Without trivialising this wonderful book I was reminded of a joke as I followed the career of Elizabeth Holmes:
Q. What’s a gold mine?
A. A hole in the ground owned by a liar
Elizabeth worshipped Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. She used their lives as a recipe. She too dropped out of university as a teenager, exploited family connexions and raised capital for her company Theranos.
Theranos manufactured a medical device, which deleted the necessity of syringe based blood tests. They were replaced by a simple finger prick. Her device would quickly analysis this tiny sample thereby avoiding costly laboratory work. It was also wildly implausible. Elizabeth didn’t have a Ph.D in bioengineering but she was a consummate actor. She self-identified as a female Steve Jobs. Her voice pitch was lowered and she adopted the polo necked shirt that Jobs always wore.
Elizabeth’s device didn’t work. It couldn’t. It was a technological impossibility. But she sold her dream to investors as ignorant as herself. The dream was plausible because Silicon Valley had real life examples of implausible dreams becoming tangible billion dollar companies. For example Rupert Murdoch* invested a small amount in Uber and struck gold. He invested $120M in Theranos and was wiped out.
True con artists prey on the gullibility of those blinded by glittering promises: they con themselves! Elizabeth must have known her device had terminal problems but she continued regardless. And investors invested regardless. Theranos became a multi-billion $$ company without ever producing a profit. Medical investment managers didn’t invest in Theranos because they knew the science and didn’t buy the dream.
Carreyrou writes beautifully and has turned the story of Theranos into a thriller. Just how did Elizabeth deceive so many people for so long? How do she get huge contracts for a device, which was a prototype? And how did she get a stellar board of Americas great and the good (like Murdoch and Kissinger). Elizabeth believed that wishing something to be true it became true.
Her story continues.**
* Murdoch comes out this very well. Elizabeth tried to get him to use his influence as the owner of the Wall Street Journal to halt Carryrou’s investigation. He refused.