Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018) is Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s remarkable exposé on Theranos, the former high-flying Silicon Valley tech startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes.
Theranos formally dissolved last week after a high-profile scandal revealed that the company not only deceived investors, but also risked the health of thousands of patients.
A Gripping Narrative, A Charismatic CEO, and A Big Fraud
In 2015, Theranos was one of Silicon Valley’s superstars. Valued at some $9 billion, Theranos claimed an out-and-out disruption of the $73-billion-a-year blood testing industry. Elizabeth Holmes pitched a revolutionary technology that could perform multiple tests on a few drops of capillary blood drawn by a minimally invasive finger prick, instead of the conventional—and much dreaded—venipuncture needle method.
Theranos has its origins in 2004, when the brilliant Holmes, then a 19-year old Stanford sophomore, dropped out of college to start the company. Her missionary narrative swayed just about everyone to believe in the potential she touted.
Over the years, Theranos attracted a $1 billion investment, an illustrious board of directors, influential business partners (Walgreens, Safeway, Cleveland Clinic,) and significant amounts of adulation by the media—all of this lent credence to Holmes’s undertaking. She was celebrated as the youngest, self-made female billionaire in the world.
Nobody Asked the Hard Questions
Theranos’s castle in the air started to crumble in October 2015, when Carreyrou’s first Wall Street Journal article reported that the company was embellishing the potential of Theranos’s technology. Based on past employees’ disclosures, the article also cast serious doubts on the reliability of Theranos’s science. Behind the scenes, Theranos performed a majority of its blood tests with commercial analyzers purchased from other companies.
The persistent question in Carreyrou’s Bad Blood is how the many smart people who funded, endorsed, defended, and wrote about this company never set aside their confidence in Holmes’s persuasions and looked beyond her claim of “30 tests from one drop of blood.”
Without much independent due diligence, Theranos’s supporters possibly assumed that everyone else had checked out the company, its founders, and its science. Theranos got away with its actions for as long as it did because no one could conceive of the idea that the business would simply lie as much as it did.
The Story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes Appeared so Promising That Everybody Wanted it to Be True
Bad Blood also draws attention to Silicon Valley’s many failings, including the cult of the celebrity founder. Holmes’s smoke and mirrors was enabled by the notion of a “stealth mode” in which many Silicon Valley startups operate to protect their intellectual property. Theranos never proved that its testing technology really worked. It was performing tests on patients without having published peer-reviewed studies, getting FDA certification, or carrying out external evaluation by medical experts.
Carreyrou acknowledges that Holmes’s initial intentions were honorable, even if naïve. What triggered Holmes’s downfall was the characteristic entrepreneurial “fake it till you make it” ethos—it inhibited her from conceding early on that her ambitions were simply not viable.
When things didn’t go as intended, Holmes exploited the power of storytelling to get everyone to buy into her tales. She continued to believe that the reality of the technology would catch up with her vision in the future. Trapped in a web of hyperbole and overpromises, Holmes and her associate (as well as then-lover) Sunny Balwani operated a culture of fear and intimidation at Theranos. They went as far as hiring superstar lawyers to threaten and silence employees and anyone else who dared to challenge the company or expose its deficiencies.
Book Recommendation: Bad Blood is a Must-Read
Every inventor, entrepreneur, investor, and businessperson should read Bad Blood. It’s a fascinating and meticulously researched report of personal and corporate ambition unraveled by dishonesty. This page-turner is a New York Times bestseller and is expected to be made into a movie.