Theranos and the cult of personality in science and tech | OUPblog:
lizabeth Holmes was a chemical engineering student who dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos: a silicon-valley start-up company that, at one point, was valued at US$9 billion. Her plan was to be another Steve Jobs and, for a while, it looked like that would happen. She made the cover of magazines like Forbes, Fortune, and even Glamour, wearing black polo-neck shirts and was touted as being the next big thing. Former President Clinton was a fan. Former Secretary-of-State George Schultz was an investor and on the Theranos board as were Henry Kissinger and James (Mad Dog) Mattis who stepped down as Secretary of Defense last year.
Today, she is facing fraud and other criminal charges.
It’s a long, fascinating story. Essentially, her technology was supposed to revolutionise health care: automatically performing hundreds of blood tests on a couple of drops of blood in just a few minutes. In reality, it was no more carefully thought out than an undergraduate research project. She lied to her staff, lied to her investors, lied to her board, and lied to her company’s potential customers. Her company claimed it was using new technology to perform blood tests when, in fact, it was using the same equipment as every other lab (except Theranos got poorer results because they did not have enough blood to do the tests properly).
All this is detailed in the book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who broke the story with the help of whistle-blowers.
What fascinates me about this saga is how the scam was able to go on for so long: more than 10 years. In that time there was an incredible rate of staff turnover (including one suicide), endless lawsuits, countless missed deadlines, and a seeming inability to finish any serious studies that demonstrated the technology worked. At one stage, Holmes was even asked to step down by members of her board but managed to talk them out of it.
The cult of personality that grew up around Elizabeth Holmes accounts for both her success and failure. By all accounts she is an incredibly magnetic person and – at least to begin with – most people found her an inspiring leader and visionary. This is what made it possible to raise millions of dollars, get such prominent people on her board, and attract a lot of incredibly talented people to work with and for her.
Steve Jobs, of course, was famous for a similar kind of charisma and bullying (also an issue at Theranos), so perhaps it’s not surprising that the ‘reality-distortion field’ associated with him was present here too. But, of course, Steve Jobs wasn’t alone. He had Steve Wozniak, the technical brains that made Apple possible. Jobs could play the visionary, safe in the knowledge that Woz (and others that followed) would look after the details.
Elizabeth didn’t have that: in fact, the cult of personality built up around her made it impossible for her Woz to emerge…
Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah