The mysterious story of former Theranos president Sunny Balwani, who former employees saw as an 'enforcer' and the SEC charged with fraud
Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
- During the rise and fall of Theranos, one of the company's top executives stayed mainly out of the spotlight: its then-president Sunny Balwani.
- Not much is known about Balwani, who Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and author of "Bad Blood" John Carreyrou found was in a romantic relationship with Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes during the time he was at the company.
- In his new book, Carreyrou details the role Balwani played in the company's culture as the "enforcer," as well as its downfall.
Throughout the saga of Theranos, the embattled blood testing company that came under fire in 2015 over the accuracy of its blood tests, one key figure remained out of the spotlight.
While Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes countered claims at conferences and in TV interviews, the company's president and chief operating officer - and Holmes' romantic partner for a time - Sunny Balwani stayed a mystery.
Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou explores the role Balwani had in the company's dealings and the relationship he had with Holmes in his new book "Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup." As Carreyrou saw it, Balwani was as integral to the Theranos saga as its founder and Holmes was.
The relationship - which itself stayed out of the headlines throughout the setbacks and scrutiny Theranos faced - was one of the reasons Carreyrou knew he had a big story on his hands. In 2015, Carreyrou said he read a New Yorker interview with then-Theranos board member Henry Kissinger. Kissinger said in the interview he tried to set Elizabeth up on dates, not realizing that she was in a relationship.
"It instantly became clear to me that she was lying to her board about this romantic relationship that she was having with the number two of the company, who by the way, was also about 20 years older," Carreyrou told Business Insider.
An almost non-existent internet presence
Balwani and Holmes met in Beijing on a trip through Stanford University's Mandarin program the summer before Holmes went to college. While there, the two struck up a friendship. While it wasn't clear when Balwani and Holmes became romantically involved, it appears to be around the time she dropped out of Stanford to start Theranos.
Balwani's background was in technology, after moving to the US in 1986. He had worked as a software engineer at Microsoft and Lotus before joining a startup called CommerceBid.com right before the dot-com bubble and later becoming president and chief technology officer. The company was acquired, and Balwani walked away with $40 million months before the bubble popped and the company went bankrupt. Balwani owned a Lamborghini Gallardo and a Porsche 911 with vanity license plates.
But Google the name "Sunny Balwani," and apart from recent reports about his SEC charges related to Theranos, there's not a whole lot about the man's past. An image search mainly pulls up photos of Holmes instead.
For someone who had been part of the tech industry for so long, Balwani didn't leave much of a digital footprint. It led sources Carreyrou talked to to suspect that he may have wiped himself from the internet.
"It doesn't make sense. You would've appeared somewhere, at some time and gotten your photo taken," Carreyrou said.
Balwani came into the role of president in 2009. After getting in contact with an insider at the company at the beginning of his reporter, Carreyrou quickly realized Balwani played an important role in the day-to-day life of the company.
"In that first phone call, which was an hour long, [my source] made very clear to me that they were running this thing as a partnership, and that Sunny was kind of the enforcer and Holmes' older boyfriend," Carreyrou said. "He painted the portrait of this fraud being run by a couple."
While Holmes served as the figurehead, Balwani stayed behind the scenes, "terrorizing everyone," Carreyrou said.
For example, Balwani took it upon himself to keep track of how long employees were working. In one encounter, Balwani brought up security footage that showed a software engineer only working an eight-hour day. He told the employee, "I'm going to fix you." The engineer promptly resigned and left the building, even as Balwani sent a security officer to try and stop him. Balwani then called the cops on the employee.
"A lot of my ex-employee sources, who for the first year was speaking to me on the background, were traumatized by what they experienced at Theranos," Carreyrou said. "It was like a mind-warping sort of experience."
Balwani left the company in May 2016 after 7 years at the company. He now awaits potential charges from the Department of Justice, and has been charged with "massive fraud" by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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