This 2019 HBO documentary, directed and produced by Alex Gibney (of “Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side”) opens in 2014 with Theranos, a startup in blood-testing technology. The Inventor is filmed at Theranos’s spectacular Silicon Valley chic headquarters in Palo Alto. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is hailed as the youngest self-made female billionaire by Fortune magazine. With a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and a recent $400 million investment from many Trump supporters (the Waltons, Betsy DeVos, Murdoch) as well as other luminaries with gravitas–George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former Secretaries of State), General James Mattis, and a stable of others, Theranos is revealed to have been a massive con game, with its pending collapse looming just around the corner.
Claiming to be developing a small, portable sized machine to test over 200 different diseases and disorders with only a few drops of blood, the persuasive influencer, Elizabeth Holmes, cons investors. She promotes the groundbreaking technology on television, TED talks, and wherever she can find an audience. Holmes is very good at what she does.
John Carreyrou (best-selling author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup), a Wall Street Journal reporter, sees a New Yorker article (2014) by Ken Auletta accusing Theranos of gross misrepresentation of their product. The two reporters together are the catalyst for government regulators to finally investigate claims of fraud.
In addition, two very young employees–Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz (grandson of George Shultz) –become whistleblowers, despite strong-arm tactics by Theranos to silence them. David Boies, the prominent attorney known for vitriolic threats against opposing counsel (he represented Harvey Weinstein and a number of tobacco companies) is hired to terminate their speaking out. Without their heroic efforts (and in spite of grandfather George Shultz’s reluctant belief in his grandson), Theranos would have harmed even more investors and customers. Protected by whistleblower status, Cheung sends a letter to the clinical regulator CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) citing malfeasance in marketing, efficacy of products, and examples of misdiagnosis.
What makes The Inventor so spellbinding, in part, is due to the fact that much of the footage is archival imagery created and crafted by Holmes herself to promote Theranos. Accordingly, aside from brief footage from her deposition, the footage of Holmes is filmed before she was charged. We see her own words, not exclusively others reporting about what she has to say. Alex Gibney remarked: “She made the documentary she wanted me to invest in and I used it to a different purpose.”
Elizabeth Holmes was brilliant at selling to investors and motivating her employees.
How Holmes was able to deceive a number of powerful old men, and then leverage that to achieve great visibility, further investment, and the Walgreens deal is pretty shocking, even by Silicon Valley standards. What is perhaps most disturbing is the fact that all the “name-dropping” about who has invested so others follow lemming-style opens doors to the gullible and foolish, no matter how wealthy.
Holmes is a master manipulator –and perhaps borderline delusional, –one deceptively cloaked in the humanitarian goal of revolutionizing health care. But The Inventor raises the question: What about all those “intellects” experienced in investment, negotiations, and science from Stanford and the highest realms of US government? In the end Holmes is fabricating and lying, but she has an audience ripe for believing that the impossible can happen: The Silicon Valley ritualistic practice of investing in only a business plan. It’s a chilling, chilling portrait.
Note: Ultimately Holmes was charged with a host of federal violations. She married shortly after this film was released (in 2019) and gave birth to a baby boy in July of this year, postponing her trial until August 31. Now ongoing in federal court in San Jose, the judge will have to decide on a sentence, if she is found guilty, weighing in on her baby’s future.