The story of the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of the start-up blood testing company, Theranos, and its precocious young founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is an amazing story. If it weren’t true, you’d never believe it. Telling that story in a coherent and entertaining fashion is a herculean task that journalist John Carryrou has done wonderfully in this book. There are a lot of people and a lot of moving parts, and the author weaves them together flawlessly into a yarn that will make your blood boil.
Rather than tell the story entirely from the author’s point of view as the journalist who broke the story, the first half of the book is a narrative about Elizabeth Holmes and her rise to Silicon Valley stardom. It reads like a novel more than a documentary or a news report, as Carryrou guides the reader through her ideas as a nineteen-year-old Stanford drop-out that morphed into her idea for a portable low-cost blood testing system that could be run on small amounts of blood drawn from finger-sticks rather than from venous needle draws. The idea was wonderful, and would have the potential to revolutionize the blood testing industry. The problem, of course, is that developing such a system would take years if not decades of painstaking research and development, followed by extensive clinical trials and accuracy authentication to establish that the small-quantity blood tests were as accurate as the traditional laboratory tests. But, Elizabeth Holmes was not a person who liked to wait around for such things. She wanted to market the product and make millions. She did just that, even though the technology didn’t work.
The most amazing thing about the story is not that Holmes tried to get away with it, it’s that so many people allowed her to succeed. Government regulators were lax. Investors were hoodwinked. High-profile politicians and business leaders were lured onto her Board of Directors, which gave legitimacy to the company. Rupert Murdoch, the sire of News Corporation, and owner of The Wall Street Journal invested $125 million of his own money in the company – only to see his paper bring it down and render it worthless.
The story is truly amazing, and this book boils it all down to a manageable narrative that has a brisk pace and leaves you scratching your head, but in the end understanding how it happened. Elizabeth Holmes was a master salesman, and everyone involved wanted her claims to be true. She spouted them so confidently, and then brought down an iron fist on any worker who thought about breaching her draconian confidentiality agreement and sued the pants off of anyone who got in her way. Lawyer David Boies enabled her, as did many others. In the end, the truth won out, but in a different world where The Wall Street Journal refused to back down and several key witnesses refused to be intimidated, Theranos could have continued spewing out false test results for years before anyone knew the truth.
This is an important book, and one that is a pleasure to read. Well done all around.