lol @ theranos
September 6, 2016 10:57 AM   Subscribe

 
PROBABLY QUESTIONABLE FRAMING BUT, SALMON ON TOAST
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:04 AM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


CROCKETY-BLOAT: POSITIVE
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:06 AM on September 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


Maybe it's a sham company. But Theranos has definitely given me something valuable: a steady drip of schadenfreude. Absolutely delicious.
posted by seinwave at 11:11 AM on September 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


The part where the entire company chants the name of the reporter who blasted them in the WSJ is so satisfying:
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!”
posted by The Devil Tesla at 11:12 AM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yikes.

'When The New Yorker reporter asked about Theranos’s technology, she responded, somewhat cryptically, “a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”'

A CHEMISTRY IS PERFORMED RED ALERT RED ALERT WOO WOO WOO WOO WOO
posted by xthlc at 11:14 AM on September 6, 2016 [68 favorites]


@xthlc: Red alert, yes, but it also sounds like she's reading it straight from a "1-800-PATENT" type disclosure...
posted by nickgb at 11:18 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]




(On the bright side for Holmes, Jennifer Lawrence is attached as the lead.)

Come onnnnnnnnnnn
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:30 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Good and thorough article, but too bad he couldn't get through writing it without mentioning her changing her hair color at multiple points. Was there ever a woman CEO with so replete a portfolio of legitimate things to criticize from the smallest details to the broadest themes in her actions...
posted by XMLicious at 11:31 AM on September 6, 2016 [34 favorites]


I feel really bad for Gen. Mattis. It's clear he just wanted a useful way to check on warfighters in the field, but he got taken for a ride.
posted by corb at 11:36 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Theranos may be poster child for Silicon Valley bubble-VC fever dream-startup cult excess, but it's interesting that the technology at its center is biotech. In that respect, the fall of Wash.io more appropriately captures the sham of SV disruption and how it hurts communities.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:36 AM on September 6, 2016 [18 favorites]


Good and thorough article, but too bad he couldn't get through writing it without mentioning her changing her hair color at multiple points. Was there ever a woman CEO with so replete a portfolio of legitimate things to criticize from the smallest details to the broadest themes in her actions...

Well, I think part of that may be the author building his narrative that its founder, much like Theranos itself, may be more interested in appearance than any sort of substance.
posted by tittergrrl at 11:37 AM on September 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


IAN GIBBONS: .
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:39 AM on September 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


“This was a board that was better suited to decide if America should invade Iraq than vet a blood-testing company,” one person said to me.

Well, they're a board that knows a thing or two about getting blood on their hands.
posted by gucci mane at 11:41 AM on September 6, 2016 [32 favorites]


Chief scientist Gibbons soon realized "that Holmes’s invention was more of an idea than a reality."

She had dropped out of Stanford shortly after her professors told her that her idea was scientifically impossible: a prinprick of blood just wouldn't supply the kind of results she was looking for.

But with a combination of secrecy and Silicon Valley App-unicorn hustle, she was able to pile up the VC money anyway. Although not the Google VC money, since the guy they sent actually realized it was a scam: "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."

This was a house of cards indeed. Maybe they thought they could achieve the breakthrough that her professors had called impossible, if they just claimed they had already made the breakthrough, and then piled up enough venture capital money to do the research they claimed to have already done?

It is interesting that this is the result when you try to apply the Silicon Valley business model to biomedical research. A bad cross-pollination in this region where both businesses are so huge.
posted by jackbrown at 11:44 AM on September 6, 2016 [18 favorites]


Theranos may be poster child for Silicon Valley bubble-VC fever dream-startup cult excess

It was called out in the article but one interesting side note is that Theranos wasn't built on Silicon Valley VC money. Tim Draper gave some money but was a personal friend of the Holmes family. Like Google Ventures in the article most Silicon Valley money wouldn't get past the handwavey secretive nature of the investment and stayed out.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:49 AM on September 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


Holmes spoke at Vanity Fair’s 2015 New Establishment Summit less than two weeks before Carreyrou’s first story appeared in the Journal.

Yeoman work burying the awkward bit in the middle, Nick.

Ordinarily I would object to a focus on Holmes's appearance, but in an article about the cultivation of the illusion of success in tech and a woman who clearly focused on exploiting that tendency, I think it's relevant.
posted by praemunire at 11:49 AM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


It is interesting that this is the result when you try to apply the Silicon Valley business model to biomedical research. A bad cross-pollination in this region where both businesses are so huge.

What's baffling is that there's no shortage of smart knowledgeable biotech folks in the area. None of the VC guys thought to ask them if the tech was possible?

Alternatively, maybe they did, and Holmes just took the dumb money.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:49 AM on September 6, 2016


So many questions...

1) Was this always a con, or was it cargo cult mimicry of Steve Jobs that got out of hand?

2) Were there no other senior scientists or engineers at the company that knew how the Edison box "worked"?

2a) Was it just a bunch of wires and LEDs?

3) The F.D.A. doesn't have to approve these things before they show up in Walgreens?

4) Does Walgreens frequently purchase equipment that isn't demonstrably effective?

Also, If your executive team's response to an article claiming your product is a complete fantasy is to hole-up for days to work out a response, you should start updating your LinkedIn account.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 11:51 AM on September 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


Not even one mention about all the people who had blood tests run by Theranos who were given results by their doctors and who now have to live with, what? blood tests from 2 years ago that have been declared to be false or faulty? Only an article about the business, but the business of health and health testing is more than just selling computers or car rides. It has long-lasting ripples of results when it goes wrong.
posted by hippybear at 11:51 AM on September 6, 2016 [15 favorites]


Holmes just took the dumb money.

As noted above, the major VCs in this space didn't touch Theranos.

There is so much dumb money out there, you guys. So, so much.
posted by praemunire at 11:51 AM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


The Devil Tesla: The part where the entire company chants the name of the reporter who blasted them in the WSJ is so satisfying

Maybe it went down like this.
posted by kyp at 11:52 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


It was called out in the article but one interesting side note is that Theranos wasn't built on Silicon Valley VC money.

Yeah, but just like the physical "Silicon Valley" now extends from the Golden Gate Bridge in SF, all the way down to Venice Beach in Los Angeles, "Silicon Valley VC" just means rich dudes investing in something vaguely technology related.
posted by sideshow at 11:53 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


never mind the science feel the reputation and powerful defense connections

"Balwani’s lack of medical experience might have seemed unusual at such a company. But few at Theranos were in a position to point fingers. As Holmes started to assemble her board of directors, she chose a dozen older white men, almost none of whom had a background in anything related to health care. This included former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state George Shultz, former Georgia senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, and William J. Perry, the former defense secretary. (Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader, and former cardiovascular doctor, was an exception.) “This was a board that was better suited to decide if America should invade Iraq than vet a blood-testing company,” one person said to me. Gibbons told his wife that Holmes commanded their attention masterfully."
posted by lalochezia at 11:53 AM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


1) Was this always a con, or was it cargo cult mimicry of Steve Jobs that got out of hand?

Yeah, what I don't get is, what was the end game here?

Did she think with enough money she could brute force some kind of solution?

It's just baffling.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:53 AM on September 6, 2016 [15 favorites]


THERANOS used a CHEMISTRY
It’s not very effective…
posted by Going To Maine at 11:54 AM on September 6, 2016 [29 favorites]


Not even one mention about all the people who had blood tests run by Theranos who were given results by their doctors and who now have to live with, what? blood tests from 2 years ago that have been declared to be false or faulty? Only an article about the business, but the business of health and health testing is more than just selling computers or car rides. It has long-lasting ripples of results when it goes wrong.

What are the odds on her serving jail time, do you think?
posted by leotrotsky at 11:54 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


[At a conference post-Theranos,] Holmes showed off a new blood-testing technology that a lot of people in the room insisted was not new or groundbreaking.

Why does the article leave this so ambiguous? Doing so is practically the (long-form) definition of smarm, emblematic of the way that journalism's let us down by failing to hold to account the Dunningest and the Krugerest, instead letting them have all the power.
posted by ambrosen at 11:56 AM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


What a crazy story. Holmes is evidently a very charismatic and capable person but seems to have thought that people in a position to know who told her that her idea was impossible simply lacked vision. Nature bats last....can't get a pint of data out of a drop of blood, which isn't really a surprise.

If the story ended there she'd still be a likeable character - the big idea didn't work out, here's my next one - but it seems to have continued into an outright scam. A board of advisers made up basically of Stanford Hoover Institute fellows instead of anyone who knows anything about medicine or science? Maybe a company selling driveway sealant would be more her line.
posted by thelonius at 11:56 AM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Well, I think part of that may be the author building his narrative that its founder, much like Theranos itself, may be more interested in appearance than any sort of substance.

From an outsider's perspective, as a guy, it just seems like a woman who wants to be a CEO does not have any choice about being interested in appearance. Like, I've met male tech CEOs walking around their offices in sweatpants with unshaven stubble, but I suspect that a woman might not be able to quite pull off the same thing; that's why the hair color thing doesn't quite seem like legit criticism to me. However it does sound like others have followed the story more closely than I have; I only caught one of the preceding FPPs.
posted by XMLicious at 11:58 AM on September 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


I think it's not crazy as an idea if you don't know a ton. I mean, 23andMe gets complicated data out of saliva, it's not crazy to think it wouldn't take thaaaat much blood to get similar results.
posted by corb at 12:10 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


What kills me about this is the normal "Silicon Valley should suffer the fate that Maximillian Zorin had planned for it after all" complaints are about how so much money gets plowed into things that provide no real benefit to the human race.

Here was a thing that was supposed to do just that! Faster, cheaper diagnosis = better and more accessible healthcare for all. Sure, some people would be getting rich off the top of it, but it's really best-case-scenario capitalism, right?

But of course it had to be a sham. I can't blame investors for plowing their money into the latest SnapGramCrush app -- at least most people can verify if the pixels made it across the series of tubes ok.

What are the odds on her serving jail time, do you think?

She'll go to Club Fed for maybe 5 years, tops. She'll do lots of yoga and have time to work on her memoirs which will list her mistakes but blame them on her "drive" to be "too successful." She'll get out in her late 40s, and work as a consultant and/or pundit. She might only pull in $150k/year but she'll make it work by basing out of Portland instead of Seattle.

Like, I've met male tech CEOs walking around their offices in sweatpants with unshaven stubble, but I suspect that a woman might not be able to quite pull off the same thing; that's why the hair color thing doesn't quite eem like legit criticism to me.

This is tricky, because obviously talking about appearance in the context of a female CEO is fraught. BUT, when CEOs make a specific effort to build their personal "brands" by perfecting their look, it does get commented on, whether male or female (see, e.g. Zuckerberg's black tshirts). To the extent that the theme of the piece was Theranos' (via Holmes) seeming cult-like following of Steve Job's ways, the evolution of Holmes' "uniform" seems like something worth commenting on. The thing about the "red lipstick" seemed a little gross though.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:12 PM on September 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


23andMe gets complicated data out of saliva

Welllll
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:13 PM on September 6, 2016 [11 favorites]


(On the bright side for Holmes, Jennifer Lawrence is attached as the lead.)

Come onnnnnnnnnnn


Right? it should be Amy Schumer or Jenny Slate in a wig or someone else with real comedic chops. Elizabeth Holmes isn't a tragic or dramatic figure, she's a fucking clown.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:14 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


I think it's not crazy as an idea if you don't know a ton. I mean, 23andMe gets complicated data out of saliva, it's not crazy to think it wouldn't take thaaaat much blood to get similar results.

I think the difference is that the 23andMe data is inherently less variable. Every cell will have the same DNA (excepting rearrangements at immunoglobulin loci) so you'll get a consistent signal. Meanwhile individual cells will have quite variable readings for most of the metabolic traits Theranos was assaying...if you don't sample enough cells, you can get an inaccurate result for the trait.
posted by Hutch at 12:20 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


I really do think she thought they could get the technology to work with enough time. I consult for bioinformatics and it's a pretty common thing for people to come to us with noisy data thinking we can just run some complicated statistical magic to extract the signal. They can be very insistent but very, very wrong. Garbage in, garbage out.
posted by Hutch at 12:23 PM on September 6, 2016 [21 favorites]


“a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”

Fuckin' blood tests, how do they work?
posted by googly at 12:24 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Jenny Slate in a wig

Oh, yes, reprising her character from P&R. I can see it now, approaching investors with hand out: "MONEY PLEASE!!!!"
posted by prodigalsun at 12:27 PM on September 6, 2016 [15 favorites]


'When The New Yorker reporter asked about Theranos’s technology, she responded, somewhat cryptically, “a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”'

Jesus. Lisa Kudrow describing how she came up with the idea for the glue for Post-its in a dream sequence sounds more trustworthy than this does.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:33 PM on September 6, 2016 [10 favorites]



(On the bright side for Holmes, Jennifer Lawrence is attached as the lead.)

Come onnnnnnnnnnn

Right? it should be Amy Schumer or Jenny Slate in a wig or someone else with real comedic chops. Elizabeth Holmes isn't a tragic or dramatic figure, she's a fucking clown.


"'Don't put metal in that science oven.'"
posted by grobstein at 12:37 PM on September 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


I've never been entirely clear how they ever expected to succeed? At the end of the day you still have to deliver some semblance of a product and there was absolutely no way they could get the science to work.

Any third party test vs comparable products was doomed to failure so how long did they plan on actually charging for a product?
posted by vuron at 12:55 PM on September 6, 2016


I've never been entirely clear how they ever expected to succeed?

My theory: they hoped to sell their "technology" to some sucker in the military industrial complex (aka the American taxpayer) before their cover was blown. Hence the "invade Iraq" crowd on the board to provide the connections to enable that transaction. Unfortunately for Holmes, her reality-distortion field proved insufficient for the task.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:58 PM on September 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


Defrauding the US government does seem to be a lucrative pastime for many companies but short of a no-bid contract for something akin to a star trek bioreader I can't imagine that being a successful strategy.

The only reasonable explanation would be that Holmes and her inner circle genuinely thought the science could catch up to the promises which is notoriously unreliable in terms of biotech advances.

Either that or some if you really want something hard enough god will provide nonsense.
posted by vuron at 1:08 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


The only reasonable explanation would be that Holmes and her inner circle genuinely thought the science could catch up to the promises which is notoriously unreliable in terms of biotech advances.

This does seem the most likely explanation. After all, you have to believe in a product before it's proven to launch anything. It's not necessarily a nefarious position, until you decide to feed yourself into a hype machine.

If the Edison machine is used to diagnose illness, making it technically a "medical device," it's hard for me to understand how the FDA said it was proven safe and effective. But this is not my area of expertise, by any means.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not necessarily a nefarious position, until you decide to feed yourself into a hype machine.

It is in fact a nefarious position the instant you take money on the understanding you already have the thing you're hoping to create with that money. It's a technological ponzi scheme.

She's a con artist.
posted by Mooski at 1:17 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


She adopted black turtlenecks, would boast of never taking a vacation, and would come to practice veganism.

#notallvegans
posted by Shepherd at 1:18 PM on September 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


My theory: they hoped to sell their "technology" to some sucker in the military industrial complex (aka the American taxpayer) before their cover was blown.

Hmm. This checks out.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:18 PM on September 6, 2016


Wow. They're still at it.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:22 PM on September 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Countless investors have been quick to point out that they did not invest in the company—that much of its money came from the relatively somnolent worlds of mutual funds, which often accrue the savings of pensioners and retirees; (...)

Of course it did.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:29 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Two things:

First, the encapsulation of Silicon Valley in a paragraph is amazing:
"It generally works like this: the venture capitalists (who are mostly white men) don’t really know what they’re doing with any certainty—it’s impossible, after all, to truly predict the next big thing—so they bet a little bit on every company that they can with the hope that one of them hits it big. The entrepreneurs (also mostly white men) often work on a lot of meaningless stuff, like using code to deliver frozen yogurt more expeditiously or apps that let you say “Yo!” (and only “Yo!”) to your friends. The entrepreneurs generally glorify their efforts by saying that their innovation could change the world, which tends to appease the venture capitalists, because they can also pretend they’re not there only to make money. And this also helps seduce the tech press (also largely comprised of white men), which is often ready to play a game of access in exchange for a few more page views of their story about the company that is trying to change the world by getting frozen yogurt to customers more expeditiously. The financial rewards speak for themselves. Silicon Valley, which is 50 square miles, has created more wealth than any place in human history. In the end, it isn’t in anyone’s interest to call bullshit."

Second, as I have said before, there is real damage being done to an entire field. I advise a diagnostics company, one with a blood testing device with the ability to meaningfully and cheaply speed up diagnosis (and therefore treatment) of a disease that is in the top 10 killers in the US in a way that could save tens of thousands of lives. They have run trials showing the technology works, they were founded by PhDs, their board is all doctors and scientists, and they have published their research in major journals. The government is giving them grants and is excited by the results. In short, they are doing everything right, and the next step would be to raise VC, since it takes $20-$100M to get a new diagnostic to market.

BUT VCs are running away from the diagnostics space, post-Theranos. Many of them mention Theranos by name as the reason, as it has made their limited partners (who provide money) wary of diagnostics and has reduced the chance of early acquisitions because of due diligence fears, among other effects.

This isn't just a con to laugh at. Its a disaster for future innovation in health care.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:31 PM on September 6, 2016 [85 favorites]


Good and thorough article, but too bad he couldn't get through writing it without mentioning her changing her hair color at multiple points. Was there ever a woman CEO with so replete a portfolio of legitimate things to criticize from the smallest details to the broadest themes in her actions...

I thought it was an interesting detail simply because(and i'm in no way doing some sort of internet diagnosis bullshit thing here), i've had multiple friends or acquaintances, several of whom were very smart and capable, who would build up some huge project/narrative/art piece/etc and then when they couldn't complete it... decompensate and dye their hair a lot. Whether it was a slide into full on mania, or just generally being unable to deal with it.

Big stressful project coming to a head or falling apart? Some personality types, for some reason, end up dying their hair like 5 times.

There was a lot of "oh wow, i've known someone like this holy shit" in this article... but that's one i've rarely seen brought up before in an actual solid piece of journalism.

Pretty much, i didn't see it as just bullshit gendered puff piece journalism in the context of the rest of the behavior and story?
posted by emptythought at 1:37 PM on September 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


Was this always a con, or was it cargo cult mimicry of Steve Jobs that got out of hand?

"Cargo cult" was exactly what I thought. It's as if she believed that by walking the walk and talking the talk, working long hours, never taking a vacation, making the right connections with investors, getting on TV and in magazine articles and on panel discussions... the technology would just work itself out. She was acting out the behaviors that surround successful technology companies without giving any thought to the technology itself.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:38 PM on September 6, 2016 [24 favorites]


I mean... "A chemistry is performed".
posted by mr_roboto at 1:39 PM on September 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


I thought it was an interesting detail simply because(and i'm in no way doing some sort of internet diagnosis bullshit thing here), i've had multiple friends or acquaintances, several of whom were very smart and capable, who would build up some huge project/narrative/art piece/etc and then when they couldn't complete it... decompensate and dye their hair a lot. Whether it was a slide into full on mania, or just generally being unable to deal with it.

LOL. This describes my entire grad school experience. My nickname with some of the undergrad students I taught was "Rainbow Bright". Thankfully, I've since switched fields.
posted by Hutch at 1:42 PM on September 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


"a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel."

I feel like if she had just remembered to add "...and Bob's your uncle!" at the end, we wouldn't be in this mess now.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:43 PM on September 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


My theory: they hoped to sell their "technology" to some sucker in the military industrial complex (aka the American taxpayer) before their cover was blown.

Nahhhh. If that had been the goal, then they never would have gone to such lengths to publicly roll out to Walgreens, etc. You don't embark on that kind of colossal commitment unless it's something that you want.

"Cargo cult" seems like the operative phrase. Holmes bore all the marks of success, except for accomplishment.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:47 PM on September 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Defrauding the US government does seem to be a lucrative pastime for many companies but short of a no-bid contract for something akin to a star trek bioreader I can't imagine that being a successful strategy.

Remember the bomb dowsing technology that the US military contracted for and distributed to their allies in the field during the Iraq and Afghan invasions that did nothing at all?
posted by srboisvert at 1:57 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


She was famously quoted as saying "I think that the minute that you have a backup plan, you've admitted that you're not going to succeed." That's the voice of someone who has never failed at anything in her privileged schooling, to be sure -- but that kind of certainty is also what you hear from earnest twenty-somethings. I think she was a kid, a privileged kid, who really did believe they could make it work if they just tried hard enough.

So I take Theranos as a cautionary tale about letting your kids fail once in a while.
posted by troyer at 2:06 PM on September 6, 2016 [37 favorites]


My theory: they hoped to sell their "technology" to some sucker in the military industrial complex (aka the American taxpayer) before their cover was blown.

Theranos was essentially taken behind the woodshed by two federal government agencies - the FDA and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. If that was their plan, it failed spectacularly. I think it's much more likely that they believed their own bullshit.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 2:18 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


It is in fact a nefarious position the instant you take money on the understanding you already have the thing you're hoping to create with that money.

Her early money could not have been taken on the understanding that she had a fully functional product ready to go to market. It would not have been possible for her to get that product without raising money first. I'm not saying that there was never any fraud anywhere along the line--what I am saying is that product development inherently requires a faith that you can produce something you haven't actually produced yet, with the corresponding financial investment. ("Yes, the results aren't perfect yet, but Mark 2.3 is clearly better!" Look at Tesla.) Unfortunately, if there is no discipline being imposed by someone else, you can end up either spending the company into oblivion chasing the product honestly, or deceiving investors about how far along you are because you just know you'll get there soon enough.
posted by praemunire at 2:25 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


"a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel."

I really want to know more about the context of this quote. This New Yorker piece from 2014 seems to be the source.

I agreed that it sounds kinda-like patent claim language but it seems agrammatical for that. Claim 1 here is the only example that I could find using "a chemistry is performed" but the sentence structure is totally different: "placing a semiconductor in a chemistry is performed for [duration]..." (where "chemistry" is basically defined as "chemical solution.")

I'm thinking that maybe she misspoke or was misheard and meant to say "a chemistry assay is performed..." which is still crazy vague*. If, however, you forgive Theranos's weird-yet-consistent use of "chemistry assay" instead of "chemical assay", it seems like it could be a reasonable translation of what should be complicated technology into reporter speak. It also kind of meshes with the language used in claims 1 and 2 of this Theranos application.

But... if she really meant to give that quote in that way...maybe she should have stuck with that chemical engineering degree for a bit longer?

*seriously...this is not my field, but I would imagine that there are not many blood tests that do not involve chemical assays.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:26 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


> Yeah, what I don't get is, what was the end game here? Did she think with enough money she could brute force some kind of solution?

I'm not sure there even was an end-game so much as frantic plate-spinning. There's something about the whole story that reminds me of Michael LaCour's fabrications and Donald Crowhurst's tragic voyage: a person who has invested so much of their own self-image in a narrative of being successful at something that they lose all objectivity and dig themselves in further trying to maintain that narrative. There is no long-term objective; there is only the panicked need to make it through the next crisis, and the next, and the next, each one more public than the last.
posted by Westringia F. at 2:29 PM on September 6, 2016 [18 favorites]


Remember the bomb dowsing technology that the US military contracted for and distributed to their allies in the field during the Iraq and Afghan invasions that did nothing at all?

The ADE 651? I don't think the US military was in any way involved with the development or purchasing of that thing:

The Iraqi security forces' reliance on the device was highlighted by The New York Times investigation in November 2009, which reported that United States military and technical experts believed the device was useless. U.S. Army Major-General Richard Rowe told the newspaper that "there's [no] magic wand that can detect explosives. If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work." Sandia National Laboratories had carried out testing of several similar devices but found that "none have ever performed better than random chance." Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Hal Bidlack, a former national security aide in the Clinton and Bush administrations, condemned the device as "laughable, except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets."

And, for what it's worth, the guy behind it is currently spending a decade in prison for fraud.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:42 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


I think she thought she could take the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to biotech.

Promise what she thinks would make a great product, wait for investors and the press to bite, and fake it with existing tech until engineering can catch up. Of course, that works better when "engineering" is rewriting PHP, and not divining complex knowledge from molecules cheaply where experts say it's impossible.

See also: Every kickstarter with a fake or misleading video.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:05 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


I feel really bad for Gen. Mattis. It's clear he just wanted a useful way to check on warfighters in the field, but he got taken for a ride.
Huh? Your generosity does you credit, but my read of that was that the general was involved in some (probably legal) quid pro quo. Note that "Mattis was later added to the company board when he retired from the service."
posted by chrchr at 3:13 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Huh? Your generosity does you credit, but my read of that was that the general was involved in some (probably legal) quid pro quo. Note that "Mattis was later added to the company board when he retired from the service."

Exactly!
posted by prodigalsun at 3:31 PM on September 6, 2016


Taking investor money under false pretenses is fraud. Apparently she believes her own false claims.

In the Cramer interview she is showing some heavy duty modafinil eye glow. My reading of the Vanity Fair article is that she had not slept for two consecutive nights before she did that interview. There is much to unpack here. Her method seems to be based on The Secret as a documentary but then you have the bubble Valley business culture and drugs and for her sake I hope she gets some quality psychotherapy because it looks like she needs a lot of it.
posted by bukvich at 3:50 PM on September 6, 2016


3) The F.D.A. doesn't have to approve these things before they show up in Walgreens?

If the Edison machine is used to diagnose illness, making it technically a "medical device," it's hard for me to understand how the FDA said it was proven safe and effective. But this is not my area of expertise, by any means.


FDA didn't say it was safe. The article mentions that "specialists at the D.O.D. soon uncovered that the technology wasn’t entirely accurate, and that it had not been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration."

This is an in vitro diagnostic (medical) device, in FDA's regulatory parlance, and yes, they all have to be approved before they can be sold at Walgreens.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:17 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


(for my fellow Brits, in case you thought 2016 was done getting weird with general elections... hey, we might end up with parallel threads! That'd be fun, eh, mods? Mods?)
posted by Devonian at 4:18 PM on September 6, 2016


This included former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state George Shultz, former Georgia senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, and William J. Perry, the former defense secretary. (Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader, and former cardiovascular doctor, was an exception.) “This was a board that was better suited to decide if America should invade Iraq than vet a blood-testing company,” one person said to me.

Given that at least a majority of them supported the second Iraq War, I'd say that is damning with literally the faintest of praise.
posted by one_bean at 4:47 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


yes, they all have to be approved before they can be sold at Walgreens.

Don't they have to be approved before Walgreens can use them to treat people, too? It's incomprehensible to me that Walgreens would do a rollout using a product not yet approved for use. Not out of any great respect for Walgreen's, mind you, but it's the most basic and obvious regulatory hurdle.
posted by praemunire at 5:01 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think Theranos was operating under the CLIA regulations for lab-developed tests, which allowed them to more or less bypass most of the FDA's requirements for approval of medical devices.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:10 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


Here is an article explaining that regulatory loophole.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:16 PM on September 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Amidst all the rubbernecking, I too would like to offer

.

for Ian Gibbons.
posted by epersonae at 5:18 PM on September 6, 2016 [14 favorites]


In the Cramer interview she is showing some heavy duty modafinil eye glow.

I know modafinil, but what are you talking about here? She's always had a bit of a crazy big eye look about her.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:21 PM on September 6, 2016


she is often surrounded by her security detail, which sometimes numbers as many as four men, who (for safety reasons) refer to the young C.E.O. as “Eagle 1”

Eh, someone missed the pop culture reference. Speaking of references, you'd think that someone who seemed to be cosplaying Steve Jobs 24/7 might have remembered his best-known saying: "Real artists ship."
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:24 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


In the Cramer interview she is showing some heavy duty modafinil eye glow... her sake I hope she gets some quality psychotherapy because it looks like she needs a lot of it.

Unless I missed a reference actually reporting this, I can't help but feel that speculating about drug habits is inappropriate at best.
posted by sparklemotion at 5:33 PM on September 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


Can we get "A chemistry is performed" or some variation into the lexicon please

Like, "I gotta go perform a chemistry"

It could be a bodily function but let's shoot for something classier
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 6:18 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


'When The New Yorker reporter asked about Theranos’s technology, she responded, somewhat cryptically, “a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”'

I CAN HAZ KEMISTREE REAKSHUN LABRADOREE. FUR RLZ. CAN I HAZ MUNNEES NOW?
posted by jonp72 at 6:35 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hell with everything else, I just want to have enough power to demand my entire building be cooled to my specifications (except I'll be wearing jeans and a cardigan year round, not a turtleneck).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:42 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


Guys I did a biology today
posted by en forme de poire at 6:51 PM on September 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


'When The New Yorker reporter asked about Theranos’s technology, she responded, somewhat cryptically, “a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”'

oh my god, Vincent Adultman has gone way too far
posted by invitapriore at 6:51 PM on September 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


"bio" has been in MMO slang (as in "I need a bio, brb") to mean a break to hit the restroom or grab a drink for a long while now.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:52 PM on September 6, 2016


"A chemistry is performed" reminds me a little too much of Instruction for a Fruit.


On the other hand, if Jeff VanderMeer has decided to go full ARG for his next sequence of novels, I am definitely intrigued by the opening salvo.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:22 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Can we get "A chemistry is performed" or some variation into the lexicon please

Its step 2.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:25 PM on September 6, 2016


Theranos's weird-yet-consistent use of "chemistry assay" instead of "chemical assay"

Not to white knight or anything, but colleagues I have in a clinical lab use the word "Chemistry" in odd ways, to my ear, all the time. There's a whole category of tests that are grouped as the "Chemistry tests"; they deal with the chemistry of the blood rather than necessarily including chemical reactions as part of the assay. Here is a website talking about quality control of various assays and it shows a "Chemistry" category. I still think her usage of "chemistry" in that quote is a little odd, but things like the job listing are not so odd.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:29 PM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


1. idea!
2. VC
3. a chemistry is performed [formerly '???']
4. profit!
5. jail
posted by j_curiouser at 8:29 PM on September 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


In more recent news: Theranos withdraws its Zika test after it's revealed that they failed to put a few basic patient safety protocols in place. [WSJ video] Too busy performin' chemistries to check off all them little boxes, I reckon.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:31 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Judging from the recruiter spam I get, Theranos is paying a lot trying to hire people. So if any of you tech types want to see this particular trainwreck from the inside, there's your chance!
posted by ryanrs at 9:57 PM on September 6, 2016


Reminds me a LOT of The Portable Veblen, particular the defense department angle. Highly recommended.

It really is amazing that a company can go on that long fooling (what seemed to be) HUGE, legitimate investors. The FDA, sure, but you'd think those investors have enough money to pay people to check up on stuff ...
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 PM on September 6, 2016


Judging from the recruiter spam I get, Theranos is paying a lot trying to hire people. So if any of you tech types want to see this particular trainwreck from the inside, there's your chance!

I'm looking for work! I wonder if they're hiring project managers.
posted by Jalliah at 10:26 PM on September 6, 2016


As someone who's instinctively negative on much of the good press the "innovation" economy gets, and the heroic CEO story, I certainly enjoy the collapse.

At the same time I'm not sure I'm sold on some of the specifics that people are pointing to. The board especially. I almost feel I'm going crazy watching even business journalists write as if the board should have had a lot of medical types. But at least in the life sciences that's not how it works. The board isn't made up of subject matter experts. Look up Pfizer's or Merck's board, there are maybe one or two non-employee people "in the field" on each board and the rest are a spread of rich people from finance, broadcasting, software, etc. A senator with an MD and a former CDC director were members at Theranos; I think the main thing you'd say about the board before the collapse is "impressively well connected for a start up." Even afterwards the problem with the board was more "seems like it was probably a clique" rather than "not scientists." The lame chemistry quote too, if you cherry picked the worst way I've tried to describe science in laymen's terms I'd probably sound like an introverted kindergartener. I'm not going to sit through her TED crap but I'm guessing she was actually good at talking.
posted by mark k at 11:19 PM on September 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


but you'd think those investors have enough money to pay people to check up on stuff ...

One of the dirty secrets of the VC world is that most of them just ride the coat tails of the initial investors & leave the due diligence up to them. Which is why getting that headline first investment from a well known firm is so important - it gives you the illusion of legitimacy that you can use to hoover up a load more cash. Theranos managed to create the illusion of legitimacy without relying on the say so of a big name & were able to draw in the dumb money regardless with a canny PR strategy.

NPB: My theory: they hoped to sell their "technology" to some sucker in the military industrial complex (aka the American taxpayer) before their cover was blown. Hence the "invade Iraq" crowd on the board to provide the connections to enable that transaction. Unfortunately for Holmes, her reality-distortion field proved insufficient for the task.

You’re not the first person to suggest that here :)
posted by pharm at 12:12 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Which is why getting that headline first investment from a well known firm is so important - it gives you the illusion of legitimacy that you can use to hoover up a load more cash.
Intentional?
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:26 AM on September 7, 2016


Intentional?

As it happens, no :)

(But that is exactly the kind of affinity network that does get abused by fraudsters. As an example, I believe Madoff traded on his status within the richer end of the Jewish community to attract clients - he didn’t need to market himself, he let his patsies do the marketing to their friends within the network for him.)
posted by pharm at 1:47 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


I still don't get why the Chief Scientist couldn't just leave. I mean, it's not like his career would have been over? Why did he stay so long and then kill himself?
posted by Omnomnom at 3:21 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Depression is a killer Omnomnom.
posted by pharm at 3:25 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


I get that there are physical issues of biology and chemistry but from a reasonable outside observer there currently exist single drop tests available over the counter. Theranos claims initially did not seem unreasonable for the general rate that tech continues to accelerate.
posted by sammyo at 4:12 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's really hard to tell from what's written there. I can only guess that he needed the job for insurance to cover his cancer treatment? That he went in without enough information, per company policy, tried to make the technology work and couldn't, realized he was in waist-deep and compromised as a scientist probably despite his best intentions.

From there, his escalating protests were about to get him fired, cutting off his livelihood but also his means to stay alive. He may have thought he wouldn't get another job because of the combination of being sick and the shame at everything going wahoonie-shaped.

That's probably no better than a wild guess. But the article talks about him flailing to try to make the product work in ways that it couldn't, then saying it couldn't because that was true, and generally trying to pull the emergency brakes on various runaway trains, then being about to be fired for such.
posted by tel3path at 4:23 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


And the atmosphere at Theranos may well have given Gibbons the impression that Holmes would take pains to destroy his career if he tried to quietly resign. No better than a wild guess on my part, either, but what's written in the article certainly gives me that impression.

Some catch, that Catch-22.
posted by Westringia F. at 4:33 AM on September 7, 2016 [8 favorites]


It all reads like a Michael Crichton novel.
posted by valkane at 6:34 AM on September 7, 2016


It all reads like a Michael Crichton novel.

If it were a Crichton novel, it would turn out that blood-born diseases aren't actually real, and Theranos was poisoning people deliberately to drive up demand for their imaginary product.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:49 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


If it were a Crichton novel, it would turn out that blood-born diseases aren't actually real, and Theranos was poisoning people deliberately to drive up demand for their imaginary product.

I wouldn't put it past her. Anything's better than *gasp* failing at something!

Sociopaths in Black Turtlenecks is my next band name
posted by percor at 1:51 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Look up Pfizer's or Merck's board, there are maybe one or two non-employee people "in the field" on each board and the rest are a spread of rich people from finance, broadcasting, software, etc. A senator with an MD and a former CDC director were members at Theranos;

Nope, it isn't the same at all. Merck and Pfizer boards are filled with very competent experienced business leaders with a track record of success. Theranos was all fluff. Not a single member had any experience running a company. They were mostly old geezers with famous names who could be counted on to just shut up and let Holmes run things in exchange for millions of dollars of stock options. A real board will hold the CEO's feet to the fire, demanding hard data and results. The Theranos board was mostly a bunch of doddering old fools. The con was obvious years ago to anyone who looked up the board of directors.
posted by JackFlash at 2:24 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


"A chemistry is performed"? Seriously? Please.

Everyone knows it's "a chemistry is DONE."
posted by gottabefunky at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2016


If you look it up on Google Scholar, you can see that this usage of "a chemistry" is not uncommon, especially in the diagnostics domain.

With regard to boards, it's typical for bio companies to have a scientific advisory board separate from the corporate board. I wonder who was advising Theranos?
posted by sevenyearlurk at 2:59 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


As of April 2016, Theranos had added an impressive-looking roster of people to its Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, which allegedly meets four times a year.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:19 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


I still don't get why the Chief Scientist couldn't just leave. I mean, it's not like his career would have been over? Why did he stay so long and then kill himself?

I've heard more than once, even in noncompete-free places, people tell story of essentially "if you leave all these cool people everyone likes here/our lawyers will smear and/or sue you endlessly until your life is ruined".

What's to stop them from saying basically any work he does is stolen or based on stuff he did there over and over and over until he's bankrupt? top that off with the cancer, and not wanting to leave his wife with nothing.

What a bunch of assbutts.
posted by emptythought at 7:32 PM on September 7, 2016


Merck and Pfizer boards are filled with very competent experienced business leaders with a track record of success. Theranos was all fluff. Not a single member had any experience running a company.

That's a pivot from "it's obviously a fraud because they didn't have health care experience." Also, it is not correct. Schultz, for example, was president of Bechtel. It also included the former CEOs of Bechtel and Wells Fargo.

There's an awful lot of hindsight bias here. People are looking back at the failure, talking about the weird stuff and only the weird stuff to explain the failure, and then becoming confident that this is all there was. So the least relevant parts of the board get emphasized and the rest is invisible; an embarrassing quote gets highlighted instead of an eloquent one; the professor who told her "it won't work" gets attention instead of the one who invested in her company. If the company had succeeded you could switch the narrative pretty easily to explain why it succeeded.
posted by mark k at 10:35 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


So the least relevant parts of the board get emphasized and the rest is invisible; an embarrassing quote gets highlighted instead of an eloquent one; the professor who told her "it won't work" gets attention instead of the one who invested in her company. If the company had succeeded you could switch the narrative pretty easily to explain why it succeeded.

But that's exactly what the narrative was until everything fell apart. The gushing praise, the Steve Jobs comparisons, the big-name board, the Stanford drop-out is changing the world. That's what Theranos was until the WSJ profile. That it fell apart so spectacularly was one thing, but Holmes' continued insistence that everything is fine has given people a lot of thread to pull.
posted by lkc at 11:23 PM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Holmes was a billionaire running a con. She couldn't let Gibbons walk away because the longer he was outside of the Theranos box the greater the chance he'd tell someone the truth. Whether she would sue him into oblivion or disparage his competence, she could not allow him to have a career outside of Theranos and Gibbons knew that. Also, you don't con your way into running a company based on a non-existent secret technology without being very good at manipulating people. Therefore, suicide.
posted by rdr at 8:50 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


The thing that really bugged me about Theranos is that nobody listened to scientists and diagnosticians about a diagnostic assay. My first thought when I heard about their tech was "that'll never work, sample volumes exist for a reason" and my friends in diagnostics said the same thing.

It reminds me of nothing so much as perpetual motion machine scams. There was the same reluctance to show how the technology works because "someone will steal it" despite medical diagnostics being a field in which someone can't easily clone your tech and sell it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:56 PM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


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