After the breakout success of Netflix and Hulu’s Fyre Festival documentaries and with multiple adaptations of the story of New York City party scammer Anna Delvey coming our way, 2019 is shaping up to be the year of the scam. And the next charismatic, yet flawed subject of fascination is Elizabeth Holmes, former Theranos CEO and subject of two documentaries, new podcast The Dropout, and Jennifer Lawrence’s next movie (Adam McKay’s big-screen adaptation of Bad Blood, the book about her rise and fall from The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou). But unlike pop culture’s other recent obsession, Fyre Fest’s Billy McFarland, Elizabeth Holmes isn’t in jail or prison. Here’s how her story differs from the scam du jour and where she stands in 2019.
Holmes first hit the Silicon Valley scene in 2003, styling herself as a female Steve Jobs — right down to the black turtlenecks and intense levels of secrecy that shrouded her ideas. Back then, she was a 19-year-old student at Stanford University’s School of Chemical Engineering with a fear of needles and a desire to change the world. And in that moment, Theranos was born. The company’s aim was to revolutionize blood work, with Holmes claiming she created a test that allowed patients to be tested for hundreds of diseases with a single drop of blood, something long-believed to be impossible to do with any sort of accuracy. It was a claim that many of her professors and other experts she talked with found dubious at best. But that didn’t stop the money men from buying it: by December 2004, Holmes had raised $6 million to fund Theranos. In 2010, that number was $92 million.
Despite the educated misgivings, Holmes and Theranos were sure their proprietary pinprick technology was a game-changer. They refused to let anyone investing know more about the details, but that didn’t keep people from throwing millions of dollars her way, or for Walgreens to partner with her to open hundreds of blood collection centers. Doing away with intravenous blood work, she asserted, would save millions of lives... and men in charge love that sort of largess when it comes to business gambles. The claim helped Holmes bring some seriously powerful leaders into the company’s orbit — like former Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and even former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (none of whom have medical backgrounds, for what it’s worth). All three men served on the board of directors for the company and with this level of interest and financial encouragement, Holmes pressed on.
Her claims about the company came under particular scrutiny in 2016, when the FDA, FBI, and CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) began investigating Theranos. And what all those investigations found, was frightening: patients were reportedly left at risk of internal bleeding and stroke if they were prone to blood clots, and more still were found to have been supplied with erratic, questionable results at best. Theranos and Holmes’ claims that their million-dollar company were changing the world appeared decidedly false. The state of Arizona sued them. From there, the whole thing crumbled in spectacular fashion, and the company itself was dead as of April 2018. And though Holmes pleaded not guilty to criminal fraud charges in 2017, she did agree to pay a $500,000 fine. The U.S. Attorney’s office case is still ongoing.
So is it a surprise to anyone that 2019 will play host to not one, but two, documentaries about the blonde, Jobsian wannabe who conned Silicon Valley out of billions of dollars with little more than words and grandiose dreams? First up will be the Sundance Film Festival entry, The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley from Alex Gibney. ABC News also rolled out its own documentary and accompanying podcast (which is currently streaming) with Nightline. The Dropout, as the podcast and doc are so called, will include deposition tapes of interviews with Holmes and former Theranos president (and Holmes' ex-boyfriend) Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani, as well as interviews with Balwani’s attorney, among others.
Needless to say, the year of the scam is all about receipts.