Great frauds in history: Theranos and the millennial Madoff

Elizabeth Holmes © Getty Images
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 fêted 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 in the 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 about its technology, even at a time when its CEO was becoming a celebrity, should have been a big warning sign to investors.