Book Review: “Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Carreyrou is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who broke the story of Theranos, the Silicon Valley start up where pretty much everything that can go wrong did go wrong. This book is an account of the whole story, pulled from his sources and research.  It’s mind boggling.

Out in the Valley, the line between imagination and reality is hazy, and generally errs on the side of optimistic hokum.  This is annoying and sometimes amusing when the stakes are yet another digital commerce project, or vain dreams about cornering the market in Asteroid mining, but Theranos was talking about “disrupting” medical testing.  Lives were at risk.

Carreyrou does a great job of laying out the history, making clear the shaky scientific and technical foundations upon which the company was built. He is actually quite restrained and understates the astonishing levels of not just self-deception but deliberate lies, bullying, extortion, and, yes, criminal fraud.

The technology was impossible from the start, as anyone with actual knowledge of the problem knew.  But Theranos had a wonderful science fiction story, and in the Valley science fiction is more popular than actual science.  Worse, the more “disruptive” the idea, the more exciting it is for venture capitalists.  The trick, of course, is to sift through which magic is real and which is impossible.

The well oiled money machine that is Silicon Valley made it possible to raise millions, indeed hundreds of millions on the basis of, well, no more than a rigged demo and a great sales pitch.  The infrastructure of start up land provided the tools to create something that looked like a real company, had non-disclosure agreements out the wazoo, and slapped together big deals.

If the investors who specialize in health care wouldn’t touch her, Holmes was able to stack her board with dinosaurs from the Hoover Institute (including Henry Kissinger, for goodness sake—is he still alive?). She also was pals with Obama insiders and the Clintons.  She tied in with mega-attorney David Boies who, taking a share in the company and a board seat, actively abetted the crimes of Theranos with bullying, extortion, and threats.

It was a close run thing. There were enough whistle blowers and enough honest regulators, and enough nosy journalists, to overcome the flood of media adulation, political clout, and money.  Would Theranos have been stopped under the current administration?

This book is also a stinging indictment of shabby so-called “due diligence” by investors with more money than sense, as well as a parable about why you should never give children millions of dollars to play with. Who in their right mind would give hundreds of millions of dollars to a twenty something with no experience or credentials, and with no actual evidence that the magic actually works?

I personally was skeptical of Theranos from the beginning, not just because I believe in peer reviewed (or at least public) evidence, but because of the damn black turtleneck she affected.  Anyone that thinks dressing like Steve Jobs in any way makes you like SJ is obviously immature, if not nuts.  It’s the kind of nonsense I would expect from a raw undergraduate student, who still needs to grow up.

Oh, wait, Holmes is a college drop out, with no more than an UG understanding of the world.  Perhaps this disaster (and a federal criminal indictment) will be a learning experience for her, but maybe she should have finished her degree at Stanford before attempting to make her fantasies real.

I have to say that one of the pleasant surprises in this book was the report that the old dragon Rupert Murdoch, though charmed by Elizabeth Holmes and heavily invested in the company, was not swayed by her efforts to spike the story in the WSJ.  I imagine that Mr. Murdoch manipulates people, he is not manipulated by them.

This is a really great book, well written and timely.

  1. John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2018.


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