The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Blood fraud

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Not long before watching HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”, I happened to have a small conversation with some of colleagues in a biotechnology company where I have worked during last two years. The subject of the conversation was a newly developed machine from a certain other company which can automatically handle, analyze, and visualize a bunch of DNA samples within a considerably short time, and, even though I am a guy with a doctoral degree in biological science, I could not help but amazed by how much technology have advanced, while also wondering how far it may advance in the future.

However, there are always limits for what technologically can be done for now, and that is what Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, willfully overlooked from the very beginning. She may really have believed that she could lead her biotechnology company to a revolutionary technology breakthrough via her supposedly innovative idea, but she only came to sell her shiny vision to numerous investors without achieving anything at all, and her rapid rise and fall is certainly another cautionary tale from Silicon Valley.

In the beginning, Holmes looked like another young, promising figure to be as famous as, say, Steve Jobs. Although she was only 19 when she was attending Stanford University in 2003, she was already driven by her vision and ambition while impressing others around her a lot, and she eventually quit her education course and then came to found Theranos although she clearly did not have much knowledge on her business field. She thought she could develop a machine which can execute various medical tests at once even with a few drops of blood, but her advisor professor was naturally skeptical for good reasons, and I must say I even found myself rolling my eyes during my viewing. Sure, her idea sounds pretty awesome on the surface, but, though I am one of those defective products from the biological science department of Korea Advanced Institute of Advanced Technology (KAIST), I could think of at least ten reasons why her idea is practically unfeasible. For example, how can you maintain stable and constant test conditions while hundreds of activities are being done inside the machine? And, above all, how can you deal with inherent blood contamination problems?

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Anyway, Holmes was very good at attracting the attention of people who could help and support her company. She recruited one prominent Stanford professor as the science advisor of her company, and she also managed to persuade a number of wealthy investors including George Shultz, who were quite impressed by her ambition and vision just like many others encountering her. In addition, she packed her company board with several prominent public figures including Henry Kissinger, and it did not take much time for her and Theranos to become the new toast of Silicon Valley.

With the considerable money and support from Shultz and other influential figures around her, everything seemed to be aligned well for Holmes, but there inevitably came the reality which was not as rosy as her vision. Her machine, which was called Edison, remained stuck in its development stage without much progress, and there were numerous technological problems which frustrated the technicians of her company at lot. For instance, it could not execute well even a few medical tests, and that was certainly far from whatever was envisioned by Holmes.

Nevertheless, Holmes kept pushing her vision in public. While continuing to promote her machine aggressively, she adamantly hid what was actually going on inside Theranos, and, as several former employees of her company tell us, the mood inside her company was on the verge of paranoid as she virtually prevented them from telling anything about her company outside. Taylor Shultz, who was incidentally Shultz’s grandson and came to work as an intern at Theranos, finally decided that enough is enough, but then he soon found himself cornered by lawyers hired by Holmes not long after quitting his job, and the same thing can be said about Erika Cheung, who eventually decided to act as a whistle blower for exposing Holmes’ fraudulent activities.

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Meanwhile, John Carreyrou, a journalist working in the Wall Street Journal, sensed something fishy about Theranos, and that subsequently led to a series of investigative articles in late 2015, which ultimately resulted in the quick downfall of Holmes and her company. At its peak during 2013-4, the estimated value of Theranos was no less than 10 billion, but, once it was more thoroughly inspected after Carreyrou’s articles came out, the company fell down to the bottom, and it became defunct in last year.

As deftly mixing interview and archival footage clips, director/writer Alex Gibney, who has been known for several acclaimed documentaries films such as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005), “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (2015), gives us a clear and sobering presentation on how Holmes managed to get away with her fraudulent activities until she got caught. Although she is presented on the screen only via archival footage clips, Holmes comes to us a darkly compelling figure with her unblinking zealous eyes, and we can see how she could deceive not only others but also herself.

I wish it could delve deeper into some parts including the one involved with a certain renowned documentary filmmaker who made a commercial for Theranos, but “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” is still a documentary both informative and fascinating, and its cautionary tale may make you reflect a bit on that faulty side of our human nature. Sometime we tend to stick to what we want to believe too much, don’t we?

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