Orange is the new black turtleneck: The Theranos trial begins

Since the early days of Theranos, the story of Elizabeth Holmes has fascinated. But, of course, the ivy-league-college-dropout-rapid-rise-to-billionaire status thing isn’t necessarily a new thing so why? Is it because she’s a woman? Is it because she’s a young woman? Knowing what we know now, how was she able to convince so many of the worlds wealthy (and famous) to invest hundreds of millions of dollars with almost no evidence of that the claims she made were true?

I followed along like many, seeing Elizabeth on the news, on Tech Crunch panels, at the White House etc., but the more I learned the more things just seemed off. I’ll admit I did admire Elizabeth in the early days for doing something meaningful, for doing something she believed in and so quickly. Before Kylie Jenner graced the cover of Forbes as the world’s first self-made billionaire, that title officially belonged to Elizabeth Holmes, many times over. But Elizabeth wasn’t selling lip gloss; she was creating the future and saving lives, she was the first female self-made billionaire we wanted.

Holmes with Madeleine Albright and Jack Ma at an event in 2015. Photo: Getty Images

But the never ending stream of walk-on-water press coverage, the obsession with Steve Jobs and black turtlenecks, and probably the most curious thing, the inability to actually explain how her product actually worked.

Holmes’s description of the process was comically vague: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.” 

The New Yorker

And that voice. It was all just very odd indeed.

The backstory

In 2003, Elizabeth dropped out of Stanford where she was studying chemical engineering to start a medical diagnostics company called Theranos (an amalgam of ‘therapy’ and ‘diagnosis.’) By December 2004; Holmes had raised $6 million, and by the end of 2010, she had raised more than $92 million in venture capital.

Driven by her own fear of needles, she claimed to have invented a revolutionary diagnostic device called ‘Edison’ that could perform rapid medical tests using minuscule amounts of blood. Holmes contended that Edison could detect medical conditions like cancer using only a tiny sample of customers’ blood. 

With big-name investors like the Walton’s, Larry Ellison, Rupert Murdoch, and Carlos Slim, and big-time deals with Walgreens and Safeway, who could have guessed it was all a scam. Investigations soon revealed severe problems with the technology. The tide quickly turned against Theranos in 2015 when the  WSJ Journal reported that only a small portion of tests were conducted using its proprietary technology, defrauding investors and, most importantly, putting patient lives at risk. 

By 2018 the jig was up, and the SEC charges holmes with fraud. The trial has been delayed multiple times, first because of pandemic-related restrictions and then because she had a baby, a boy, this July. 

Who else is involved? 

Did she act alone? Did she know what she was doing? This is where things get interesting. Enter Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani; then Theranos COO and lover of Holmes, also being charged with fraud. Court filings unsealed over the weekend suggest that Holmes is planning to point the finger at Balwani, arguing that he was the mastermind and manipulated her through a “decade-long campaign of psychological abuse.” It will be interesting to see how this plays out. 

Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. Theranos President and COO whom Holmes met in the summer of 2002 while studying Mandarin at Beijing University. She was 19, he was 37. In 2009, Balwani gave Theranos an interest-free $13 million personal loan and was then named Theranos President and COO, despite having no experience in medicine or lab testing. Balwani is also pleading not guilty.

What’s she being charged with?

She is facing 12 charges, two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 10 counts of wire fraud for engaging in a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors through claims she made about her purportedly revolutionary blood testing invention. If convicted, she could go to jail for 20+ years. 

Jury selection starts tomorrow; opening statements are scheduled for September 8. The trial is expected to last until mid-December. 

Who’s is the Judge? 

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila

Who are Elizabeth’s lawyers?

Her lawyers are partners Lance Wade, Kevin Downey, Amy Saharia, and Katherine Trefz from Williams & Connolly LLP, a D.C. law firm, the same firm that defended President Bill Clinton at his impeachment trial. 

Who’s the prosecutor?

Northern District of California represents the government. Team includes Robert Leach, John Bostic, Jeffrey Schenk, and Kelly Volkar.

How is Elizabeth pleading?

Not guilty. Balwani the same.

Jury selection begins today and is expected to take two days. Opening statements are set for September 8, 2021.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and former CEO of blood testing and life sciences firm Theranos, arrives for the primary day of jury choice in her fraud trial, exterior Federal Court in San Jose, California on August 31, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto, Getty Images

Resources

Here’s a list of resources about Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes and the upcoming trial.

Read

All official court documents and proceedings info here on the North District of California’s website.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (You can hear him talk about the story in this Wharton Podcast)

A comprehensive timeline of coverage from the Wall Street Journal is here, including Carreyrou’s 2015 article, Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology, which first reported on the real state of the company.

A great article from Vanity Fair by Nick Bilton, How Elizabeth Holmes’s house of cards came tumbling down

Listen

The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes on Trial

Money. Romance. Tragedy. Deception. The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is an unbelievable tale of ambition and fame gone terribly wrong. How did the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire lose it all in the blink of an eye? 

Bad Blood: The Final Chapter (Podcast with John Carreyrou who wrote the book of same title)

Watch

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)

The story of Theranos, a multi-billion dollar tech company, its founder Elizabeth Holmes, the youngest self-made female billionaire, and the massive fraud that collapsed the company.

Elizabeth Holmes exposed: the $9 billion medical ‘miracle’ that never existed (60 Minutes Australia)

Elizabeth Holmes: The ‘Valley of Hype’ behind the rise and fall of Theranos (via Yahoo Finance presents)

YouTube Channel: The Lawyer You Know

The Lawyer You Know is doing weekly updates on the Trial, week one update is here…

And the movie is coming soon

Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, is also being adapted for a film that’ll star Jennifer Lawrence as Elizabeth Holmes. Not word yet on when the movie will actually be released.

Elizabeth Holmes arrives at the 3rd Annual Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center on November 8, 2015 in Mountain View, California. Photo: C. Flaniga, Getty Images

I will continue to update the resources on this page as I find them. If you know of any others I’d love to hear from you to add to add them.

How to give a designer good feedback? Six Tips for non-designers

If you’ve hired a design agency or team of designers to help bring your product vision to life, your ability to give constructive and actionable feedback is probably one of the most overlooked factors in what makes a project successful or not.  

As an expert in your business, designers will be looking to you to provide the inputs that will inform and drive their design decisions. These inputs might include everything from details about the core behavior of your users to what the highest priority features should are. 

Sounds pretty easy, right? Ok, perhaps you’ll be a wiz, but I’ve seen many a CEO struggle with this part. So if you get into it and realize there’s more to this feedback stuff than you initially thought; this will still be here when you need it. 

You hold the most valuable inputs

If you ask any designer, they’ll most certainly tell you that no feedback is worse than lousy feedback. Silence from a Client is a bad omen, sending the less experienced into a spiral of self-doubt. 

A while back, a Harvard survey concluded that respondents overwhelmingly (to the tune of 92%) agreed with the assertion, “Negative feedback if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” (link)

Tip #1: Mentally ready yourself to have to answer a lot of questions. If you’re working with a good group, they should keep you on your toes with questions that even you will find challenging to answer. Use these as an opportunity to share your knowledge with them. 

Control your personal biases

Knee-jerk reactions are not uncommon when it comes to perspectives of design. Accept that you’ll have some of your own that you may not even be aware of. Purple, for example, might be a color that rubs you the wrong way. Will you be able to put your preferences aside in favor of what your users want? 

Assuming other stakeholders from your team also give feedback, look out for biases stemming from individual roles and responsibilities. For example, someone in sales will likely have a different set of objectives than someone representing engineering. Letting one single stakeholder’s perspective dominate can also be problematic. And if you are the CEO or main decision-maker, make sure it’s not just what you say that goes. 

Tip #2: When design decisions come down to a matter of personal opinion, it’s easy to lose sight of the original goal. The best way to check for bias is to refer to the goals you set at the project outset. Then, in cases where there’s any disagreement amongst people on your team or with design, referring back to that original definition of success will everyone stay aligned on the north star. 

Be specific

You can expect you will be asked to clarify any feedback that is not actionable. Before putting it to paper, ask yourself if it makes sense to you. It’s hard to go anywhere hearing, “I don’t think it looks modern.” What precisely is or is not modern? Is ‘modern’ how you would describe what your target user is expecting to see?

Try to step outside yourself and think about what you’re asking a designer to do. In the case of the example above, if ‘modern’ is what you’re after and you can’t think of any better way to explain it, find some examples of what you’re talking about and share those links with your feedback. Yes, it’s tough to do this, so if it’s frustrating, that’s good; you’re on the road to giving better feedback!

Tip #3: Read your feedback back to yourself, keeping in mind tip #2. Does it make sense? If you received such feedback, would it be immediately apparent what action is required? If not, reassess until your message is clear and always, always share examples. 

Know what’s in play, ask if unsure

Depending on what stage of a project you’re in, the feedback you need to give will be different. For example, an early conceptual stage will require input from the production stages, where many of the design styles are already defined. 

A designer should always be clear at the start of a presentation what you are looking at and what precisely they need feedback on, and even what kind of feedback they need from you. In doing this, the designer can get the actionable feedback they need. For example, during conceptual stages, they may share mood boards or collages of images and ask which one resonates with them the most and why. Later on, once things have been defined, it may be more specific questions like the average number of words in your article content. 

Suppose you’re ever in a situation where a designer launches into their presentation, and you’re off-the-bat you find yourself a bit lost. In that case, you should feel free to interrupt and ask them to clarify the goals for the session and what precisely they’re looking for in terms of feedback from you. 

Tip #4 If it’s ever unclear what’s being asked of you, always ask for clarification. Communication is complex, and presenting work to a client is never easy, so any help you can provide by asking questions will always lead to a better job and a more effective team. A good design review should result in decisions on a way forward or enough momentum for the designer to keep working on a problem. If you reach the end of a session and are unsure if you’ve provided enough feedback, a quick “do you guys have enough from us to keep working?” will usually do the trick.

Don’t solution 

If you’ve hired design experts to do a job, let them be responsible for their work. If you’re clear on the problems you need to solve, you should be able to leave the solutions to them. With this in mind, avoid giving feedback that’s prescriptive or feels like a directive. This doesn’t mean you should refrain from sharing ideas for a way to solve a problem; just frame them as suggestions for one potential approach to consider versus a prescriptive order. 

Throughout a project, you’ll learn that design will evolve and change, and the answer is not always obvious and figured out on the first attempt. It can take weeks of iteration to get to something feeling right and meeting all the objectives.

Tip #5: Leave the designing to designers and if you find you’re getting stuck, ask how you can help. The best place to start is usually going back to the ‘why.’ Rephrasing the problem with any extra context you can offer is usually enough to help a designer get on the right track. 

Be constructive

Remember that designers are people, and a little motivation goes a long way. But by no means does this mean you should be over complimentary, but remembering that people are people goes a long way. And to be honest, the more enthusiasm a client shows for their product, the more this rubs off on a designer. 

Tip #6: put yourself in the shoes of your designer and help them get excited about your product. If you can focus your feedback on the problem you’re trying to solve together, the more open and honest the process will become, ultimately leading to strong collaboration.  

Conclusion

Given so much of our world is digital, great design can solve so many problems, but getting to that final result is a process. The best way to prepare for success is to be clear on your goals and always keep those top of mind. While design is the vehicle being used to solve the problem, it’s up to you to make sure you’re focused on solving the right ones. 

If you found this helpful, I’d love to know.