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Elizabeth Holmes could certainly talk a good game. Unfortunately too many people were too willing to listen.
The dishonored founder of Theranos and her powerful persuasiveness are rigorously investigated in the latest documentary by Alex Gibney: "The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley." Premiering at 9 a.m. Monday March 18, at HBO, it creates an overwhelming warning story that is linked to money, greed, great promises and blind trust.
It is also just one of the two documentaries about Holmes and Theranos that will arrive in the coming days. On Friday at 9 am ABC will broadcast "The Dropout" under the banner "20/20". The two-hour program, which was not available for review in the press, shares the name with the popular ABC News podcast and is based on a lengthy investigation by technology and economic reporter Rebecca Jarvis.
In 2004, at the age of 19, Holmes from Stanford stopped to start a biotech company that promised to revolutionize healthcare with a diagnostic device that would make blood tests faster and cheaper. Backed by big names such as Larry Ellison and Rupert Murdoch, Theranos was valued at $ 9 billion in 2014, making Holmes & # 39; the world's youngest, self-made female billionaire.
Only one problem: the technology didn't work. Holmes was ultimately labeled fraud and the company imploded.
Gibney, whose credits include "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief," is clearly fascinated by organizational deception. To get to the heart of the spectacular debacle that Theranos was, he knows he has to get to Holmes' head and even rely on a "behavioral economist" to give some answers.
Young, attractive, idealistic, confident and incredibly driven, she was touted as & the next Steve Jobs & # 39 ;. Holmes blinded both Silicon Valley and Wall Street with her idea for a compact, portable machine that could quickly diagnose many infections and diseases, only with the help of finger-prick samples of blood.
She named her device The Edison, which led Gibney to make comparisons between Holmes and America's most famous inventor. Thomas Edison, the film claims, often promised more than he could deliver. The so-called Wizard of Menlo Park was able to tell a good story and was the first person to fake & # 39; the art of Silicon Valley & # 39; until you make it.
Similarly, Holmes knew the power of a good story. In interviews, she told movingly that she had lost a beloved uncle to skin cancer. Her dream, she said, was that fewer people "had to say goodbye too quickly to the people they love." Regarding her dedication to the vision, well, she gladly quoted Yoda: "Do or not. There is no attempt."
Who would not be seduced by that story? Former Theranos employees – and possibly whistleblowers – talk to Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung in the film about how they were attracted.
"I was totally gung-ho," he says. "… You wanted (her concept) to be true, so bad."
I "idolized" her, Cheung remembers. "I drank the Kool-Aid a little too quickly."
Many other people did that, including members of the media. And powerful older men, it seems, were particularly sensitive to Holmes' charm. Former state secretaries George Shultz (Tyler & # 39; s grandfather) and Henry Kissinger, former senators Sam Nunn and Bill Frist, and former defense minister James Mattis were all recruited to sit on the Theranos board and borrowed thus the credibility of the stars.
The problem is that they and others have failed to find out what happened behind the scenes. For years, Holmes is said to have misled investors and trading partners such as Safeway and Walgreens and showed that the Theranos machines were strewn with defects and susceptible to defects. A former employee described it as a & # 39; comedy of errors & # 39 ;.
These errors were concealed for a long time because Theranos forged test results and ignored reality checks in the midst of a very paranoid working environment that was stimulated by Holmes and her best business partner, Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani. Departments were separated. Emails were checked. Employees who raised red flags were quickly dumped in favor of those who joined the program.
Only when investigative journalist John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal, who appears in the film, pokes his nose in Theranos, does the company's shenanigans come to light. In 2018, federal prosecutors accused Holmes and Balwani of conspiring to commit fraud. They both did not plead guilty.
For more than two hours, Gibney describes it all with a lively mix of interviews, graphic images and a number of falling shots over Theranos' abandoned Palo Alto headquarters. From the latter it feels like you've ended up in a lonely ghost town and there is unmistakably a chill feeling in the air.
Contact Chuck Barney at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.