A bloody mess: Inside the trial of Elizabeth Holmes

Her blood-tech start up Theranos pledged to change the world. All it really did is change our view of black turtlenecks, writes Harry Shukman.

I’ve finally figured out what Elizabeth Holmes’s voice reminds me of. Watch any interview she gave as the founder of Theranos and you’ll agree she sounds exactly like a Californian teenager who has just taken an enormous bong hit. Whenever she spoke to journalists about how brilliant she was or denied anything was amiss at her wonky blood testing startup, she adopted the strange habit of speaking at a low pitch – only occassionally slipping into her genuine, higher, more feminine style. It sounds remarkably like she has huffed a mouthful of maximum strength weed and is losing a battle to croak out the rest of her sentence before coughing her lungs out.

This was part of Holmes’s scrupulous attempts to cultivate her public image — an extreme example of the fake-it-till-you-make-it mindset, completed by an unblinking, Zuckerbergish stare and a Jobsian black turtleneck. When her fraud trial in San Jose kicks off in earnest next week, it will be fascinating to see what version of Holmes takes the stand. 

Elizabeth Holmes arrives at her landmark trial last year — sans trademark black poloneck

ast year, as trial preparations were underway, it emerged that Holmes was exploring a “mental disease” defence. The trial itself has been delayed by her pregnancy – she gave birth to a baby boy in September, having married husband Billy Evans, heir to the Evans Hotel Group fortune, in 2019. The publication of legal papers last week also suggested that Holmes, 37, plans to argue that her judgment was impaired by the “manipulation” of her ex-partner, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the chief operating officer of Theranos. Balwani, 56, denied accusations that he was sexually abusive, controlled Holmes’s spending, diet, wardrobe, sleep, and threw “hard, sharp objects at her”. He faces his own fraud trial next year. 

Holmes was once the youngest self-made billionaire in the world, boasting a startup valued at $9 billion and the prestige of revolutionising healthcare. How did she fall so far from grace?

First, some background. Holmes had told her investors – who gave her $700 million – that she had invented a pin prick blood test to quickly check for diseases. An amazing innovation, it promised to replace the more painful, time-consuming and expensive intravenous needle. She even claimed, somewhat improbably, that the money she was earning from selling her dodgy products to supermarkets and pharmacies didn’t matter to her. “What matters is how well we do in trying to make people’s lives better,” she said.

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