(p. C1) Theranos Inc.’s 15-year quest to revolutionize the blood-testing industry met with the latest in a series of crippling blows in March when the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the Silicon Valley diagnostics firm with conducting an “elaborate, years-long fraud.” The SEC accused the firm of deceiving investors into believing that its portable device could perform a broad range of laboratory tests on drops of blood pricked from a finger, when in fact it was doing most of its tests on commercial analyzers made by others.
Much of the attention has focused on Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. But another character played a central role behind the scenes in the alleged fraud: Ms. Holmes’s boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, according to more than three dozen former Theranos employees who interacted with Mr. Balwani extensively over a number of years. Mr. Balwani, who met Ms. Holmes when she was a teenager, jointly ran the company with her for seven years as president and chief operating officer and enforced a corporate culture of secrecy and fear until his departure in the spring of 2016, the former employees say.
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(p. C2) By the summer of 2013, the Theranos machine had gone through three iterations. The first, a microfluidic device, had been abandoned in 2007. The second, a converted glue-dispensing robot called the Edison, had been shelved in 2010. The third, which Ms. Holmes had christened the miniLab, was supposed to be the one that finally turned her vision into reality. But while she and Mr. Balwani were telling Theranos’s retail partner, Walgreens, that the miniLab could perform the full range of lab tests on tiny finger-stick samples, the truth was that it remained a work in progress, according to the SEC. The list of its problems was lengthy.
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Though the miniLab remained a malfunctioning prototype, Ms. Holmes was intent on launching Theranos’s fingerstick tests in Walgreens stores by September 2013. So she and Mr. Balwani dusted off the Edison and launched with that, the SEC says. But the Edison could handle just one class of blood tests; to perform the dozens of others they had promised Walgreens their technology could handle, they needed a workaround. The solution was to secretly modify third-party commercial machines to adapt them to small blood samples.
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In July 2015, Ms. Holmes invited Vice President Joe Biden to come visit Theranos’s facility in Newark, Calif. It was an audacious move given that the company’s lab had been operating without a real director since the previous December.
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Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani wanted to impress Vice President Biden with a vision of a cutting-edge, automated laboratory. Instead of showing him the actual lab with its commercial analyzers, they created a fake one, according to former employees who worked in Newark. They made the microbiology team vacate a room it occupied, had it repainted, and lined its walls with rows of miniLabs stacked up on metal shelves.
Ms. Holmes took Mr. Biden on a tour of the facility and showed him the fake automated lab. In a discussion with a half-dozen industry executives right afterward, Mr. Biden called what he had just seen “the laboratory of the future.” Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Biden declined to comment.
For the full essay, see:
John Carreyrou, “Partners in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 19, 2018): C1-C2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the essay has the date May 18, 2018, and has the title “Theranos Inc.’s Partners in Blood.”)
Carreyrou’s essay is derived from his book:
Carreyrou, John. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.