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Elizabeth Holmes was once a black polo-necked billionaire maverick who modelled herself on Steve Jobs. The female founder was said to be the future of Silicon Valley; her revolutionary idea, Theranos, promised to change medicine forever - to literally save lives. Now, she is the enigmatic figure who presided over one of the biggest cons in history, the woman at the centre of a story so unbelievable it's hard to believe it actually happened.
As she is convicted of four federal charges of fraud this week, and faces possible decades in jail, we look back at who exactly Elizabeth Holmes is, and what went wrong with her once fêted medical marvel, Theranos...
Who is Elizabeth Holmes?
Once hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire, Holmes graced countless magazine covers, spoke at global summits, pow-wowed with world leaders and promised to radically change the world for the better. Now? She is a convicted criminal. So, what exactly happened?
Holmes was born in Washington DC in 1984, to a family of entrepreneurs and successful businessmen. Her great-grandfather had founded the vastly lucrative American brand Fleischmann's Yeast. Her father - somewhat ironically - was vice president of Enron, an American energy brand that was convicted of mass accounting fraud in 2001.
A prodigious, bright student, she studied chemical engineering at Stanford, but dropped out, like so many successful Silicon Valley wunderkinds before her, when she hit upon an idea. She registered her first patent in 2003 and left Stanford in 2004. Her plan? To start a medical company that would prevent major diseases through early detection. It became Theranos, which would turn out to be both her greatest achievement and her destruction.
By December 2004, Theranos had raised $6 million. At its height, it was valued as a $9 billion company. It was billed as "the Apple of healthcare" and Holmes, who deliberately modelled herself on Steve Jobs, was soon catapulted into instant fame. She was not only a rarity as a female founder in Silicon Valley, her company was - unlike the vague disclaimers of other big tech brands - actually aiming to save lives. She was the messiah in a polo neck... until she wasn't.
What was Theranos?
The idea was - deceptively, as it turns out - simple. Holmes wanted to recreate a blood laboratory in a box. Instead of going to the doctors to get a test and wait days and days for the result, you could simply prick your finger and insert the blood sample into one of Theranos' genius 'Edison' boxes, which the company promised, one day, would be in "every home in America". You wouldn't even need to see a needle, let alone a medical professional. The concept took out the fear, fuss and waiting period from preventative medicine, promising to catch diseases faster.
As Holmes herself said, her dream was that no one would have to say goodbye too soon to people they love. The company was inspired, after all, by the premature - and in her mind, preventable - death of her uncle. Theranos would change all that and, as she said; "What higher purpose is there?" But therein lay the rub. For Theranos was promising medical miracles, and everyone - from patients and presidents to million dollar investors - wanted to believe in miracles.
What went wrong?
Though the company began unravelling in 2015, the roots of its failure actually date back to Holmes' Stanford days. When she presented her idea to Phyllis Gardener, a highly acclaimed clinical pharmacologist and professor of medicine at Stanford, she was told her idea was "not physically possible," a conclusion shared by countless other medical professors. Despite this, Holmes was undaunted.
The most unbelievable facet of the story is, of course, that Theranos was allowed to continue for so long and, crucially, make so much money, all based on science that - right back in its inception - was proven to be impossible. She got away with this simply because, throughout the company's growth, Holmes refused to disclose how her miracle brand worked, claiming the information was proprietary and that, in divesting it, she would be giving over trade secrets to rival brands. Investors - from individual billionaires to US brands like Walgreens and medical institutions like the Cleveland Clinic - therefore put money into Theranos, or partnered with it, all based on faith. That faith was largely in Holmes herself.
As for her own beliefs, Holmes was a staunch advocate of that infamous Silicon Valley adage; 'move fast and break things.' She viewed any scientific naysayers as merely bumps in the road. She said, on live TV in 2015, when the first slivers of doubt began to surface about Theranos: "This is what happens when you work to change things. First they think you’re crazy. Then they fight you. And then, all of a sudden, you change the world.”
But by 2015, those naysayers actually included whistleblowers from within Theranos, willing to testify that the Edison machines did not work, had never worked, and that the company was therefore defrauding investors of billions of dollars. The following year, the Centre for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the US, investigated Theranos and installed a two-year ban on Holmes running, owning or operating a blood-testing service. By 2017, the law suits began. By 2018, Theranos had closed and Holmes was officially charged with 11 counts of fraud. Her trial began in August 2021, after being delayed due to Covid and Holmes' pregnancy with her first child. This week, she was found guilty of four of these charges.
What happens now?
Holmes' defence team have already stated they will be appealing the decision, claiming - as they have all along - that her crime was failure, not conscious fraud. “Trying your hardest and coming up short is not a crime,” one of her defence lawyers, Lance Wade, stated.
The exact jail time she may face has yet to be revealed. In the meantime, Holmes remains a figure of immense interest, the subject of countless books and documentaries and the focus of one upcoming Hulu series, starring Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, and an Apple studios film, with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. Ironically, after modelling herself on Steve Jobs for so long, her legacy may well be a movie about her catastrophic failure... made by Apple.
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