“I don’t have many secrets.”
Elizabeth Holmes founded the company Theranos at age 19. Her machine, The Edison, was destined to become a commodity in blood sampling. Tasked with completing over 200 tests on the machine, only a single drop of blood would be squeezed from patients. This obliterated the need for venipuncture samples and multiple vials of blood being leeched from said patients. Elizabeth’s lightbulb idea, though, blew a fuse when everyone found out that The Edison was as much of a fraud as its namesake.
Elizabeth was interviewed for the film, but little of the film is told from her point-of-view. Of course, she is a real person so I cannot take a stab at diagnosing her. Instead, what is interesting about her story is how everyone bought into Elizabeth’s idea.
She was clever with how she hid her secrets. Rather than hire experienced medical personnel to develop The Edison, Elizabeth hired engineers, men of superfluous wealth, and young go-getters that wanted a crack at their chance to start at the beginning of a very big idea. Medical debacles aside, Elizabeth focused only on the engineering of the machine; the constituents she placed for size of the machine, amount of blood required, and the paranoia surrounding Theranos unfortunately made for an extremely precarious foundation.
Ideas are interesting; they are exciting; they are foolproof. Ideas are easy to fall in love with; we saw that much with Nev in Catfish. Between her svelte, black turtlenecks and Elizabeth’s idolatry of both Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, it was easy to count her in their company. Her image was one of poise and passion, both coveted qualities in Silicon Valley. It was easy to buy what she was selling.
Silicon Valley is in California, the area that spawned the creators of Facebook, Google, and Tesla. This is a place that puts stock – literally – into spending money on ideas that might change the world. They do not necessarily value concrete products, concrete principles, or concrete facts. When Theranos was faced with charges that The Edison was not operating the way Elizabeth claimed, she lied. The question is whether the idea started as a falsehood that even Elizabeth believed, or whether she insisted on others believing what she knew from the offset to be false.
When a person surrounds themselves with the names of other successful people and inhabits a geographic location known to produce success, the rest of us will follow their bad idea into the dark. Elizabeth wore a cloak made of others’ successes to keep up the guise that her company deserved reverence. Silicon Valley in general has reversed the notion that money is earned when something wonderful is produced. If the idea is wonderful enough, suckers will buy in even if the idea – like the one proposed by Elizabeth Holmes – is physically impossible.
Like most stories of cons and con artists, The Inventor is a warning about buying into idealism. The stakes, set at saving lives, were awfully high with Elizabeth Holmes’ company, but the truth was that lives were taken in the process of selling junk.