“I don’t have many secrets,” says Elizabeth Holmes in the opening moments of Alex Gibney’s riveting new documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. But ask the investors that poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Theranos, the startup Holmes founded in 2003, and they’d likely dispute that claim. Built atop an intricate web of lies and deception, the company went from a $9 billion valuation to being worth nothing, and Holmes herself faces a litany of criminal charges stemming from her role as CEO.
For the uninitiated, Theranos grew to prosperity due to its revolutionary mobile laboratory, the Edison, a device about the size of a printer which promised to run hundreds of different blood tests using a tiny amount of blood taken from a patient’s fingertip. But as a longtime admirer of celebrated inventor Thomas Edison (for whom the machine was named), Holmes also employed one of his most reliable strategies, spinning a robust and convincing tale about the device’s capabilities while she frantically scrambled to get it to function. Her motto: “fake it til you make it.”
In reality, the Edison was a complete mess, unable to perform even a fraction of the tasks that Holmes claimed. But this didn’t stop Holmes from recruiting a number of high profile investors, with names like Henry Kissinger, Betsy DeVos, George Schultz and James Mattis all backing her ambitious plan to “put health care back in the hands of the people.” So confident was the image she projected that even when Schultz’s grandson, who worked in the Theranos lab, stepped forward with evidence of wrongdoing, Schultz opted to stand behind Holmes.
And that wrongdoing was pervasive: blood samples were diluted, results were fudged, and efficient laboratory procedures were virtually nonexistant. Demonstrations for potential investors were tightly controlled, with the actual tests being secretly run on industry-standard equipment in a carefully orchestrated smoke and mirror show. Meanwhile, the design of the Edison was fatally flawed — as one expert put it, “you can’t bend your way around the laws of physics,” — but Holmes refused to accept this reality, even though she’d been hearing it since the age of 19, when a Stanford professor advised her the technology would never work.
Whether Holmes initially set out to defraud investors — not to mention the entire medical community — or whether she truly believed her ideas would manifest into reality is open to interpretation. If Gibney has an opinion on this matter, he’s keeping it to himself, as the film remain ambiguous on this point. What’s not in dispute are the extreme lengths to which Holmes and her partner, Theranos COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, went to keep everyone else in the dark, nor the methods they used to prevent leaks, including logging employee keystrokes and monitoring conversations.
Sorely missing from The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley are new interviews with Holmes herself — there’s plenty of archive material, including eerie footage shot by Errol Morris that gives Holmes an otherworldly, almost alien countenance, and a TV sppearance in which she denies any misconduct by casting her accusers as the villains. “First they think you’re crazy,” she explains. “Then they fight you, and then you change the world.”
The notion that Holmes could have changed the world, had the Edison actually functioned, is certainly plausible. Equally credible is the idea that had she taken the staggering amount of time devoted to deception and used that energy toward a different project altogether, she could’ve had a positive impact on countless lives in a completely different fashion. Gibney stops short of exploring the what-ifs, preferring to examine Holmes as she is, and not as she might have been, but asking some of these questions might have made his latest effort even more compelling.