Biotech CEO uses smoke and mir­rors to sell her vi­sion

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If there is a les­son to be taken from the HBO doc­u­men­tary “The In­ven­tor: Out for Blood in Sil­i­con Val­ley,” it’s trust but ver­ify.

In the two-hour film that pre­mieres Mon­day, March 18, on HBO, Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tar­ian Alex Gib­ney (“Go­ing Clear: Scien­tol­ogy and the Prison of Be­lief ”) de­tails the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the biotech firm Ther­a­nos and the driv­ing force be­hind The Edi­son, a de­vice that she claimed could quickly and in­ex­pen­sively di­ag­nose a host of ill­nesses us­ing only fin­ger-prick sam­ples of blood.

And this at­trac­tive, blond-haired, blue-eyed Stan­ford dropout was a mas­ter at sell­ing her vi­sion of “de­moc­ra­tized health care,” bring­ing aboard such high-pro­file in­vestors as for­mer Sec­re­taries of State Ge­orge Shultz and Henry Kissinger, me­dia mag­nate Ru­pert Mur­doch, for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis and cur­rent Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos. And in 2013, Holmes made a deal with Wal­greens to put the de­vice in store phar­ma­cies.

The prob­lem was, The Edi­son was a lemon from the get-go. Its cen­trifuge was too small for its hous­ing and when it ac­tu­ally worked, it gave back in­con­sis­tent re­sults. Test re­sults were rigged and within a few years, a com­pany that was val­ued at $9 bil­lion in 2014 and made its founder the youngest self-made fe­male bil­lion­aire went bust and Holmes found her­self fac­ing fed­eral fraud charges and 20 years in prison. She cur­rently awaits trial.

“It was just a larger-than-life tale,” says Gib­ney. “But I think it was not nec­es­sar­ily the in­tri­ca­cies of the tale it­self. It was more the psy­chol­ogy of it, the psy­chol­ogy of fraud, the psy­chol­ogy of de­cep­tion, the psy­chol­ogy of self-de­cep­tion and then the psy­chol­ogy of the peo­ple who went along with what she was do­ing. That was what was in­ter­est­ing to me. It wasn’t the ma­chin­ery on the fac­tory floors, (it was) the ma­chin­ery in­side the head.”

Elizabeth Holmes

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