Book Review: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

Bad BloodBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
My Rating: ★★★★☆
This was a highly readable, highly enjoyable piece of investigative journalism. Carreyrou probes into the history of the Silicon Valley startup Theranos, the brainchild of its CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos promised to revolutionize the medical industry with technology that could run tests on only fingerpricks of blood samples instead of drawing blood from the veins. The idea attracted a lot of venture capitalists and big-name investors, like statesman Henry Kissinger. But there was one problem: The technology didn’t work.   

I found myself simultaneously horrified at the lengths Holmes and Sunny, her right-hand man and lover, went through to scam their investors and employees, and was morbidly fascinated at the sort of lies they’d spin. With each chapter, I couldn’t help wondering, How on earth are they going to get away with it this time? 

Holmes made repeated claims that a fingerprick of blood was enough for their “revolutionary blood-testing technology” to run hundreds of tests on, when in fact it could only run around 12, and even then the results weren’t accurate. This was fine when the device was in its testing phase, but then they closed million-dollar deals with clients and launched the product even when it was just a prototype. And to cover that up, they cut corners and evaded government authorities to make it happen.

Because Holmes was the only one who knew the big picture of what was going on in the company after siloing all her departments off and emphasizing, even threatening, utmost secrecy, she was able to pull it off. She rocketed into fame while lying through her teeth about it. She was even called the next Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and she idolized the latter so much that she dressed like him and named products after Apple products.

But then, it’s one thing to overhype a product that’s meant to be a piece of entertainment, like the iPhone; it’s entirely another thing to do it with healthcare. Carreyrou, towards the end, gives a short and incisive summary of the rise and fall of Theranos:

Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood.

It was fascinating to read how Holmes’s sincere and admirable vision of affordable, quick, and pain-free blood testing devolved into an all-out scam, and to see how she used both charm and manipulation to do it. 

However, I wish that Carreyrou also gave an analysis on the sort of culture in Silicon Valley that made Holmes’s rise and fall possible. He did hint at it by saying that part of Holmes’s fame was due to “the public’s hunger to see a female entrepreneur break through in a technology world dominated by men”, and he offered a brief commentary on Silicon Valley’s overpromising, “fake-it-til-you-make-it” culture, but in the end, he ultimately blamed this scam on Holmes’s manipulative, sociopathic nature. Don’t get me wrong: what she did was highly unscrupulous and harmful. But the way he described her in his epilogue made her sound like some sort of seductress who duped all these well-meaning and well-respected old men to believe in her and invest in her company. Case in point:

If anything, it was Holmes who was the manipulator. One after another, she wrapped people around her finger and persuaded them to do her bidding. The first to fall under her spell was Channing Robertson, the Stanford engineering professor whose reputation helped give her credibility when she was just a teenager. Then there was Donald L. Lucas, the aging venture capitalist whose backing and connections enabled her to keep raising money. . . . David Boies and Rupert Murdoch complete the list, though I’ve left out many others who were bewitched by Holmes’s mixture of charm, intelligence, and charisma.

Sure, she might have been charismatic and manipulative, but these aging venture capitalists are hardly innocent victims. They bought into it because, in part, they also wanted to earn a lot of money. The words “fall under her spell” put me off, since it suggests that female villains are still being framed as seducers and witches.

Despite that, I still enjoyed reading this. It was brave for former Theranos employees and for Carreyrou (who includes his own part in the narrative two-thirds into the book) to hold their own against Holmes’s and Sunny’s intimidation tactics and expensive lawsuits. I really admire the amount of work and and nerve it took to get this story out. Definitely would recommend.

Read from December 22 – 25, 2018 | Goodreads Account