Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes still sits in doubt as to whether she will face legal recourse for multiple charges of wire fraud related to $945 million in investments in her medical tech house of cards. Jurors have spent six days deliberating her culpability in allegedly defrauding super-rich investors and venture capitalists to build Theranos into a media darling valued at one time as a $9 billion startup. Those six days come at the end of six years of debate around Holmes’ and other Theranos executives’ practices as the company’s vision for its flagship Edison machine, famed for Holmes’ claim that it would be able to run a myriad of medical tests with one drop of blood, never materialized.
Holmes has been rightly vilified during that time, with a copious number of documentaries, books, podcasts and articles chronicling how Theranos spiraled under the pressure of a pipe dream punching far beyond its reach. Stories of patients that received devastating, life-altering medical results due to the Edison’s inability to deliver on its promises are heartbreaking and speak to the continuing issue of high medical costs in the U.S. and socioeconomic factors in access to quality healthcare.
But that isn’t the issue for which the legal system is attempting to hold Holmes accountable. The trial of Elizabeth Holmes is about billionaires’ money. The same billionaires that were hurt the least as, according to witness testimony, Theranos lied about pharmaceutical endorsements and conducted fraudulent demonstrations of its device.
The trial feels like a litigation of big tech hype cycles and overheated venture capital markets, which assuredly deserve critique, rather than how Holmes’ actions impacted the patients who actually bled in response to her promise. People like Brittany Gould, who was erroneously told she was miscarrying for a fourth consecutive time due to faulty Theranos tests. Or Erin Tompkins, who devolved into panic after a Theranos test inaccurately diagnosed her as having an HIV antibody.
Both shared their experiences on the witness stand during the trial. They spoke to the cost-effectiveness of using Theranos tests while exposing the lack of communication and importance Theranos placed on the people actually subjecting themselves to the Edison’s faults.
But the testimonies of Theranos patients are cast in the long shadow of topics involving those who threw money at Theranos—investors’ lack of due diligence and the rush to provide the company the longest financial runway possible. For Gould, Tompkins and countless others whose test results were lost when Theranos’ results database was destroyed, having their finger pricked was a measure of trust in what Holmes was selling and trying to save a buck on medical costs.
For the DeVos family, Rupert Murdoch, the Walton family and Tim Draper, Holmes and Theranos represented a financial win and the chance to profit off of “The Next Steve Jobs” with little worry for how real her product was.
It was hero worship, the same thing that permeates the culture around big tech CEOs and Silicon Valley startup ecosystems, and allows the whims and trivialities of those figures to influence so much in financial circles and beyond. It’s the same thing as when Elon Musk throws both the stock and cryptocurrency markets into peaks and valleys with a single tweet. So much belief is placed in a person or a narrative that the realities of their actions and viability of their product takes on that same fervor without scrutiny.
Holmes still holds some of that previous cache, even as she faces a potential jail sentence that could set new legal precedent for tech startups with similar lofty and nebulous ambitions as Theranos. Journalists covering the trial have noted groups of women dressed as Holmes turning up at the courthouse in support and people brandishing signs proclaiming Holmes and Theranos co-president Sunny Balwani’s innocence.
Whether they believe Holmes’ key argument that she acted at the request of Balwani, a claim that holds little water thanks to message logs, or view her as a wrongfully characterized modern-day Icarus whose folly isn’t as important as her vision, she is a hero in their eyes. They show a similar willing disbelief as those who invested in her company without looking beyond her signature aesthetics. Facts don’t matter when you’ve built enough of a cult of personality around yourself.
But the facts are that Holmes’ actions hurt patients and impacted their lives in significant ways. It’s also a fact that the process of bringing Holmes to face any consequences for those actions has continued to marginalize those human experiences. Her trial, much like her tactics to quell concerns over the Edison ruse, shows that the only ones deserving of answers are those that have the financial power to take on risk with little thought. Advocating for those truly affected by the Theranos saga is simply a byproduct.
Brian Bell is a queer freelance writer covering tech, pro wrestling, esports, games, comics and TV. Find and follow him on Twitter @WonderboyOTM.