It’s an interesting trip, reading the comprehensive account of Theranos’ rise and fall, and that of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes—especially when taken as a careful watcher of the biotech industry or simply knowing the tale’s ending, such as it is.
You may already know the major plot points that have come to light over the past few years, but that doesn’t make the book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, any less enjoyable. And that’s credit to the engrossing writing and reporting from the Wall Street Journal’s two-time Pulitzer-winning chronicler, John Carreyrou.
His telling of the Theranos timeline works for readers of all backgrounds, inside or outside the tech or life science sectors. He unravels its promises to run dozens of tests from just a few drops of blood, profiles its hubris and toxic company culture, and details the physical, practical and personal reasons for its spectacular downfall.
The book starts with anecdotes of Holmes’ childhood—she tells her parents of her dreams to become a billionaire when she grows up—to her college years, where she describes how a fear of needles drove her to pursue the finger-stick blood test technology pitched by the company, which at its peak employed 800 and was valued at over $9 billion.
Before it begins to evaporate, that is. The moments when you know what’s coming, but the characters don’t, can lend the book the (for me, incredibly enjoyable) flavors of a cultish viewing of a low-rent horror film.
You find yourself rooting for characters—some primary, some incidental—to save themselves, and possibly many others. It mirrors the advice shouted to that curious janitor, who’s sweeping out a darkened lab alone late one night, when something catches his eye and the music begins to swell.
Pleadings of “Don’t do it! Don’t open that door!” become “No, Gen. James Mattis, don’t invest your time, name and money!”
Indeed, "Bad Blood" turns some of those film tropes on their head: in the story of the visiting compliance inspector, you end up hoping he does find the door to the hidden downstairs lab—where Theranos employees reportedly tested diluted patient blood samples on other companies’ commercial analyzers instead of its own prototypes, which reported dangerously inaccurate results—and calls in the FDA to put a stop to it and save the day.
But it’s times like that, alongside the scarily convincing, but ultimately faked, presentations to Big Pharma, other companies and investors, that make you remember this isn’t a movie with cardboard sets, and how close the story came to having a different ending.
Carreyrou throws the dangers into stark relief, describing the millions spent on readying supermarkets and drugstores across the country to push Theranos’ unfinished technology to tens of thousands, and the immense capacity for potential patient harm.
But the story isn’t over. Earlier this year, Theranos and Holmes settled fraud charges leveled by the SEC for $500,000 and Holmes' promise not to serve as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years.
And last month, Holmes and former COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were indicted on several counts of wire fraud by a federal grand jury, carrying the possibility of 20 years in prison. Holmes stepped down as CEO of Theranos on June 15, at age 34.
But the story of the story isn’t over either: "Bad Blood" is headed for the big screen, signing on Jennifer Lawrence to play the Theranos CEO, with Adam McKay of "The Big Short" set to direct.
In time, it may have its own cult following, shouting: “Run, Walgreens! Run!”