Saturday, January 8, 2022

Book Review: Bad Blood

 Unputdownable is the only word to describe John Carreyrou’s ‘Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup’. Though the story of the rise and rise and rise and ultimate fall of the Silicon Valley bio-tech start-up, Theranos, (and its Founder CEO, Elizabeth Holmes) is well known, the book still reads like a fictional thriller.

I remember reading a profile of the Founder CEO, Elizabeth Holmes in 2014, and being absolutely impressed by her youth, her beauty, and her obvious brilliance. It almost seemed like a fairy tale- a 19 year old engineering student coming up with an idea that will revolutionize medical diagnostics, and setting up a company that will make her the richest self-made female. How could someone so young develop a revolutionary technology, and also set up a successful company, I wondered. The answer lies in this book.

It was precisely her lack of scientific knowledge that empowered Elizabeth Holmes to chase an idea that someone with even a bit of experience would know could never work for practical reasons. Like a primary school student drawing a fantastic beast, Elizabeth Holme’s idea had everything- a single drop of blood drawn from the finger, miniature device, multiple tests conducted simultaneously, results out virtually in real time. She didn’t have the expertise to make any of it happen, but she had the charisma to sell her Vision to others. And she drove them to do what was impossible.

Her youth and her passion impressed a group of very powerful older men, who became her greatest champions. Most of them didn’t understand the technology, but were swayed by her vision, and the fact that others from their network believed in her was sufficient for them. It is often said that men have access to Old Boys Networks in a way that women never do- but Elizabeth Holmes, either despite or perhaps because of her gender was able to tap into them as few others could.

The story of Theranos is the story of many tech start-ups. Fake it till you make it. Holmes never even had a working prototype, but she had the audacity to sell her vision to many. It was a classic case of creating an image and letting the image sell itself- even prestigious medical schools went out of their way to honour her merely on the basis of her assertions. Her Board was so packed with heavyweights, that nobody noticed she didn’t have a single expert from the field of medical diagnostics there. The financial projections were never met, and product deadlines were constantly missed, yet she successfully worked on FOMO to ensure her backers stayed with her.

Carreyrou dismisses any theories of Holmes being misled. From the earliest days, the start up resorted to distortions and untruths. During live demonstrations, fake results would be beamed to impress prospective partners and investors. Code was written to ensure that when the device malfunctioned, instead of beaming an error message, the progress bar would appear to slow down, so people decided not to wait for the results but pick it up later at which time false results would be submitted.

Bad Blood is the story of a Founder CEO who was all image but no domain expertise. Employees were recruited by selling a vision, and then insane demands were placed on them. The corporate culture was personality driven, and nobody was allowed to offer constructive criticism or push back on insane demands. People who left (or were asked to leave) were threatened with lawsuits if they went back on the non-disclosure agreements they signed.

Theranos never had the product they claimed they had- more effort was put on the aesthetics of the product than in the product itself. None of the USPs which Holmes spoke about in public were actualised. Yet, they were able to maintain the illusion for over a decade and raise multiple rounds of funding. Had Theranos been a regular tech start up, a lot of it could have been forgiven. But the consumers were people, and the decisions of life and death were taken based on the test results. Errors, and there were several, could have proved fatal. Which is why employees quit, and the entire investigation was launched.

Bad Blood reads like a thriller- at times, it seems too unrealistic even to be fiction. We keep marvelling at how so many were fooled for so long by so little. The cast of characters is varied and well etched. It is an exemplary piece of writing, which will appeal to many. Above all, it is a cautionary tale.

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