All the President’s Men.” Carreyrou and his inside sources discover they’re being spied on. And as Carreyrou is closing in, Holmes begs Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Journal and Theranos’ biggest investor, to kill the story. When Murdoch declines, “it’s a good moment in American journalism.”
“Holmes isn’t the only villain,” said Kevin Nguyen in GQ.com. In Carreyrou’s account, Sunny Balwani, Holmes’ boyfriend and second-in-command, is even more toxic. And on the heroes’ side, many others before the author smell fraud. “In nearly every case,” unfortunately, “the skeptic is overruled by someone who is intoxicated by the company’s potential.” Such things happen, said Eric Topol in Nature. I once fell for the hoopla myself when interviewing Holmes. “Like so many others, I had confirmation bias, wanting this young, ambitious woman with a great idea to succeed.” What’s most troubling is not that Silicon Valley can let a scam get so out of hand. It’s that a scam like this one actually puts people’s lives and health in danger.