Mar 12, 2019

What jumped out from new Theranos documentary "The Inventor"

An illustration of Elizabeth Holmes holding up her own face mask.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Last night I watched a screener copy of The Inventor, an upcoming HBO documentary from Alex Gibney on the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her blood-testing company, Theranos.

The bottom line: It's a smart summary of what happened, but it doesn't present much new information for those who've followed the saga (let alone those who read the brilliant "Bad Blood" by John Carreyrou, who appears in the doc). Still worth a watch, particularly for some of the previously-unheard audio.

  • Gibney is the real deal, having previously done well-received docs on Enron and Scientology. Last night he participated in a panel discussion with Axios' Ina Fried, and you can find highlights here.

A few things that jumped out:

  • A reminder that Thomas Edison, for whom Theranos' blood-testing machine was named, was Silicon Valley's original "fake it 'til you make it" entrepreneur.
  • James Mattis, the former Theranos director who later served as President Trump's secretary of Defense, was asked by The New Yorker's Ken Auletta to describe Elizabeth Holmes. The first word he used was "integrity."
    • More from Auletta, who also spoke to Theranos directors like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz: "They were talking about her as if she were Beethoven."
  • Tim Draper makes a brief appearance, highlighted by his purple tie with gold Bitcoin logos.
  • The widow of Ian Gibbons, a Theranos biochemist who killed himself before testifying at a trial that would have threatened Holmes' claim to key patents, said that she never heard from Holmes or the company, save for a request to return confidential documents (which she did).
  • Carreyrou provided audio of his initial meeting with Theranos attorneys, including David Boies and Heather King. Boies comes off as a hysterical bully.
  • The documentary's star may be Roger Parloff, my former Fortune colleague who wrote the first major magazine cover story on Holmes.
    • After reading the first WSJ story, Parloff thought: "All of the 'trade secret' stuff suddenly made sense. It wasn't a trade secret. It was a different type of secret."
    • Parloff later wrote a mea culpa titled How Theranos Misled Me. Holmes called to complain, specifically requesting that Parloff remove a line about being misled "intentionally." She then allegedly told him that she had never realized he would be writing a long profile in the first place, let alone a cover (even though he spent several days with her, and she sat for an extensive photo shoot).
    • "This was real lunacy. I realized there was something wrong with her mind."

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