Was Elizabeth Holmes a Fraud from the Start? Inside Her Rise and Fall
Elizabeth Anne Holmes is the tech superstar that almost was. Her public profile and the value of her health technology company, Theranos, skyrocketed based on the promise of breakthrough technology capable of evaluating a single drop of blood.
Great press and wealthy investors helped position Theranos as a potential game changer in the medical and tech industries — until it all came crashing down. Theranos has now been dissolved, and Holmes faces an impending court date for fraud in 2020. Did everything somehow go horribly wrong, or was Holmes a fraud from the start? Let’s take a look at the facts leading up to her rise and fall.
Born to Succeed
Elizabeth Holmes was born in Washington D.C. in 1984. Her parents were successful, career-oriented individuals who likely had similar hopes for their daughter. Her father, Christian Rasmus Holmes IV, was an executive at Enron, a huge company that collapsed in 2001 after an accounting scandal cost its shareholders billions of dollars. (Anyone see the irony?) He also worked as an executive for the United States Trade and Development Agency, the EPA and other government organizations.
Her mother, Noel Holmes, worked in foreign policy and defense. Holmes’ early exposure to government turned out to be beneficial when she launched her first company.
In Her Blood
Holmes' interest in technology began when she was a high school student in Houston, Texas. As a teenager, the future tech entrepreneur worked with a tutor in Mandarin Chinese and attended a summer language program at Stanford University in California.
She eventually enrolled at Stanford as a full-time student studying chemical engineering, and she worked as a lab assistant and researcher for the School of Engineering. In addition to her work at Stanford, she participated in genome research at an institute based in Singapore. It was there that she gained experience collecting blood samples.
Engineering School Dropout
In 2004, Holmes decided she had learned all she could from Stanford. She dropped out of school and used her tuition money to start a tech company that focused on consumer healthcare. The company, Real-Time Cures, was founded in Palo Alto, California, that year.
Holmes confessed to fearing needles, and she claimed that fear inspired her to develop a method for performing multiple tests from a single drop of blood. Her professors doubted this was possible, but Holmes convinced her former advisor in the School of Engineering to back her.
The Birth of Theranos
Later in 2004, Holmes changed the name of her company to Theranos, a name now permanently rooted in scandal. The name came from combining "therapy" and "diagnosis" to form a whole new word. Holmes rented out the basement of a group college house to set up her new company.
She hired the first Theranos employee and welcomed the company’s first shareholder, Channing Robertson, her engineering advisor from Stanford. Robertson introduced Holmes to venture capitalists who had money and expertise in helping young startups. Evidently, Holmes’ business plan wasn’t thoroughly scrutinized early on, and that set the stage for future trouble.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Some of Holmes' colleagues claim she put on a good act most of the time. Her speaking voice was low, calm and sounded like the voice of authority, but some claim that was always fake. On the other hand, her family members insist her natural speaking voice is truly a deeper alto, and her tone wasn’t deliberately designed to hide deception.
Holmes also greatly admired Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and she often imitated his fashion sense by wearing black turtleneck sweaters to public events. She started to see herself as a visionary tech entrepreneur, and she sold that image to investors to fund her company.
Fear of Needles
According to Holmes, her fear of needles inspired her to start the company. The technology she claimed to invent would have eliminated the need for needles and syringes to collect blood samples for testing. In fact, Holmes claimed her blood testing technology only required a single drop of blood.
She also claimed the blood testing machine would be portable and easy to use and would eventually be sold for home and battlefield use. She promised it would revolutionize the medical industry and potentially save thousands of lives.
Star Power Board of Directors
Former Secretary of State George Shultz joined the Theranos board of directors in 2011. It only took two hours for Holmes to convince Shultz that her company was about to revolutionize the home healthcare industry. The previous year, she had accumulated close to $100 million in venture capital.
The company operated in total secrecy but still created a buzz that extended well beyond the tech world. It didn’t even have a website until 2013. This did little to deter investors from giving Holmes money or the media from giving the company press coverage.
Walgreens Deal or No Deal
In 2010, Theranos announced a partnership with Walgreens, the second-largest pharmacy chain in the United States. The deal with the giant retailer allowed Theranos to open blood sample collection centers inside store locations throughout the U.S.
The pharmacy chain saw great value in offering single-prick blood sample technology to its large customer base. Unfortunately, Walgreens eventually learned the truth about the false promises and deceptive practices of Elizabeth Holmes, the pharmaceutical giant terminated the partnership five years later. The two companies battled it out in court for several years before reaching a settlement.
Theranos and CEO Elizabeth Holmes operated in stealth mode. Besides not having a website, the company didn’t issue a single press release until 2013. The general public knew very little about the company. Despite this, Holmes was able to generate a lot of press in high profile publications like Forbes and Wired.
Holmes also got financial backing from high-powered investors, netting Theranos millions in funding. Little attention was paid to progress toward the actual results promised by Holmes. That eventually proved to be an embarrassing oversight.
A Rising Star
Holmes became a media darling in 2014. She appeared on the covers of Inc., Fortune, Forbes and T Magazine. Forbes recognized her as the world's youngest self-made female billionaire. The magazine also ranked her at number 110 on its "Forbes 400" that year.
By that point, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and had $400 million available in venture capital. The media and investors all seemed willing to believe in the promises made by Holmes to revolutionize the medical and tech industries. Their failure to perform due diligence had dire consequences starting in 2015.
By the end of 2014, Elizabeth Holmes had her name on 18 patents in the U.S. and 66 foreign patents. By 2015, she had secured deals with Capital BlueCross, Cleveland Clinic and AmeriHealth Caritas. These deals allowed them to use the medical testing technology developed by Theranos.
Things were happening quickly for Holmes and Theranos, and it seemed like nothing could stop their meteoric rise. The fact that few results were available and no public accounting audits had been performed on the company’s value did little to deter investors or the media.
The Beginning of the End
A journalist for The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou, began digging into Theranos after receiving a tip. A medical expert contacted Carreyrou to inform him there was something fishy about the company’s blood testing technology.
Carreyrou contacted former employees and gained access to company documents that told a very different story than the one Holmes was telling the board of directors and the public. He worked in secret, but word of his pending article eventually got back to Holmes. She was less than pleased and used her lawyers to try and prevent its publication.
To say Holmes wasn’t happy with the impending story would be a huge understatement. Her lawyers threatened legal action against Carreyrou and his sources, but that did not stop the story. The Wall Street Journal published the truth in October 2015.
The article dropped a bomb on investors and company executives, to say the least. In his article, Carreyrou claimed that Holmes's blood testing technology was inaccurate, and the company actually used other testing machines to provide the results it passed off as its own. More bad press soon followed.
Holmes went on the defensive and appeared on television to refute the claims made in the bombshell article. Insisting that she was on course to change the world, Holmes promised to publish the company’s data on the accuracy of its blood sample tests.
Despite efforts to control the damage caused by the article — and her own efforts to appease the growingly skeptical public — things were not looking good for Theranos. Several government agencies launched investigations into the company's testing practices and financial dealings. Holmes started to feel the pressure but publicly maintained the facade.
In January 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services inspected one of the Theranos labs in Newark, California. They found irregularities that raised alarms and compelled them to issue a warning to Holmes to take care of the problems found during their inspection.
The CMS found that Theranos had failed to act on their warning by the March 2016 deadline. As a result, the agency imposed a ban on the company, preventing them from owning or operating a lab for two years. Again, Holmes promised fast action to fix the problem.
More Trouble for Holmes
The CMS ban preventing Theranos from operating for two years wasn’t the only punishment handed out in 2016. The agency also banned Holmes from operating a blood testing service, also for a term of two years.
Theranos appealed the ban to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the damage was done. Walgreens terminated its partnership with Theranos and closed the in-store blood centers. Banning a blood testing company from testing blood was obviously a death blow.
Walgreens wasn’t the only retailer who reversed course on Theranos when word got out about the company’s shady testing practices. Safeway was an early partner who put a huge chunk of capital into offering blood tests in locations throughout the United States. The company spent $350 million to open these centers in 800 stores.
What both parties once viewed as a mutually beneficial relationship ended after three years when Theranos missed deadline after deadline for cleaning up its act. Safeway wasn’t the last company to bail on the struggling tech company.
More Relationships Soured
Corporate partner Walgreens investigated deceptive practices on the part of Holmes and Theranos. In particular, Theranos claimed its blood tests were used on trial patients for drug companies Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. This was pure puffery, and no such projects existed.
As a result, Walgreens didn’t just pull out of its deal with Theranos. It sued the company in federal court. The breach of contract suit was filed in Delaware and sought $140 million in damages. According to a report given to Theranos investors in 2017, the suit was settled for less than $30 million.
Good News from the FDA
Despite these setbacks and other clear warning signs about the company, Theranos continued to partner with other companies to provide blood testing technology. In 2015, the Cleveland Clinic partnered with Theranos to allow the med tech company to test in their labs.
As a result, Theranos provided lab work for two insurance companies in Pennsylvania: AmeriHealth Caritas and Capital BlueCross. More good news came when the Food and Drug Administration gave its approval for a fingerstick device that would test blood samples for herpes simplex virus.
The Walls Started Closing In
Despite some minor successes in 2015, the company's troubles began to snowball rather quickly. Criminal investigations were soon underway at both the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to look into the company’s practices.
The FBI also reportedly started keeping a close eye on Theranos. By 2017, the company’s shareholders were thoroughly spooked. The following year, Holmes settled a lawsuit that charged her with fraud. The walls were starting to close in, but she never wavered in her defense of her technology.
The SEC lawsuit filed in 2018 was the most aggressive legal action against Theranos and Holmes up to that point. The commission alleged that Theranos made claims about its medical technology that were demonstrably false. The suit also alleged that Theranos misled its shareholders when it claimed to have brought in $100 million in revenue in 2014.
In fact, the company had made a meager $100,000. As a result of the suit settlement, Holmes lost voting control of the company she had founded. She was also fined half a million dollars and banned from holding any officer position in a publicly traded company.
More Bad News
In 2016, as a result of mounting legal troubles, Theranos began eliminating staff. In October of that year, the company fired 350 people. Early in 2017, it fired another 155 employees, followed by more than 100 the next year.
By the end of the summer of 2018, almost the entire staff — once numbering more than 800 — was gone, and the company announced plans to dissolve. Any remaining assets were doled out to creditors, but there wasn’t much left. The once-promising company was all but dead.
Crime Doesn't Pay
In 2018, an investigation launched more than two years prior by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco led to an indictment. Both Holmes and Theranos COO Ramesh Balwani were indicted on nine counts of conspiracy-related charges.
They both pled not guilty to charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also claimed the two defrauded investors, doctors and patients with bogus blood testing results. These allegations forced Homes to step down as CEO, but she did not give up her position as the board chair at this point.
Prison Terms Await
Elizabeth Anne Holmes and Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty at their trial set for the summer of 2020. One possible defense the pair may consider, according to Bloomberg News, is to blame the media for their downfall.
As part of that defense, lawyers would likely argue that John Carreyrou’s articles had a negative influence on the agencies investigating the case. Holmes' lawyers from a separate civil case asked the court to allow them to cease representation, claiming they hadn’t been paid for their services.
Scamming the Rich
It’s still a bit of a mystery how Elizabeth Holmes was able to convince investors to pony up a total of $700 million dollars to help fund her medical technology company. She somehow pulled it off without ever providing them with financial statements verified by an outside accounting firm.
Many of her investors certainly weren’t novices and should have known better. At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, with the money coming from wealthy investors whose net worth exceeded $1 billion, but it was all built on a series of lies.
The SEC alleges that Holmes and Balwani made many false claims to investors. It’s hard to determine which lies were worse than others, but one particular claim stands out. According to the SEC, the two Theranos execs told investors the company's blood testing technology was being used on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Holmes and Balwani also claimed their testing was being used on MedEvac helicopters. As a result of this partnership with the U.S. military, the company was bringing in revenue of more than $100 million. No such contract with the U.S. government ever existed.
Some of the early Theranos investors and board members include well-known names in government and Silicon Valley. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, both former Secretaries of State, served on the Theranos board. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis helped the company find investors. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, venture capitalist Tim Draper and media mogul Rupert Murdoch were also investors in Theranos.
With such a high-profile stable of backers, it's easy to see why the press fawned over Holmes and her miraculous new technology. In the end, everyone failed to do their homework on Theranos.
How Did This Happen?
What led to massive deception on such a grand scale? Why were otherwise savvy businesspeople and former government officials so easily convinced they were investing in a game-changing technology? Did glowing profiles of Holmes in publications like The Wall Street Journal, Wired and Fortune contribute to this deception?
With so few ultra-successful women in tech, were investors willing to forget the normal rules of business in favor of Elizabeth Holmes and her ambitious startup? The questions are endless. Plenty of books and documentaries have been produced to examine what happened, but the last chapter won’t be written until the trial in 2020.
Edison Burns Out
Holmes' claims that her groundbreaking Edison blood testing machine could run multiple tests on one drop of blood were false. Ambitiously named for inventor Thomas Edison, Theranos spent millions developing it, but it failed.
The "fake it until you make it" business method Holmes used caught up to her in the end. It’s likely she believed the tech was possible and hoped to make it happen with the capital she raised — before anyone caught on to her scheme. When it didn’t happen quickly, it turned into the ultimate Ponzi scheme.
The Final Chapter
The final outcome remains to be seen. Theranos is dead, but will Holmes get another chance? It's likely she will never escape the taint from this scandal, and she will probably spend years behind bars. Maybe she will be partially vindicated if someone actually invents technology to run multiple tests on a single drop of blood.
Most experts doubt this is possible, but other great inventors were doubted as well. Regardless, the story of Elizabeth Holmes isn’t quite over yet.