Innovation Theater

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Ali Shah says the collapse of Theranos wasn't just a business failure. It was a theatrical caricature of Silicon Valley culture.

With all the macabre fascination of drivers gaping at a smoldering highway pile-up, Silicon Valley has been riveted by the implosion of Palo Alto biotech firm Theranos. Strewn in the rubble of a startup once valued at nearly a trillion dollars are all the elements of a classic Bay Area fairy tale gone bad, complete with a Unicorn and magical finger-pricks casting spells on some very smart people.

Theranos is an epic example of what some call “Innovation Theater,” a high-tech Kabuki of hype, buzzwords and a compelling origin story. Here, a supposedly needle-phobic Stanford dropout, Elizabeth Holmes, claimed she could run a battery of blood tests using only a single drop of blood. To create an aura of legitimacy, she stocked her company’s Board of Directors with political luminaries instead of scientists. She spoke in the lingua franca of Innovation Theater, repeating the term “disruption” as a mantra. In the old days, con artists plied snake oil with grandiose claims at county fairs; today, they give TED Talks.

Lost in much of the local navel-gazing over Theranos, though, was the role of the media. Though Wall St. Journal reporter John Carryou methodically unraveled Holmes’ fabulism, the media were no heroes here: business publications including Carryou’s Journal breathlessly lavished praise and cover stories promoting the always-black-turtlenecked Holmes, deeming her “the next Steve Jobs.”

Even Carryou himself gets swept up in theatrical claims, unable to resist labeling Holmes a “sociopath,” despite citing no medical professional who ever examined her.


You can’t blame entrepreneurs for following the script of Innovation Theater. Funding follows in the wake of hype. Perhaps Theranos was simply “Fake it til you make it” taken to the level of performance art.

But investors and journalists would be wise to heed the skeptic’s fundamental creed as popularized by Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Even here, in the Broadway of Innovation Theater, that’s still the best way to find if the Emperor really is wearing that black turtleneck, or just walking naked in the Valley.

With a Perspective, I’m Ali Shah.

Ali Shah is an attorney. He lives in Sunnyvale.