Great frauds in history: Theranos and the millennial Madoff

Matthew Partridge explains the scam behind Theranos, a fake blood-testing company that raised $700m from investors.

936_MW_P36_Profile_Bottom

Elizabeth Holmes

Theranos was a technology firm founded by Elizabeth Holmes in 2003. Holmes dropped out of Stanford University to pursue her dream of devising a medical device that could perform blood tests using much smaller samples than other devices needed, cutting costs and reducing the need for painful needles. Another supposed benefit of the device she invented (named the "Edison") was that it was physically much smaller than standard machines, removing the need for samples to be sent to a central laboratory. Between 2003 and 2014, Theranos raised $700m in money from venture capitalists and had an implied valuation of $5bn at its peak.

What was the scam?

The technology didn't work. Theranos was unusually secretive, forcing employees to sign non-disclosure agreements and refusing to publish scientific papers on its research. It was later revealed that, while Holmes was making bold claims about the company's potential, and agreeing a deal with pharmacy chain Walgreens, the company's flagship device was so useless that the firm's engineers were secretly buying machines from competitors and performing screens with these instead.

What happened next?

The huge surge of publicity Holmes was fted by the press as a new Steve Jobs prompted journalist John Carreyrou to start asking questions. Richard Fuisz, who was engaged in a patent dispute with Theranos, put Carreyrou in touch with former employees, which led to a series of critical articles in

The Wall Street Journal. Government regulators shut down Theranos's lab in July 2016 and Walgreens ended its partnership. By August 2018, the company had been wound up.

Lessons for investors

In March 2018 Holmes recently dubbed a "millennial Madoff" by The New York Post and COO Ramesh Balwani, paid a fine of $500,000 and surrendered their remaining equity inthe company to regulators. The duo are being prosecuted for misleading investors. All the shareholders were wiped out in the bankruptcy, with any patents reverting to creditors. Rupert Murdoch lost $150m. The whole episode underlines that early stage technology investing can be extremely risky. The fact that Theranos was secretive aboutits technology, even at a time when its CEO was becoming a celebrity, should have been a big warning sign to investors.

Recommended

Troy's Gabrielle Boyle: for global companies, sustainability is just good business
Investment strategy

Troy's Gabrielle Boyle: for global companies, sustainability is just good business

Merryn talks to to Gabrielle Boyle of Troy Asset Management about the top quality global companies in her portfolio, and why those firms that invest i…
7 May 2021
Things are looking up for income investors as dividend payouts start to rise
Income investing

Things are looking up for income investors as dividend payouts start to rise

UK dividend payouts are ready to grow again, but this crisis has shown why income investors must diversify overseas.
3 May 2021
Equity crowdfunding: a crowded field set to keep growing
Alternative finance

Equity crowdfunding: a crowded field set to keep growing

Equity crowdfunding, a form of early stage business funding, has shaken off the pandemic and is set to keep growing, says David Stevenson
1 May 2021
Tom Slater of Scottish Mortgage: growth, the pandemic, and the importance of optimism
Investment strategy

Tom Slater of Scottish Mortgage: growth, the pandemic, and the importance of optimism

Merryn talks to Tom Slater of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust about investing in growth, the pandemic and its aftermath, why optimism will alwa…
30 Apr 2021

Most Popular

Big Tech on steroids: why the 2020s will be the “decade of the DAO”
Bitcoin & crypto

Big Tech on steroids: why the 2020s will be the “decade of the DAO”

Big tech companies have transformed the way we live our lives. But if you thought they were disruptive, you haven’t seen anything yet. As Dominic Fris…
6 May 2021
Cryptocurrency ether has hit an all-time high. Why? And will the bull market last?
Bitcoin & crypto

Cryptocurrency ether has hit an all-time high. Why? And will the bull market last?

Cryptocurrency ether – the world’s largest cryptocurrency by market cap after bitcoin – hit an all-time high this week. Saloni Sardana looks at what’s…
5 May 2021
Could you end up paying inheritance tax on your family home?
Inheritance tax

Could you end up paying inheritance tax on your family home?

The value of the average UK home has risen by 53% since April 2009, but the inheritance tax threshold has remained static. And that means more people …
7 May 2021