Junk Explained: Who Is Elizabeth Holmes And What Exactly Is Theranos?

Hailed as the next Steve Jobs, Holmes was famous for her odd voice and her entrepreneurial spirit. Now she's facing two decades in jail.

Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos

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Silicon Valley loves to anoint the “new Steve Jobs”. But maybe no other candidate for the title once seemed such a good fit as Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.

After all, Holmes, a Stanford drop-out and the daughter of the Vice President of Enron, appeared to bristle with Jobs’ gumption and business acumen. She built Theranos, a medical equipment company, from the ground up, becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire in the process.

She rubbed shoulders with everyone from Bill Clinton to Henry Kissinger, and Barack Obama appointed her Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship. She even borrowed from Jobs’ fashion style, and had a penchant for austere black turtlenecks.

Outwardly, Theranos was a shining example of what modern technology can do to change the world for the better. And outwardly, Holmes was the face of a new wave in Silicon Valley — an entrepreneur with a conscience.

Only, both Theranos and Holmes were predicated on a lie. And by 2015, that lie was exposed.

What is Theranos?

The idea behind Theranos, initially called ‘Real-Time Cures’, was to invent and market devices that made medical testing affordable. And the jewel in their crown was The Edison, a box-like machine that could test a single drop of blood for everything from cholesterol to cancer, as opposed to the vial of blood required for other testing devices.

The Edison’s supposed appeal was in its portability — Holmes believed that she could get a machine in every single household, and save a whole host of the sick from dying of preventable diseases in the process.

This, of course, seemed incredibly attractive to investors and philanthropists alike, and Holmes was a likeable and unusual Valley personality. Most distinctive was her voice — rich, deep and baritone, it sounded like no-one else. Investors flocked to her. By 2010, she had raised more than $92 million.

Soon after, in 2013, Theranos won the biggest deal of its history — a partnership with the pharmaceutical chain Walgreen’s to install an Edison into every single outlet.

How was Theranos exposed?

Only, there was a problem: The Edison didn’t actually work.

Many medical practitioners were instantly suspicious of Holmes’ claim that it was possible to test a single blood drop for the ailments she listed, but she defended the device vehemently. And for good reason: her company depended upon it. Indeed, according to The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, a documentary by Alex Gibney that charts Holmes’ rise and fall, even behind closed doors, the entrepreneur told employees that they were changing the world.

But The Edison gave wildly inaccurate readings, even off the same sample. According to staff members, most of the Edison results that Theranos publicised actually came from commercially available machines. As it turned out, it really was impossible to test from a single drop of blood. And in October of 2015, after an expose of Theranos written by journalist John Carreyrou was released, the public learned just that.

Holmes’ response was to deny all claims. “This is what happens when you work to change things, first they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then all of a sudden you change the world,” she said at the time.

But by early 2016, more discrepancies were discovered. Not only was there flagship product incapable of doing the things Holmes claimed, but Theranos’ equipment and procedures were also discovered to be out of date. A little later, Holmes was barred from establishing a blood-testing service for two years. A little after that, Theranos laid off most of its staff. A little after that, the company was totally dismantled. And last year, Holmes was formally indicted on fraud, and currently faces up to 20 years of prison time.

Not even Holmes’ affected, baritone voice escaped the fall — according to colleagues and an ex-professor, her natural speaking voice used to be higher and more natural. It wasn’t just what she said was fake; so was her voice.

Why are people talking about Theranos now?

In May 2018, Carreyrou published a book-length version of the article that took down Theranos. Called Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup, it detailed at length Holmes’ management style, personal life, and the secrets that took down her company. Well-reviewed by critics, the book took out several key non-fiction prizes, and increased interest in Holmes’ story.

That interest held up in the 10 or so months since the book’s publication, but it has been especially stoked now, following the release of Gibney’s The Inventor on HBO. Unfortunately, The Inventor has no official Australian release. But there’s other content to consume if you can’t get enough of Holmes: there’s Carreyrou’s book, and there’s a podcast called The Dropout, which goes through the Theranos story in great detail, and is a fascinating listen.

It’s not the end of the Holmes story either — Adam McKay, the director of Vice and Step Brothers, is set to direct a film adaptation of the story starring Jennifer Lawrence.

It’s worth noting that throughout all this, Holmes has maintained her innocence. Even now, facing two decades in prison, she has protested the claims against her. As her business and fortune have crumbled, the youngest self-made billionaire in the world has continued to stay on only one side: her own.