Deep-voiced twenty-something blonde Holmes had a vision of performing up to 250 different blood tests on a single drop of blood from a fingertip. The tests would be fully automated, and performed by Edison, a robotic device about the size of a small moving box.
The young and attractive Holmes was outstanding at obtaining venture funding and generating publicity. Theranos had a dream board of directors that included famous nonagenarians Henry Kissinger and George Schulz. What she never had was a working Edison box. Theranos entered a partnership with the extensive Walgreens pharmacy franchise to provide blood work to the public. The blood work was purportedly performed by Edison, but was instead done by Theranos' onsite lab workers. Essentially, it was a blood work lab that posed as an inventor and manufacturer of blood work machines.
Journalist John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal grew skeptical of Theranos and its founder, who was long on vision and promises but short on details about the magic Edison box. Whistleblowers came forward, notably Erika Cheung and Tyler Shulz, and their revelations promptly sent Theranos' prospects tumbling into dissolution. But not before the Theranos legal department stalked whistleblowers and harassed them with court filings.
But through it all, Holmes remained on note that the Edison box would soon be working, and all was well. As of the time of writing, Holmes is on Federal trial for multiple counts of fraud, along with Theranos COO Ramesh Balwani, a rah-rah salesman and romantic partner of Holmes during the firm's few halcyon years.
Weep not for Elizabeth Holmes, who lives in a 100M mansion and whose defense accuses Balwani of abuse. Most likely, she will either be found not guilty of all charges, or else serve only a couple of years of comfortable confinement at Club Fed.
The HBO documentary pares down extensive footage of Holmes and her unblinking, staring eyes, dark turtleneck sweaters, and "the future is now" presentations. Her footage is accompanied by interviews with former Theranos employees and a few outsiders (mostly journalists) who knew Holmes and found her evasive on specifics.
How others will see it. The documentary never played in theaters, but it nonetheless has some impressive festival nods: an Emmy Award nomination for Best Documentary; a WGA award for Best Documentary Screenplay. At imdb.com, it has a respectable 10K user votes and a 7.1 user rating that is consistent across all demographics.
The user reviews all over the map. Most reviewers are anti-Holmes and believe that the documentary, which moves slowly in chronological order, is too kind on the young visionary. Others approve of the film's deliberate pace, which sets us up for Theranos' death spiral after the Wall Street Journal piece popped its bubble.
How I felt about it. The Edison box was a robot that moved a row of syringes in and out of an array of tiny beakers. In retrospect, it was a bad idea. The syringes dripped fluid, which would in any event ruin the tests. Beakers and syringes broke, and soon the box was a gross mess of blood samples, chemicals, and broken glass. Lab workers who reached inside the box were in peril of inadvertently getting poked by the needles, which could result in the worker getting infected with, for example, syphilis. Customers at Walgreens who relied on Theranos blood work received inaccurate results with potentially deadly consequences.
What went wrong, and why does it matter? Silicon Valley startups regularly fail, with the venture capitalists losing all their money. Startups are known for a "fake it until you make it" mentality. Even the box's namesake inventor, Thomas Edison, may have lied to investors about the status of his electric light.
What is different is that at some point, certainly before the Walgreens contract, it was obvious to Theranos insiders that the Edison box was very unlikely to ever work. Holmes promised that the box could perform 250 tests on a single drop of blood. In reality, the blood work was performed by lab workers using conventional equipment made by established medical companies.
But Holmes refused to listen to her own engineers and chemists, and instead pursued a marketing conquest with a product that could never be delivered. The film implies she was mentally ill, a believer to the end in her own con.