Biotech CEO uses smoke and mirrors to sell her vision in HBO’s ‘The Inventor’

‘The Inventor’ – How Elizabeth Holmes sold a lemon

Elizabeth Holmes

If there is a lesson to be taken from the HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” it’s trust but verify.

In the two-hour film that premieres Monday, March 18, on HBO, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”) details the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the biotech firm Theranos and the driving force behind The Edison, a device that she claimed could quickly and inexpensively diagnose a host of illnesses using only finger-prick samples of blood.

And this attractive, blond-haired, blue-eyed Stanford dropout was a master at selling her vision of “democratized health care,” bringing aboard such high-profile investors as former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, media magnate Rupert Murdoch, former Defense Secretary James Mattis and current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And in 2013, Holmes made a deal with Walgreens to put the device in store pharmacies.

The problem was, The Edison was a lemon from the get-go. Its centrifuge was too small for its housing and when it actually worked, it gave back inconsistent results. Test results were rigged and within a few years, a company that was valued at $9 billion in 2014 and made its founder the youngest self-made female billionaire went bust and Holmes found herself facing federal fraud charges and 20 years in prison. She currently awaits trial.

“It was just a larger-than-life tale,” says Gibney. “But I think it was not necessarily the intricacies of the tale itself. It was more the psychology of it, the psychology of fraud, the psychology of deception, the psychology of self-deception and then the psychology of the people who went along with what she was doing. That was what was interesting to me. It wasn’t the machinery on the factory floors, (it was) the machinery inside the head.”

And her investors – all shrewd, smart, accomplished people – bought in, mainly because other respected names were already aboard. They all wanted to believe Holmes’ comically vague explanation of how The Edison worked, which was free of any scientific concepts.

“It was like, ‘There is a chemical, there is a reaction, there is a box and something good happens,’ ” Gibney says. “… It should have been a clue.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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