The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
March 21, 2019 10:27 AM - Subscribe

The story of Theranos, a multi-billion dollar tech company, its founder Elizabeth Holmes, the youngest self-made female billionaire, and the massive fraud that collapsed the company. Directed and written by Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room).
posted by Cash4Lead (19 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The recent news/docu on Nightline "The Dropout" really seemed to have cherry picked shots of Ms Holmes "crazy eyes" and extra deep voice clips. I recall a tech speech of her in the pre-walgreens and she seemed a lot more down to earth than most startup entrepreneurs, not that she does not deserve all our disdain but making her out to be a crazy person does a disservice to reporting: the really dangerous people appear really normal and likeable.
posted by sammyo at 11:43 AM on March 21, 2019

The laws of physics vs a twenty something Stanford dropout who has a faulty Steve Jobs-style Reality Distortion Field. It's no surprise who wins.

Any numerate person would find it very easy to explain why it would be physically impossible to implement two hundred plus different kinds of blood tests in a box the size of a laser printer. Hint: what's the volume of all the reagents needed for a hundred runs of each of the two hundred tests? Now why did none of the investors run through that calculation?

I found this to be a very compelling train wreck to watch.
posted by monotreme at 4:55 PM on March 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

I started listening to the Dropout a few hours before I watched this. I’m just dumbfounded at how many people got sucked into it, but also fascinated by every twist and turn. The fake voice! Shooing investors out the room so that they could have people test blood the regular way and hide that the machine never worked! The weird commercials! The Errol Morris Film! But especially that dance to Can’t Touch This, that whole celebration. That is everything I hate about working in tech.
posted by loriginedumonde at 8:56 PM on March 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Guardian ran an interview with Alex Gibney where he mentioned the thing that didn't come up in the Inventor: "Phyllis Gardner [a Stanford professor of medicine] refers to the board and says, “They evidently succumbed to a certain charm.” We tread lightly on it, but it’s clearly obvious that they did succumb to a certain charm. She was young. She was pretty. It blinded them in a certain way."

I didn't love the documentary as a whole, though it's possible I've mainlined enough Elizabeth Holmes that any further info brings marginal returns. Gibney was very generous with some of his comparisons. I sounds like Holmes repeatedly came up with "good" ideas that were either not actually feasible and thus, not good ideas. If I, a person with no particular knowledge of science or medicine or haberdashery, were to raise millions off a Wal-Mart heiress by explaining that I had a brilliant plan to cure cancer using top hats, then I'd be pretty impressed with myself as a conwoman! But if I got in the way of someone's chemo and jammed a top hat on their head (then took photos to raise more money from the nauseatingly rich), that's...bad. We don't have to empathize any further with Elizabeth Holmes! Endangering other people's health so you can play entrepreneur is bad!
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:40 PM on March 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

Alex Gibney [...] mentioned the thing that didn't come up in the Inventor

It really really does come up though, right? It's woven through the fabric of it. No, the documentary doesn't directly say that hey, look, all these powerful old white men she surrounded herself with were kinda horny for her. But it absolutely does present a procession of powerful old white men making codedly-admiring comments about her and invites us to draw just that conclusion.

Gibney's very good at letting his subjects hang themselves out to dry. He doesn't judge Errol Morris for his work-for-hire or for that "I'm a fan" comment, but by showing it he sure as hell invites us to. And he lets Henry Kissinger joking that day-long Theranos board meetings were "a human rights violation" hang in the air for just long enough of an uncomfortable extra beat for us to realize that holy shit yes he DID just say that.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:44 PM on March 21, 2019 [16 favorites]

What’s perhaps most shocking to me is that she had almost no training at all, and people bought it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:18 PM on March 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I thought the book was better, but it was interesting to experience the pitch with her unwavering stare and "three-kids-in-a-trenchcoat" voice.

I hope she ends up with jailtime for this, because her blind complete and utter belief actually killed people, and caused a lot of emotional damage from false positives and negatives. I doubt she will, but I hope so.
posted by graventy at 8:31 AM on March 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

This was a bit overly theatrical for my tastes, it leaned too heavily on Holmes' weird affectations as a sort of QED for why everything went so wrong.

I would have liked them to have dug in a little more on that Sunny Balwani guy, who apparently swooped in on her when she was 18.
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:15 AM on March 22, 2019 [6 favorites]

From here:
Elizabeth Holmes and her firm Theranos show why we must stop fetishising entrepreneurs
"Gibney’s documentary is not shy about the fact Holmes’s success was partly due to how she entranced older powerful men. Indeed, she seems to have entranced Gibney. “I wonder if I was too generous,” Gibney said when the Guardian asked about his film’s somewhat sympathetic treatment of Holmes"
In my view, he was too generous. Like, the Edison comparison. Sure, it was rather new to me how much of a myth maker Edison himself was, promoting things he hadn't yet managed to actually do. But at least he was doing the work and had some actual skills for what he was working on. But it seems odd to bother comparing that to Holmes, who seems only to have skill in self-image packaging. Her only "invention" is herself.

I did come out of this documentary more willing to think she actually has something mentally mixed up. Previously I've read articles, and listed to that ABC podcast, but I hadn't seen video of her really at all, and now that I have I don't get how people found her "charming" or "persuasive" and not utterly batty.

And holy hell does this add to the pile of "reasons old white men need to shut up forever." Shultz, Kissinger, et al - they all look like doddering senile fools, and yet people are still respecting their judgement on anything? I made a comment in another Theranos thread on the blue here that if I were Stanford University, I would now be embarrassed to have George Shultz continue on the faculty. Not that the fraud was his fault, but he DID lead many people to invest millions of dollars into something he had zero experience with, based on nothing more than the word of a pretty blond girl. Who wants to learn about business from that guy?

Another thing that sticks in my mind - more than once I've heard it described how as a child Holmes made a "detailed blueprint for a time machine." As if this is supposed to be indicative of anything at all. Literally millions of kids draw blueprints of time machines. Most of them grow up to understand that you can't actually build them. Holmes seems to have missed that last bit.
posted by dnash at 10:45 AM on March 22, 2019 [8 favorites]

more than once I've heard it described how as a child Holmes made a "detailed blueprint for a time machine." As if this is supposed to be indicative of anything at all.

I'm listening to the Dropout podcast right now and this was my first thought on hearing that detail as well. Examining it a little more, I think it's kind of revealing, in that it's an impossible device that would change the world if ever it were made real.

It's not showing that she is an amazing designer: it's showing that she is a fabulist or a fantasist, which, sure, a lot of us are at some level or other. Not a lot of us have leveled up that skill all the way to bilking rich white dudes out of billions.
posted by gauche at 11:50 AM on March 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

Watched 'Dropout,' another multi-part piece from ABC, and now 'The Inventor.'

I was in the molecular diagnostics field around the time Theranos started making the news (with a terrible company that I eventually quit with prejudice) and their story never made any sense. Their claims were impossible.

If they somehow made it work to the specifications that they claim - I dunno, the principle scientists involved must have made fundamental advances in the technology/ multiple foundational technologies. Nobel Prize awarded soonest after publishing the discovery territory.

It sounds like stock in the company was held pretty closely - "make a billion bucks or get a Nobel Prize and enter history as a major scientific innovator" could be a legitimate decision, but it was glaringly obvious that it doesn't work since there were no papers published. When patents outnumber publications, that's a red flag. When it's a n-to-zero ratio, that's just crazytown.

I liked the HBO docu because they interviewed a bunch of mid-level scientists and research techs. The difference between tile/ carpet (ie., bench/ desk, floor/ boardroom) is telling - but it's scary to quit a job without another lined up and without being able to badmouth a former employer.

There are lots of legit molecular diagnostic companies in San Fran's suburbs... but yeah, it hurts leaving a 'prestige' job and going back into the trenches, or having to admit that a previous job was complete bullshit.

I totally sympathize with the team leader guy who got sidelined, then blackballed after saying "it doesn't work" and eventually suicided. Sounds like he was a great guy, a great leader, and a good scientist with solid integrity and willing to mentor and watch out for their reports. Been there, but this sounds like it was this guy's one last grand project before retiring and got burned.
posted by porpoise at 5:50 PM on March 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Cynically, I wonder how she's being treated by the justice department has to do with her embarrassing a bunch of "important old white men."

I would have expected (even) far less sanctions, because, fuck. (and trying to have the story burn out quietly) But no-one pulling strings to have her eviscerated?
posted by porpoise at 5:57 PM on March 23, 2019

I watched this today and man I have got some questions.

First and foremost: can someone explain to me what a person who wasn't doing the science and wasn't doing the engineering on a device that in fact didn't really actually exist anyway was doing at work like 18 hours a day for a decade? I mean, I want to see calendars because I'm baffled. You're not the one building the thing or testing the thing and actually the thing isn't even a thing... How do you fill your time? I know that in the grand scheme this isn't important but I am powerfully curious about how one becomes a no-life-having workoholic when the work you're holicking is a fantasy.

There's a certain kind of conservative/capitalist well-educated old white man (my dad is definitely one and it's only the fact that he's not a millionaire keeping him from falling for this type of entrepreneurial scam) who literally romanticises entrepreneurship. The combination of youth, attractiveness, and an elevator pitch is catnip because they are constantly looking for proof that capitalism is sexy and cool. Because if capitalism is sexy and cool, then they, the people with the biggest, oldest, hardest boners for capitalism, are the sexiest and coolest of all. (Sorry for making you think of George Schultz's underpants region.) So I totally get why they fell for it.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:17 PM on March 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

CEOs are great at working “18 hour days” that involve lots of lunch and dinner meetings, travel that’s both business and personal, time for personal appointments, etc. it ain’t all fun but it’s not exactly work and it’s gotta be easy to live for your job when all you have to do to secure billions of dollars is keep up the appearance that you don’t have a life. Holmes was probably having a fucking blast doing god knows what though in some of that time right in her shady little part of the building
posted by aydeejones at 12:28 AM on March 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

Adding on to what soren_lorensen said, I am flabbergasted that this swindle went on for so long. If the laws of physics do not permit one to render blood test results in that size of a physical space, how did this company manage to stay in business for this many years? With that many employees? Was there no actual feedback from people who knew science?

I'm also curious how she's paying for her legal defense if the company is belly-up.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 3:31 PM on March 24, 2019

I am flabbergasted

Yep, that's where the fraud comes in.

Major legit investors bailed because Theranos couldn't back up their preposterous claims. The money that was raised was from naive parties who should have been barred from putting money into this venture because of ignorance.

This has been known in the lab pathology community since it got news-ed. They were phony from day 1 and *everyone* knew.

But they had really vicious lawyers.

The HBO docu also hinted at an "American aristocracy" tradition where lineage provides access to large investment dollars. Holmes has a brother who carries "the fifth" on his birth certificate.
posted by porpoise at 9:05 PM on March 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

But especially that dance to Can’t Touch This, that whole celebration. That is everything I hate about working in tech.

I caught that bit this last weekend televisioning myself to sleep in a hotel room, and I had to turn it off for how painfully and embarrassingly representative it was of some of my experiences in this surreal hellhole (not the Bay Area per se, but the meta-community of SV). I always wished I had video footage of some of the mass idiocies like that that I've been privy to, since they're a perfect encapsulation of just how off-base the notion is that technical people have here that their limited window of technical expertise (which is itself overblown) is indicative of some general level of perspicacity or insight. On the contrary, that demographic comprises one of the most collectively blinkered groups of people I've ever encountered outside of religious fanatics.
posted by invitapriore at 5:44 PM on March 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I can't seem to stop ranting about many facets of this whole thing, and The Inventor brought up a brand new rant that I hadn't thought about before, though it was another thing that they brought up and then just moved on to the next thing. It kind of felt like a greatest hits version of the podcast to me. I wanted MORE PHYLLIS, for one.

I was briefly taken in by the "maybe she's just a zealot" point of view of the doc, but it's pretty clear to me that she never had any interest in changing the world. She just wanted to be known for changing the world.
posted by queensissy at 5:06 PM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

She just wanted to be known for changing the world.

So much this.

She dropped out of college because a mentor (lol, more like a generic computer-assigned undergrad advisor) told her that her "vision" is physically impossible. Like the statistics and definitions of detection limits.

If accurate, I liked the docu pointing out that she's probably been fed a fairy tale of her family's prominence and current "disgrace" of not being filthy rich, leading to a desire to reinvigorate The Family? I randomly saw something about Holmes' engagement to some younger trustfunder and selfies of her and her beau having the times of their lives - after her indictment and not-guilty plea.

I once had a CSO supervisor who claimed straight faced that he got an assay down to a detection limit of 1 copy.

Which is by definition unachievable. It's like he was claiming to have mastery over quantum mechanics.

Also, some of the viral titre tests' lower detection limits are around 40 copies/ mL of blood; that fingertip prick is at best 0.1 mL of blood (very probably less) - so not only do their assays have to outperform the assay standard by at least a factor of 10 in sensitivity and specificity, they're approaching what is by definition not achievable. So maybe up that to at least a factor of 100 in sensitivity and specificity.

A single test consumes the sample (be it 1 mL or 0.1 mL) - to claim to be able to do 200 tests on that 0.1 mL sample is so absurd as to be ignorant.

Or preying on the ignorant. Willfully.

The "full menu" of tests are all over the board in terms of methods. Common methods, broadly, include (but are not limited to, based on the standard method(s)* that they are tested by):

1) detection/ quantification/ interrogation (various, many different) of DNA
2) detection/ quantification of antibodies (either directly, or by bait; sometimes requiring complex cocktails)
3) chemical analysis
4) detection/ quantification of lipids/ steroids

I stand by my above comment about how if someone managed to even envisage how this is plausibly physically possible in a machine the size of a microwave oven, they would get an immediate Nobel Prize (and be remembered for the entire length of human civilization).

Missed this upthread: "Was there no actual feedback from people who knew science?"

His name is Ian Gibbons. His name is Ian Gibbons. His name is Ian Gibbons.

Holmes did not understand the science and demanded the impossible. Ian Gibbons, from the docu, sounded like the older mentor type in the lab - a great feature for a CSO for the kind of startup that requires a ton of grunt work, mainly by technicians. But his leadership style would also be valuable for bettering senior scientists with their own reports, as an inspiration.

He kept reporting (internally) that the requests were impossible, but kept trying to achieve them.

He committed suicide.

What I can't understand is why he didn't resign. He sounded like someone who was competent and could land a job (if a potentially shitty one) if he wanted. When I was working as a molecular diagnostics r&d scientist, I quit when I was kept asking to do sketchy shit.

But I don't know his circumstances.

*different methods are used based on different ends. Even if a certain method "isn't great," there are situations where using even that makes sense. But 'Gold Standard' methods tend to be expensive and/ or slow or are otherwise pains in the ass.

Edit: Ian Gibbons was also amazing because he's personally, professionally been through a few major breakthroughs and adapted/ panned as was appropriate.
posted by porpoise at 8:36 PM on March 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

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