Nursing Book Club

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carryrou

When a revolutionary medical innovation proves too good to be true

I had read a little bit last year about the controversy surrounding the biotech company Theranos, but it wasn’t until Working Nurse Editor-in-Chief Catherine Rhodes told me that everyone she knew was talking about this new book that I decided to read more. Bad Blood turned out to be a page-turner that I couldn’t put down.

By now, many of you have probably at least seen the headlines: Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the company back in 2003 when she was a sophomore at Stanford University, had built a $9 billion company on an exciting, revolutionary premise: that they could run blood chemistries from a single drop of blood rather than the multiple tubes that now need to be drawn.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it was a lie. In June 2018, Holmes and her ex-boyfriend, former Theranos president and COO Sunny Balwani, were indicted for wire fraud and conspiracy. FBI Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett alleges that Holmes and Balwani not only conspired to deceive investors, but also “misled doctors and patients about the reliability of medical tests that endangered health and lives.”

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Author John Carreyrou, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, published Bad Blood in May, before the criminal charges were announced. However, his thoughtful, well-researched and well-written account sheds much light on this startling case.

The $700 Million Self-Starter

Carreyou follows the career of Elizabeth Holmes and gives us insight into her character. She came from a family of self-starters and dropped out of Stanford University when she was only 19 to pursue her dream. Her claims about the fledgling company’s technology eventually drew $700 million in financing.

The saga is truly fascinating: intense secrecy, supposedly to protect the company’s proprietary technology; a litany of high-profile investors and board members; magazine cover stories; and even a TED Talk given by Holmes herself. She often compared herself to Steve Jobs and adopted Jobs’ signature black turtlenecks and black jeans to bolster her Silicon Valley credibility.

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Ultimately, it may all have been little more than smoke. The Justice Department now claims that Holmes and Balwani (who was forced out of the company in 2016) knew that they could not produce the desired results with a single finger-stick, but deliberately kept that information from investors and patients. (Former patients filed a class-action lawsuit against Theranos in July 2018.)

That’s only part of the story. What drove Holmes? Was it money, ego or a determination to prove she could make it in the male-dominated tech industry? How did she convince chains like Walgreens to buy into her vision of mini-clinics on-site? She was charismatic enough to talk her board of directors out of replacing her with a more experienced CEO back in 2008. Did she believe her own sales pitch and just carry it too far, or was it all a con?

Many of those questions will eventually play out in court, but reading this compelling book will leave you wondering how many other ballyhooed medical innovations are also a little too good to be true.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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