The rise and fall of Theranos is gripping stuff. The $700m startup touted a revolutionary one-prick suite of blood tests that never worked well. But it managed to keep its failures hidden, writes Vanity Fair's Nick Bilton, thanks to the secrecy and controlling policies of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes seems to have been aware of the technology's failure from an early stage, but was committed to it in a way that suggests a cult more than a company.
Take, for example, the death of her chief scientist, Ian Gibbons, hired to make the impossible possible—and whose scientific scruples presented a growing problem.
Elizabeth wants to meet with me tomorrow in her office,” he told his wife in a quivering voice. “Do you think she’s going to fire me?” Rochelle Gibbons, who had spent a lot of time with Holmes, knew that she wanted control. “Yes,” she said to her husband, reluctantly. She told him she thought he was going to be fired. Later that evening, gripped and overwhelmed with worry, Ian Gibbons tried to commit suicide. He was rushed to the hospital. A week later, with his wife by his side, Ian Gibbons died.
When Rochelle called Holmes’s office to explain what had happened, the secretary was devastated and offered her sincere condolences. She told Rochelle Gibbons that she would let Holmes know immediately. But a few hours later, rather than a condolence message from Holmes, Rochelle instead received a phone call from someone at Theranos demanding that she immediately return any and all confidential Theranos property.
Another unsettlingly cultish anecdote: the company halls were kept too cold for comfort so she could wear a Steve Jobs-like uniform of black turtlenecks indoors.
Theranos collapsed after a series of exposes by the Wall Street Journal's John Carreyrou, starting with the revelation that it used competitors' tests for critical patient readings. Reading Bilton's epic followup, it's no wonder the FBI is next to knock on their door.