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.