Many people were involved in the spectacular downfall of once-buzzy Silicon Valley blood testing wunderkind, Theranos. But perhaps one of the people most integral to it all was Theranos & Elizabeth Holmes whistleblower Erika Cheung. The former medical researcher joined the company in 2013 and only stayed seven months before exiting, but not before playing an integral part in discovering the numerous issues in the company’s blood-testing process.
“[I] was completely infatuated with this amazing female entrepreneur who dropped out of Stanford and started her own company" Cheung explained on The Dropout (a podcast from ABC News). But almost as soon as she started at the company, she knew things were very, very wrong. Ahead of her appearance in HBO's Holmes documentary The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, we sat down with Cheung to talk about her time with the company.
For those that don’t know, a quick primer: Theranos was the blood testing company founded by Elizabeth Holmes. Asserting her company would change the game in healthcare forever, Holmes stated her product made it possible to test for thousands of diseases, accurately, with a single drop of blood — a gamechanger to the industry standard. But after a few years, that was revealed to be not the case, as Holmes consistently over-promised and under-delivered on the realities of her laboratory.
Cheung started at Theranos after graduating from the University of California-Berkeley in 2013, aspiring — like Holmes — to change healthcare for the better. Only Cheung quickly realized the Silicon Valley way of operating didn’t exactly work well when dealing with people’s health. But it didn’t seem to matter: By 2015, articles were coming out the world over declaring Holmes and her revolutionary blood draw method, the female, medicinal Steve Jobs.
“In Silicon Valley, you get into that software mindset: you build something, you iterate on it, you change it as you go, and it's okay if you upset your users, because you want to figure out what it is that they actually want before you spend a lot of time and energy and money building something that no one wants,” Cheung tells Refinery29. “The issue here was that you can't do that with something like healthcare, you can't just say, ‘I'm just going to try this out on a patient.’ You have to have a pretty well developed product before you start telling people what you do or do not have Syphilis.”
And that, it seems, is exactly what Holmes was doing. During her time in the Theranos lab, Cheung noted that there was a cavalier attitude from the powers-that-be about the ramifications of testing and processing patient samples, with several shortcuts taken in order to please investors over everyone else. In short order, executives, board members, and several key employees would be out on their asses, mostly for questioning these methods with Holmes.
But the reality is that there were real issues with the way blood was being processed and tested — and many results were coming back incorrect. Still, Holmes insisted the company was doing everything perfectly, even if Cheung’s first-hand experience didn’t support that. “I did feel that I was really gas lit for quite some time,” Cheung explains. So, she did what any good scientific mind would do, she made note of it. She figured by documenting the issues and making them plain she could “leave it up to the regulators, send them this report, so they can go in and detect these deficiencies,” and everything would shake out in the wash.
Specificity was tantamount to her success. “I know they're going to lie to these regulators otherwise,” Cheung says. So she decided to, through her notes, “point them exactly in the directions that they need to inspect.
After all, she’s a scientific mind so she knew that there could always be outliers in the situation she did not see. “Maybe they'll find that it wasn't that big of a deal because they're, you know, it was their job to do so,” she says, “but maybe they will.”
“Once it was confirmed that they were endangering the lives of patients and that was validated.” Cheung felt vindicated. “[They] found that there were major deficiencies in the lab,” and she felt satisfied that she had done her part. By 2017, everything in Theranos and Holmes’ world had crumbled. Cheung wasn’t happy, but she was relieved.
“I don't feel like I'm the type of person that just wants to see her get punished and be on the chopping block for things,” Cheung added. “For me it was enough to say, ‘Okay, she's done processing patient samples, no more lives are gonna be at risk from this point.’ Hopefully people learn this lesson that this is unacceptable. You can't, you can't do this.”
Now working as the program director at Betatron, a Hong Kong-based “Startup Accelerator where founders and startups come first, providing funding, hands on mentoring and space,” Cheung has parlayed her lessons of working both in medicine and the venture capitalist-funded tech space into knowledge to parlay to other creators in this, and other, spaces. And she hopes people will learn a lesson from Holmes’ story — namely, that you can’t work fast and break everything, especially when it involves people.
“I think it's important for people to learn that there are consequences for your actions when you lie to patients, when you lie to investors; there’s got to be consequences for this,” Cheung says. “And that's why I think it's a good thing that she's been indicted, to sort of tell people you just can't get away with these things.”