The downfall of Theranos, from the journalist who made it happen

Over the last few years, the failed biomedical startup Theranos has become synonymous with some of the worst aspects of Silicon Valley. Through a combination of hubris, mendacity, and paranoid secrecy, the company fooled investors and the press into thinking it had created a nearly magical medical tricorder, earning a “unicorn” valuation of $9 billion before the whole endeavor was revealed to be smoke and mirrors.

Much ink has been spilled documenting Theranos’ rise and then fall—but the most important work has arguably been that of Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou. And Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, his recent book on the subject, is as good a retelling of that tale as any we could hope for. So good, in fact, that I devoured it in a single sitting.

The man who made it happen

More than anyone else, Carreyrou deserves credit for pulling the wool from so many credulous eyes regarding Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Outlets like Fortune and Wired were writing hagiographic puff pieces about this precocious college dropout and her plan to save the world; Carreyrou was pointing out inconvenient facts, like the company’s inability to accurately conduct most of the hundreds of blood tests it claimed to have revolutionized. He credits pathologist Adam Clapper—who wrote the now-defunct Pathology Blawg—for tipping him off that something wasn’t entirely right.

Like many of us with even a cursory knowledge of diagnostic testing or medical device regulation, Carreyrou realized some of Theranos’ claims just didn’t sound legitimate. The complete absence of any peer-reviewed data was one hint. Or Holmes’ nonsensical description of her technology in a then-recent New Yorker article.

At the time, I was working in science policy and had become far more familiar with those topics than I’d ever planned. I remember my BS detector going off the charts every time I read about Theranos. That was just gut instinct though; unlike me, Carreyrou actually began digging. The resulting book is a highly accessible read that doesn’t require you to know your CLIA from your LDTs to enjoy or understand it.

Few people come out of Bad Blood looking good. Those who do are the Theranos’ whistleblowing employees, who had to put up with being stalked and sued by the secrecy-obsessed company. On the other side of the coin are those deserving our scorn. The Steve Jobs-obsessed Holmes, obviously. And her unpleasant-sounding co-conspirator and boyfriend Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. But equally, all the credulous rich and powerful old men who bought into this house of cards.

What a bunch of morons