5 Things We Didn't Know From Vanity Fair's Theranos Takedown

Vanity Fair Tuesday filled in some of the blanks of the Theranos saga, with an article called "How Elizabeth Holmes' House of Cards Came Tumbling Down." If you don't know the basics yet, it's a little late-- like trying to catch up with the story of the Hindenburg at this particular moment in time:

hindenburg

So try our mini-graphic novel of the rise and fall of Theranos for a quickish history on the firm and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Then, read about some new wrinkles from Vanity Fair reporter Nick Bilton. These stood out:

  • When a young  Holmes first approached some of her professors at Stanford with the idea that lots of useful data could be gleaned from just a few drops of blood taken from a fingertip, most of them told her it couldn't be done.  (See this post by Dartmouth medical professor Norman Paradis as to why that's true. "When you lance a fingertip, you get both blood and tissue fluid, and this means that the concentration of molecules may be different than if the blood sample comes from a vein," Paradis wrote.)
  • Google Ventures, a  heavy investor in medical technology companies, sent an employee to one of the blood-testing centers Theranos had opened at Walgreens stores. "As the V.C. sat in a chair and had several large vials of blood drawn from his arm, far more than a pinprick, it became apparent that something was amiss with Theranos’s promise." (See this Business Insider story  for more on why Google Ventures passed on Theranos.)
  • More on Theranos' culture of secrecy. Former Theranos president and COO Sunny Balwani (who left the company in May amid Theranos' manifold regulatory problems) "ensured that scientists and engineers at Theranos did not talk to one another about their work." Job applicants were kept in the dark during hiring interviews as to what the actual position they'd be filling was. "Employees who spoke publicly about the company were met with legal threats. On LinkedIn, one former employee noted next to his job description, 'I worked here, but every time I say what I did I get a letter from a lawyer. I probably will get a letter from a lawyer for writing this.' If people visited any of Theranos’s offices and refused to sign the company’s lengthy non-disclosure agreement, they were not allowed inside."
  • This: "When I arrived in Palo Alto in July, I wasn’t the only person setting out to interview anyone associated with Theranos and Holmes. .... When I knocked on a door, I was only a day or two behind F.B.I. agents who were trying to put together a time line of what Holmes knew and when she knew it—adding the most unpredictable twist to a story she could no longer control."
  • After The Wall Street Journal published reporter John Carreyrou's initial investigative piece, the company called a meeting with employees. Holmes told her staff that the Journal's story was inaccurate. "Carreyrou, she insisted, with a tinge of fury, was simply picking a fight. She handed the stage to Balwani, who echoed her sentiments. After he wrapped up, the leaders of Theranos stood before their employees and surveyed the room. Then a chant erupted. 'Fuck you . . .,' employees began yelling in unison, “Carreyrou.” It began to grow louder still. 'Fuck you, Carreyrou!' Soon men and women in lab coats, and programmers in T-shirts and jeans, joined in. They were chanting with fervor: 'Fuck you, Carreyrou!,' they cried out. 'Fuck you, Carreyrou! Fuck. You. Carrey-rou!'

Carreyrou so far has only said the following about the article, which called him  "a recalcitrant health-care reporter."

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Though more than one journalist has weighed in that the Theranos employees' two-minute hate was the  highest honor he could receive.

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