Theranos this week laid off all but about two dozen of its remaining employees — the latest indignity for the once fabulously rich blood-testing company that’s become a parable for Silicon Valley hubris.
As with much of the flood of bad news for Theranos, word of the layoffs came from John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal who was the first to break the story of the company’s troubles in October 2015 and who later landed a string of Theranos-related scoops.
Carreyrou also happens to be the author of a new book on the company, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” which is being released on May 21. The first print, from the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, will be 100,000 copies.
STAT obtained an advance copy of the roughly 300-page book. Through countless details and episodes reported for the first time, Carreyrou paints a damning portrait of the culture of dysfunction and deception overseen by CEO Elizabeth Holmes.
Below are the eight most remarkable things we learned from reading “Bad Blood.”
The company, we should add, didn’t return STAT’s request for comment.
1. Theranos was lying as early as 2006
Much of the attention on Theranos’ misdeeds has been focused on what happened (and what failed to happen) after the company launched its blood-testing services to the public in Walgreens drugstores in September 2013.
But Carreyrou says there was deception going on far earlier.
In an episode reported for the first time in the book, Carreyrou describes a surreal scene from 2006, in which the company’s first chief financial officer learned that Theranos had deceived Novartis executives in demonstrating its technology at a pitch meeting in Switzerland. The trick: Because the blood-testing system was inconsistent in generating results, Theranos staffers had recorded a result from one of the times it worked to display in the demonstration.
And when the CFO raised concern about that with Holmes? He was fired on the spot.
2. Theranos’s technology was more amateurish than previously known
Theranos has largely taken heat for lying. But Carreyrou also found absurdity and amateurism at the heart of the company’s technology.
In one revealing incident, Holmes and an associate spent two hours pricking their fingers in a hotel before a big meeting with Novartis in a futile effort to get the buggy technology to work. In another, an executive bragged that he could write the code for the technology’s software faster using Flash — before a “Learn Flash” book turned up on his desk.
3. It didn’t take much to get fired or fall out of favor at Theranos
It’s not unusual for a fast-growing startup to see some employee turnover. But Carreyrou’s book describes Theranos’s corporate culture as far more toxic and chaotic than previously known.
Sunny Balwani, Theranos’s shadowy former No. 2 executive, fired employees without explanation to the rest of the staff so frequently that surviving employees referred to dismissed colleagues with a memorable turn of phrase. “‘Sunny disappeared him,’ they would say, conjuring up the image of a Mafia hit in 1970s Brooklyn,” Carreyrou writes.
Even when Theranos employees didn’t get sacked, even the smallest incidents could cause them to offend Holmes and Balwani and lose their status within the company hierarchy. In one surreal incident Carreyrou describes, an employee was castigated for a weekend project in which he invented a new type of bike light — seen by Holmes and Balwani as a major conflict of interest.
4. Holmes’s younger brother led a pack of ‘Therabros’
Among the hires at Theranos: Holmes’s younger brother.
Carreyrou’s book details for the first time the strange role that Christian Holmes played at the company. Despite no relevant qualifications, Christian Holmes joined Theranos’ product management team just a few years after graduating from Duke University. He cut a very different figure than his sister, coming off as more interested in having fun than in changing the world, Carreyrou reports.
Christian Holmes recruited several of his fraternity brothers from Duke to join Theranos, forming a clique with an outsized status in the corporate hierarchy that other employees called “the Frat Pack.” In one of the most memorable lines of Carreyrou’s book, one staffer at an ad agency that worked with Theranos referred to Christian Holmes’s clique as the “Therabros.”
It’s unclear if Christian Holmes still works at Theranos, though his LinkedIn page still lists him as the company’s senior director of business development.
5. Super-lawyer David Boies comes off looking bad
David Boies, the legendary lawyer who represented Al Gore in Florida and took on Bill Gates in a massive antitrust case, has had a bad few months: He took a reputation hit for his role in silencing the women who’ve accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harrassment and assault. The New York Times fired him. So did a Florida city, on a pro bono case.
Carreyrou’s new book might not help Boies’ ailing image.
“Bad Blood” paints a vivid portrait of the central role that Boies played in unsuccessfully trying to pressure the Wall Street Journal to kill Carreyrou’s original story — and in trying to intimidate Tyler Schultz, the young Stanford graduate who briefly worked at Theranos and blew the whistle on the company’s misdeeds.
6. Holmes wasn’t manipulated — but her deep voice may be
The public fascination with the Theranos scandal has been driven in no small part by the cult of personality around Holmes, the charismatic, turtleneck-clad young woman who dropped out of Stanford at age 19 to revolutionize blood testing.
As Theranos’s misdeeds have come to light, her mystique has centered around a key question: Was she the key figure behind the deception — or simply a pawn of Balwani, who happened to also be her boyfriend for a time? (More on that in a second.)
Carreyrou’s account gives every reason to believe Holmes was the decision-maker. Scene after scene in the book shows her convincing people to do her bidding, often in the face of overwhelming reason to do otherwise.
Holmes also comes off as supremely in control of her own image. In one memorable incident, she slipped out of her trademark baritone into a voice many octaves higher, leading one former employee to suspect that the deep voice may be affected to fit in in a corporate world dominated by men.
7. Balwani is even more central to the Theranos saga than you thought
Balwani was in the public spotlight last month when he was charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. While Holmes and her company settled analogous charges, Balwani is going to court to fight the SEC.
Carreyrou’s book paints the most detailed portrait to date of Balwani. The book describes him as a man who drove statement sports cars, wore way too much cologne to the office, and mercilessly bullied employees even though he understood little about blood testing.
The book also provides new details about the timeline of the romantic relationship between Holmes and Balwani, who is nearly 20 years Holmes’s senior. According to Carreyrou, they became romantically involved not long after she dropped out of Stanford at age 19. And they broke up in the spring of 2016, when Holmes pushed him out of the company as Theranos’ problems were growing.
8. Carreyrou has a reporter’s notebook for the ages
The first-person account of how a journalist got a big story, known in the news business as a reporter’s notebook, has become a familiar genre. In the book, Carreyrou for the first time pens his own account of how he landed one of the biggest business stories of the decade.
Carreyrou writes vividly about getting the tip that sparked the story (it came by phone, from a pathology blogger), taking a breakthrough call while watching his sons play at a Brooklyn park, and getting information that led him to conclude that he or Schultz was being surveilled by Theranos.
Carreyrou’s own story, like the rest of the book, does not disappoint.
This story was originally published by STAT, an online publication of Boston Globe Media that covers health, medicine, and scientific discovery.