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“SHE NEVER LOOKS BACK”: INSIDE ELIZABETH HOLMES’S
CHILLING FINAL MONTHS AT THERANOS
At the end, Theranos was overrun by a dog defecating in the boardroom, nearly a dozen law
ﬁrms on retainer, and a C.E.O. grinning through her teeth about an implausible turnaround.
BY N I C K BI LTO N
F E B R UA RY 2 1 , 2 0 1 9
Photographed by Jenny Hueston for The New Yorker.
P H OT O G RA P H E D BY J E N N Y H U E S T O N .
Elizabeth Holmes appeared to know exactly what she needed to do. It was September
2017, and the situation was dire. Theranos, the blood-testing company that she had dreamed
up more than a decade ago, during her freshman year at Stanford, was imploding before her
very eyes. John Carreyrou, an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, had spent
nearly two years detailing the start-up’s various misdeeds—questioning the veracity of its lab
results and the legitimacy of its core product, the Edison, a small, consumer blood-testing
device that supposedly used a drop of blood to perform hundreds of medical tests. Carreyrou
had even revealed that Theranos relied on third-party devices to administer its own tests.
Theranos, which had raised nearly $1 billion in funding for a valuation estimated at around
$9 billion, now appeared less a medical-sciences company than a house of cards.
Owing largely to Carreyrou’s reporting, the fallout had been colossal, unprecedented.
Theranos was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the
Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It had been sued by
investors. Walgreens, its largest partner, terminated the relationship and shut down 40
testing sites. Forbes, which once estimated Holmes’s wealth at $4.5 billion, wrote it down to
zero. The young founder, who was once compared to Steve Jobs, had recently been dubbed a
“millennial Madoff” by the New York Post. According to two former executives at the
company, Theranos had as many as nine different law firms on retainer, including the
formidable Boies Schiller Flexner, to handle the mess—what appeared to be the end of a
long, labored, highly visible, and heinous corporate death march.
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But Holmes had other ideas. Despite the chaos, she believed that Theranos could still be
saved, and she had an unconventional plan for redemption. That September, according to
the two former executives, Holmes asked her security detail and one of her drivers to escort
her to the airport in her designated black Cadillac Escalade. She flew first class across the
country and was subsequently chauffeured to a dog breeder who supplied her with a 9-weekold Siberian husky. The puppy had long white paws, and a grey and black body. Holmes had
already picked out a name: Balto.
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For Holmes, the dog represented the journey that lay ahead for Theranos. As she explained
to colleagues at the company’s headquarters, in Palo Alto, he was named after the worldfamous sled dog who, in 1925, led a team of huskies on a dangerous, 600-mile trek from
Nenana, Alaska, to remote Nome, Alaska, bearing an antitoxin that was used to fight a
diphtheria outbreak. There is even a statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park, Holmes told
one former employee. The metaphorical connection was obvious. In Holmes’s telling, Balto’s
perseverance mirrored her own. His voyage with the life-changing drug was not so different
from her ambition.
In Silicon Valley, founders and C.E.O.s often embrace a signature idiosyncrasy as a personal
branding device. Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck every day and tended to only
park in handicap spots. Mark Zuckerberg went through a phase during which he would
only eat the meat of animals he had personally killed. Shigeru Miyamoto, the Nintendo
video-game legend, is so obsessed with estimating the size of things that he carries around a
tape measure. It can get even weirder. Peter Thiel has expressed an interest in the
restorative properties of blood transfusions from young people. Jack Dorsey drinks a
strange lemon-water concoction every morning, and goes on 10-day silent retreats while
wearing designer clothing and an Apple Watch. Holmes, too, had seemingly cherry-picked
from her elders. She wore a black turtleneck, drank strange green juices, traveled with armed
guards, and spoke in a near baritone. In an industry full of oddballs, Holmes—a blonde
WASP from the D.C. area—seemed hell-bent on cultivating a reputation as an iconoclastic
weirdo. Having Balto seemed to help fortify the image.
Immediately after returning to California, Holmes decided that Balto would hardly leave her
side on the quest to save Theranos. Each day, Holmes would wake up with Balto at the nearly
empty Los Altos mansion that she was renting about six miles from her company’s
headquarters. (Theranos covered the house’s rent.) Soon after, one of her two drivers,
sometimes her two security personnel, and even sometimes one of her two assistants, would
pick them up, and set off for work. And for the rest of the day, Balto would stroll through the
labs with his owner. Holmes brushed it off when the scientists protested that the dog hair
could contaminate samples. But there was another problem with Balto, too. He wasn’t pottytrained. Accustomed to the undomesticated life, Balto frequently urinated and defecated at
will throughout Theranos headquarters. While Holmes held board meetings, Balto could be
found in the corner of the room relieving himself while a frenzied assistant was left to clean
up the mess.
Around this same time, Holmes says that she discovered that Balto—like most huskies—had
a tiny trace of wolf origin. Henceforth, she decided that Balto wasn’t really a dog, but rather a
wolf. In meetings, at cafés, whenever anyone stopped to pet the pup and ask his breed,
Holmes soberly replied, “He’s a wolf.”
Former Theranos COO Ramesh Balwani leaves federal court in San Jose, January 14, 2019.
J U S T I N S U L L I VA N / G E T T Y I M AG E S .
Holmes and her attorney arrive at the San Jose federal court, January 14, 2019.
BY J U S T I N
S U L L I VA N / G E T T Y I M AG E S .
ilicon Valley can often feel like a lawless place, and for good reason. Many of the
people who run the largest technology companies on earth don’t often suffer the
consequences of their actions. Despite their unequivocal role in upending our
democracy, Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg still run Facebook. Dorsey is still the C.E.O.
of Twitter, even though he has not been forthright about the number of bots on the service,
and has done almost nothing to stop the spread of hate speech on his platform. The C.E.O. of
Tesla, Elon Musk, has been charged with securities fraud, and yet he’s still running the
company. (Musk later agreed with the S.E.C. that he would step down as chairman and pay a
$20 million fine.)
Holmes is that rare exception in which consequences occur. And the public, perhaps fed up
with the behavior of other tech giants (and Wall Street bankers before them), has been
captivated by her downfall. Three years after Carreyrou began his investigation, Holmes has
again become a figure of extraordinary pop-culture fascination—a distinct rarity for a
businessperson. Her story is the subject of the HBO documentary, The Inventor, and ABC
News’s podcast series, The Dropout. Bad Blood, Carreyrou’s book, has sold half a million
copies and is being developed for Hollywood by Adam McKay. Jennifer Lawrence is set
to play Holmes. (Disclosure: I was a consulting producer on the HBO project, which was
partly based on an article I wrote about Theranos nearly three years ago.)
The fascination with Holmes often fixates on her extraordinary rise—her ability to convince
Stanford scientists to believe her idea despite a lack of formal training; her aptitude for
getting wisemen (Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, George Schultz) to sit on her board;
and her skill for obtaining early funding from eminences such as Rupert Murdoch, the
Walton family, and others. But the final days of Theranos were equally chilling. After all,
Holmes wasn’t just an inexperienced scientist; she was also a wild-spending fiduciary.
Holmes had always enjoyed a certain lifestyle. From the early days of the company, she had
insisted on flying in a private jet. As the company’s legal problems mounted, its costs
skyrocketed, but Holmes had a hard time weaning herself off certain luxuries. She still had
her own personal security detail, drivers, personal assistants, and a personal publicist who
was on retainer for $25,000 a month, according to one of the former executives. Theranos
had an indemnity agreement with Holmes and Sunny Balwani, the company’s C.O.O., with
whom she had been romantically involved. (They are no longer dating.) Theranos paid all
their legal bills, which totaled millions of dollars a month, according to both executives.
By late 2017, however, Holmes had begun to slightly rein in the spending. She agreed to give
up her private-jet travel (not a good look) and instead downgraded to first class on
commercial airlines. But given that she was flying all over the world trying to obtain more
funding for Theranos, she was spending tens of thousands of dollars a month on travel.
Theranos was also still paying for her mansion in Los Altos, and her team of personal
assistants and drivers, who would become regular dog walkers for Balto.
But there were few places she had wasted so much money as the design and monthly cost of
the company’s main headquarters, which employees simply referred to as “1701,” for its
street address along Page Mill Road in Palo Alto. 1701, according to two former executives,
cost $1 million a month to rent. Holmes had also spent $100,000 on a single conference
table. Elsewhere in the building, Holmes had asked for another circular conference room
that the former employees said “looked like the war room from Dr. Strangelove,” replete
with curved glass windows, and screens that would come out of the ceiling so everyone in the
room could see a presentation without having to turn their heads.
But by the end of 2017, it became clear that it was financially untenable to stay in 1701,
largely owing to Theranos’s legal expenditures. The remaining employees were told they
would be moving to the Theranos laboratory facility, across the bay in Newark, California.
Employees who were still at Theranos at the time describe Newark as “crummy” and a
“shithole.” The building was formerly home to a solar-panel maker, and it had a huge floor
space. Employees were set up on the second floor, where people would sit four to a table in
the open-floor plan. Holmes took the corner office with Balto.
The move may have been a last-gasp attempt to save the company, but morale at Theranos
was already at an all-time low. The S.E.C. and other government agencies had started to
subpoena current and former workers. Remaining employees started to resign or were let go,
almost on a daily basis, it seemed. As two former employees told me, you could go to
Antonio’s Nut House, the famous Palo Alto bar, any night of the week and there would
reliably be a goodbye gathering for at least one Theranos employee.
Yet through all of this, former employees of the company have told me, Holmes had a bizarre
way of acting like nothing was wrong. Even more peculiarly, she appeared happy. “The
company is falling apart, there are countless indictments piling up, employees are leaving in
droves, and Elizabeth is just weirdly chipper,” a former senior executive told me. One former
board member also noted that Holmes would come to board meetings “chirpy” and acting as
if everything was “great.” She would walk up to people in the office who could have just
testified in front of the S.E.C., or been questioned by lawyers at the F.D.A., and she would
give them a hug and ask how they were doing. She was so confident that the company would
be fine, executives who worked with her said, that she enrolled Balto in a search-and-rescue
program. Holmes spent weekends training him to find people in an emergency.
Unfortunately, huskies are not bred for rescue; they are long-distance runners, and Balto
For years, Holmes had relished in the ritual of giving speeches to the employees. When
Balwani worked at Theranos, the speeches ended with chants. Some were positive, and some
were more famously negative, such as when employees in lab coats would chant “fuck you” to
a competitor or journalist. But such rhetoric was usually followed by excited cheers and
roars. One day in late December 2017, Holmes showed up at the Newark building and held
an all-hands meeting. She appeared excited beyond restraint. Brimming with enthusiasm,
she told her employees that Fortress Investment Group, one of the world’s largest private
investment companies, had agreed to offer a $100 million loan that would allow the
company to survive.
But Holmes didn’t appear to receive the response that she craved from her colleagues. One
executive who was there told me the room was silent. After an uncomfortable beat, Holmes
said, “Does anyone have any questions?” Again, nothing. Just a bristling silence. By this
point, “The morale had been completely drained out of the company,” the employee
explained. Months later, Holmes was charged with 11 criminal felony counts, including wire
fraud and conspiracy. Theranos was essentially gutted by the spring of 2018. It shuttered in
September 2018, one year after Holmes adopted Balto. Fortress got ownership of all of
Theranos’s patents. The $900 million she had raised was up in smoke.
Holmes at the lab in Palo Alto, 2015.
BY C A R LO S C H AVA RR / T H E N E W YO R K T I M E S / R E D U X .
ince Theranos’s collapse, observers have wondered how Holmes kept the company going for
so long—how she was able to convince those scientists, investors, and colleagues that
her quixotic idea for a portable, revolutionary blood-testing technology could
somehow come to fruition. Recently, I posed a similar question to a former Theranos
board member: how did the board of directors, composed of such accomplished
people, not stop her. This person admitted that board members asked tough questions but
were fed contrived answers. (Notably, the board was stacked with dignitaries, not scientists.)
After the Journal broke the news that the company was being investigated, the board
suggested that Holmes take the Theranos blood test and compare it with results from two
other competing labs and one university lab, this person said. If all the results were the same,
Theranos could prove to regulators and the media, so went the logic, that their blood-testing
products worked perfectly. If the tests showed that Theranos’s results were off, the board
suggested that Holmes could direct the company’s considerable raised capital toward fixing
Holmes agreed to the trial but then withheld the results, the former board member told me.
When the board asked about the findings, Holmes seemed to offer a series of obfuscations.
Sometimes she would say she was waiting on results; at other times, she said there had been
problems with the tests. Eventually, this got heated. At one meeting, according to the former
board member, a Theranos employee presented financials that indicated that a Theranos lab
in Arizona had not generated the revenues that Holmes had communicated to her directors.
This was one of the few times where board members criticized their C.E.O., this person said.
One board member was visibly irate; it appeared that Holmes had been deceptive. Soon
after, Holmes shook up the board.
Holmes will almost certainly face consequences, but it may take a while. Justice Department
officials, according to a filing from January 2019, are combing through between 16 and 17
million pages of documents. And there could be more charges filed against Holmes and
Balwani, and even other people close to them. Assistant U.S. Attorney John C. Bostic said
in court recently that the “story is bigger than what’s captured in the [original] indictment.”
And that it “doesn’t capture all the criminal conduct” that the investigation has uncovered so
far. Holmes faces up to 20 years in prison.
Holmes and Balwani have stated that the charges are baseless. Theranos represented a
business failure, according to one line of exculpatory logic, but it was not created to rip off
investors or mislead consumers—it wasn’t actual fraud. Also, according to another argument,
neither of them actually made any money from Theranos. But their lifestyles were partly
funded by the company. Holmes’s travel, security details, and publicists were all paid for by
Theranos. Meals, clothing, and other social activities were almost always expensed. As one of
the former employees said to me, “Someone had to be paying for all those Birkin bags.” This
employee said that Holmes’s expenses were somewhat of a joke at the company. “The
company paid for everything,” they said. “She would submit her miles if she drove the six
miles to her house in Los Altos.” The employee said that the only time Holmes evidenced
defeat during Theranos’s collapse was when the company cut her off financially, after the
criminal charges were filed. “She lost her cool. She had a fit,” they said. “She had to give up
the house in Los Altos.”
When I asked the former executive close to Holmes if she has come to regret what happened,
the response surprised me. “Elizabeth sees herself as the victim,” this person said. “She
blames John Carreyrou, she blames David Boies, and she blames Heather King.” Boies,
the star lawyer, had sat on Theranos’s board, and represented the company during the
Carreyrou crisis. King, Theranos’s general counsel for 15 months, overlapped with this
period. (King now works at Boies’s firm.) Holmes, according to the former employees,
blames the lawyers for giving her bad advice, and their inability to contain the bad press
stemming from Carreyrou’s reporting. According to this person, Holmes thinks that she
could have somehow convinced a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter into believing that
Theranos was going to change the world despite the fact that its core technology didn’t work.
“She often confuses the message for the messenger,” the former employee told me.
When I asked Carreyrou what he thought about this theory, he told me: “I just reported the
facts. If there had been nothing to my reporting, federal prosecutors wouldn’t have brought
criminal fraud charges and those charges wouldn’t be supported by 17 million pages of
evidence.” (Boies and King declined to comment, citing bar obligations. Neither Holmes nor
her counsel responded to requests for comment.)
n his book, Carreyrou muses about an oft-raised question regarding Holmes. Was she
just a young person who got in over her head? Or, more dramatically, is something
more serious afoot. Is she a sociopath? “I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide
whether Holmes fits the clinical profile,” he writes, “but there’s no question that her moral
compass was badly askew.” Former employees raise this question with frequency. One
pointed to a formative experience: Holmes’s father, Christian, was an executive at Enron,
and the family’s finances were affected by its collapse. Did Holmes, scarred by this
experience, vow to revive the family’s fortunes at all cost? Was she a hustler or a con artist, or
merely a staggering Mr. Ripley? “One of Elizabeth’ ...