Theranos: The rise and fall of a company that promised to change the world

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The "next Steve Jobs". Every business magazine cover. A genius. The world's youngest self-made female billionaire. For a few years in the early 2010s, the accolades just kept coming for Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of biotechnology company Theranos.

Holmes and her COO Ramesh Balwani were promising, in classic Silicon Valley style, to change the world. This week they both went on trial, charged with multiple counts of conspiracy and fraud.

Holmes' grand vision was in blood testing. Theranos supposedly developed, or would develop, a way to run 200+ medical tests, from just a few drops of blood. That pitch ended up raising millions in funding, each round building hype and expectation that saw Holmes meet world leaders, go on TV and amass a personal fortune of $4.5bn+ on paper, as Theranos reached a dizzying $9bn valuation in early 2014.

Would you like to see a menu?

Although the company's website has long since disappeared, thanks to a web archive we can see that there was once even a "menu" with prices for every single test that Theranos could supposedly run. Want to check your Vitamin B-12 levels? That's $10.26. Want a diabetes assessment? $18.39. The only problem of course, was that the innovative one-drop blood tests didn't work.

After some great investigative reporting by the WSJ and other news outlets, the cracks started to appear. In 2015 an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association criticized Theranos for operating in stealth and not having their results peer-reviewed. Employees started saying that the "innovative blood test" technology was barely being used, with traditional techniques doing the bulk of testing. Lawsuits started popping up from previous investors. Deals with Walgreens and Safeway got cancelled. Media scrutiny intensified and the list of lawsuits only got longer and longer.

It's hard to say exactly when Theranos became entirely worthless. Technically the company didn't close until September 2018, but as early as March 2017 Rupert Murdoch, one of the early investors, sold his shares — originally worth $125m — for just $1 in order to harvest the tax loss.

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