Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.
For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley. (via Goodreads)
Why Did I Choose This Book?
I’m not sure how many Nonfiction November lists Bad Blood has been on since it came out in 2018. This was also my Moby-Dick rebound book. I needed a palate cleanser. I intended to read a magic-related book, but I decided instead to read a book about deception.
What Did I Think?
Okay, first of all, despite my husband’s occasional mention of the company and seeing Bad Blood on many Nonfic November lists, I really had no ideas about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. My husband follows tech and financial news and had commented on several occasions before and after the scandal broke that the company’s promised products seemed unlikely. He has degrees in computer engineering and computational biosciences, so he knows a few relevant things.
But I didn’t take an immediate interest in this story. I was worried that, well, occasionally, as much as we like to see women succeed, we also seem to revel in their failures. I didn’t really want to participate in reading a pile-on. But Bad Blood isn’t that. This story would still be a story if it were a 20-something Standford dropout guy behind it.
The level of deception perpetrated by Holmes and her partner Sunny Balwani is pretty staggering. Employees who asked questions were dismissed. Investors who asked questions were dazzled with (truth adjacent) tales. What’s the recipe for a decade-long con? Start with a charismatic spokesperson. Add an idea that everyone wants to believe in. To the true believer-ship, add one part of fear of missing out. Stir in millions of dollars until bubbling with a healthy head of sunk cost fallacy. Unfortunately, there was only a rock in the bottom of the pot…
I am an optimistic person; I like to think the best of others. I don’t think Holmes was ever entirely altruistic about Theranos, but I don’t think Theranos started as an utter scam either. The technology that Holmes originally patented is…science fiction. It was shooting for the stars. That doesn’t mean the company couldn’t have honestly pivoted its resources toward an innovation that was more down-to-earth. As I said, I started Bad Blood the day after finishing Moby-Dick. I can’t help but seeing some Ahab in Elizabeth Holmes. Her obsession, whether with being the next Steve Jobs or with a not-quite (or at least not-yet) possible technology sunk her and took a lot of people with her.
Fascinating tale, told well enough.
Original Publishing info: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018
My Copy: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection, Kindle & Browser
Genre: nonfiction, science & technology