The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who started Theranos when she was 19 and became the world's youngest female billionaire before it all came crashing down
Apr 21, 2018, 18:05 IST
These days, blood-testing startup Theranos is on its last legs.
But in 2014, the billion-dollar company and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, were on top of the world. Back then, Theranos was a revolutionary idea thought up by a woman hailed as a genius who styled herself as a female Steve Jobs. Holmes was the world's youngest female self-made billionaire, and Theranos was one Silicon Valley's unicorn startups. AdvertisementThen it all came crashing down.
The shortcomings and inaccuracies of Theranos's technology were exposed, along with the role Holmes played in covering it all up. Theranos and Holmes were charged with massive fraud, and the company was forced to close its labs and testing centers.
This is how Holmes went from precocious child to ambitious Stanford dropout to embattled startup CEO.
Elizabeth Holmes was born on February 3, 1984 in Washington, D.C. Her mom, Noel, was a Congressional committee staffer, and her dad, Christian Holmes, worked for Enron before moving to government agencies like USAID.
Holmes' family moved when she was young, from Washington, D.C. to Houston.
At the age of 9, Holmes wrote a letter to her father: "What I really want out of life is to discover something new, something that mankind didn't know was possible to do."
When she was a teenager, Holmes started her own business: she sold C++ compilers, a type of software that translates computer code, to Chinese schools.
Holmes was inspired by her great-great-grandfather Christian Holmes, a surgeon, to go into medicine, but she discovered she was terrified of needles. Later, this would influence her to start Theranos.
Holmes went to Stanford to study chemical engineering. When she was a freshman, she became a "president's scholar," an honor which came with a $3,000 stipend to go toward a research project.
Holmes spent the summer after her freshman year interning at the Genome Institute in Singapore. She got the job partly because she spoke Mandarin, which she learned as a teenager.
As a sophomore, Holmes went to one of her professors, Channing Robertson, and said: "Let's start a company." With his blessing, she founded Real-Time Cures, later changing the company's name to Theranos.
Holmes soon filed a patent application for "Medical device for analyte monitoring and drug delivery," a wearable device that would administer medication, monitor patients' blood, and adjust the dosage as needed.
By the next semester, Holmes had dropped out of Stanford altogether, working on Theranos in the basement of a college house.
Theranos's business model was based around the idea that it ran blood tests using proprietary technology that required only pinprick in your finger and a small amount of blood. Holmes said the tests would be able to detect medical conditions like cancer and high cholesterol.
Holmes started raising venture capital money for Theranos from prominent investors like Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Larry Ellison. To date, Theranos has raised more than $700 million.
Holmes took investors' money on the condition that she wouldn't have reveal how Theranos' technology worked. Plus, she would have final say over everything having to do with the company.
That obsession with secrecy extended to every aspect of Theranos. For the first decade Holmes spent building her company, Theranos operated in stealth mode. She even took three former Theranos employees to court, claiming they had misused Theranos trade secrets.
Holmes' attitude toward secrecy was borrowed from a Silicon Valley hero of hers: Steve Jobs. Holmes started wearing black turtlenecks like Jobs, decorated her office with his favorite furniture, and like Jobs, never took vacations.
Even Holmes's uncharacteristically deep voice may have been part of a carefully crafted image intended to help her fit in in the male-dominated business world.
Shortly after Holmes dropped out of Stanford at age 19, she had been dating Theranos president and COO Sunny Balwani, who was 20 years her senior. The pair broke up in spring 2016 when Holmes pushed him out of the company.
As Theranos started to rake in millions of funding, Holmes became the subject of media attention and acclaim in the tech world. She graced the covers of Fortune and Forbes, gave a TED Talk, and spoke on panels with Bill Clinton and Alibaba's Jack Ma.
Theranos quickly began securing outside partnerships. Capital Blue Cross and Cleveland Clinic signed on to offer Theranos tests to their patients, and Walgreens made a deal to open Theranos testing centers. Theranos also formed a secret partnership with Safeway worth $350 million.
At one point, Holmes was the world's youngest self-made female billionaire with a net-worth of around $4.5 billion.
Around the same time, questions were being raised about Theranos's technology. Ian Gibbons — chief scientist at Theranos and one of the company's first hires — warned Holmes that the tests weren't ready for the public to take, and that there were inaccuracies in the technology. Outside scientists began voicing their concerns about Theranos, too.
By August 2015, the FDA began investigating Theranos, and regulators from the government body that oversees laboratories found "major inaccuracies" in the testing Theranos was doing on patients.
By October 2015, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou published his investigation into Theranos's struggles with its technology. Carreyrou's reporting sparked the beginning of the company's downward spiral.
Carreyrou found that Theranos' blood-testing machine, named Edison, couldn't give accurate results, so Theranos was running its samples through the same machines used by traditional blood-testing companies.
Holmes appeared on CNBC's "Mad Money" to defend herself and her company. "This is what happens when you work to change things, and first they think you're crazy, then they fight you, and then all of a sudden you change the world," Holmes said.
By 2016, the FDA, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and SEC were all looking into Theranos.
In July 2016, Holmes was banned from the lab-testing industry for two years. By October, Theranos had shut down lab operations and wellness centers.
In March 2018, Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani were charged with "massive fraud" by the SEC. Holmes agreed to give up financial and voting control of the company, pay a $500,000 fine, and return 18.9 million shares of Theranos stock. She also isn't allowed to be the director or officer of a publicly traded company for 10 years.
Despite the charges, Holmes has been allowed to stay on as CEO of Theranos, as it's a private company, not public. But the company is hanging on by a thread, and Holmes has written to investors asking for more money to save Theranos. "In light of where we are, this is no easy ask," Holmes wrote.