Incorrect blood tests are just a fact of life. No harm, no foul.

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No harm, no foul. Theranos’ defence team recently tried to get its entire 11-count fraud case dismissed by making an outlandish argument, according to which incorrect blood tests are just a fact of life, and because the government hasn’t been able to prove that customers who received false blood test results were actually hurt, no crime has been committed. The argument is as revolting as it is impossible to fathom how anyone, without hesitance, is capable of providing false and horribly upsetting results to cancer survivors.

That argument made my ears ring as loud as another outrageous one made by none other than President Trump’s defence lawyer Alan “I kept my underwear on” Dershowitz during the impeachment trial: If a quid-pro-quo and colluding with foreign adversaries is done in belief that it’s in the public interest, there’s no crime, thus no impeachable act.

After my ears had finally stopped ringing, I knew it was time to make that long due lemonade. Instead of a “Dear Elizabeth” grievance letter about the deep disappointment over a female tech role model that never was, this lemonade will leave you with a refreshing aftertaste of how to detect a “visionary” founder with bad blood like Elizabeth in the first place.

Theranos, you say? A personalized medicine tech company founded in 2003 by then 19-year-old CEO Elizabeth Holmes with a bold vision to reinvent blood testing by getting rid of the big bad needle. With $1,4 billion in total funding under its belly, or needle, and $9 billion in market evaluation, Elizabeth also became the youngest self-made female tech billionaire. In 2018 the company ended up collapsing in a massive 11-count fraud case with a court date set to August 2020.

What especially caught the eye of the devil itself and earned Elizabeth Holmes a FastPass to hell at such a young age alongside with influencers and podcasters, was that while on a mission to save lives, she was lying her turtleneck off without any regard to the lives of others, potentially causing exactly what her blood testing device Edison was meant to prevent. Her ”If only I’d known sooner” one-liner hollowed as empty as motivational quotes on Instagram.

At least as painful as having a female tech founder to demonstrate that power has no gender, rather than being the industry much needed female role model, was when I first read that the almighty Kate McKinnon of SNL would be both producing and playing Elizabeth Holmes in an upcoming Hulu limited TV-series titled The Dropout. I guess my initial fear was that Kate’s talent and karma could brush on and make her seem likeable, even if just a tiny drop. Then again, I’m yet to find Kellyanne Conway any more humanlike, and more importantly, powerful storytelling can help bring justice (When They See Us) and change practices and mindsets (Unbelievable). There isn’t a single real life person, or fictional character, she hasn’t brought to life and portrayed to a perfection, so if anyone can find the needle in a haystack that is Elizabeth’s soul, it’s Kate. She’s every woman.

Kate McKinnon I'm every woman

Theranos’ fraud and fall has been extensively covered in Bad Blood, a book by John Carreyrou (a movie with the same title is in the making by Adam McKay with Jennifer Lawrence as Elizabeth), ABC News podcast and documentary The Dropout, and many insightful posts about how her fraudulent behaviour could have been minimized, or entirely avoided, by better board management. What truly hit home with me was the WGA Award winning HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley by Alex Gibney. (Alex is one of my absolute favourite documentary filmmakers. His Zero Days (2016) of cyber warfare was so thrilling it made me take notes for the first time during a viewing. And no, I wasn’t being that person, I had a separate balcony seat.) The Inventor did an exceptional job at showcasing Elizabeth’s toxic behaviour that was central in contributing to Theranos’ downfall. Thus, when Kate McKinnon transforms into the non-blinking she-devil, I want her storytelling chops to bring Elizabeth’s main “sins” alive on screen, so that we learn to recognize and stop the charming founders from hell before they blow things up and hurt people. Here are the signs to be on the lookout for:

  1. Powerful Storytelling As A Disguise: ”If only I’d known sooner”. Theranos was selling a future where no one ever again would have to say goodbye too soon to their loved ones with the help of an emotional story and one-liner. The entire purpose of a powerful story is to make you believe and fall in love. It’s essential to acquire funding, to attract talent and customers, but when combined with a charismatic founder who also checks all the boxes for the common denominators of a great founder, it’s pretty much a free ride from there. Her ultimate power move was to assemble a boardroom full of high ranking older white males without industry knowledge to insure that she would enjoy great trust with very little data, i.e. the best way to avoid critical in-depth questions. The probability of a scenario in where, say, Henry Kissinger would in front of other board members admit to General Mattis that he didn’t know what was being discussed, was basically non existent. Thus, no one ever looked, or was allowed to look, inside the blood testing device Edison in order to verify whether it could deliver any of it had promised. Want to keep believing? Keep asking questions. Remember, like in so many other cases, whistleblowers were essential in finally bringing Theranos down.
  2. Negligence of Facts: She was mindblowingly uninterested in receiving scientific input despite hiring leading experts, demonstrating astounding negligence of both medical research available as well as simple laws of physics. I can only imagine it to be similar to if putting together a group of climate change deniers, anti-vaccinators and flat-earthers to innovate on global health issues. Negligence of facts is only appropriate and delightful in form of Twitter conversations between Ricky Gervais and people who don’t believe in science (sorry, scients).
  3. Lack of Validation and Documentation Routines: She ignored proper validation and documentation routines, quote: “We’re disrupting [the market] and we don’t want people stuck in the old ways and do things properly with validation and documentation.” Just because you have a strong gut feeling and conviction doesn’t mean that you can wing it. There is nothing contra-dictionary between innovative products and documentation, quite on the contrary. When building crucial applications such as blood testing with dire consequences on people’s lives, you don’t want to have blood on your hands. Literally.
  4. Overly Delusional Time Frame Powered by Yes-Men: To be optimistic about a development progress is more of a rule than an exception, but her rampant quest for rapid development and testing also led her to surround herself with yes-men, who over time became ever younger and less experienced. Having yes-men in an organization is a huge tell and should always give you the chills.
  5. Toxic Company Culture Dominated by Paranoia and Secrecy: Being slightly paranoid is only human and sometimes beneficial in order to thrive in competition, but to build a company culture on it is the absolutely worst option. The emphasis on secrecy prohibited efficient collaboration between departments and stakeholders, which in turn had disastrous effects on the product development process. In hindsight, of course that was the only way to manage the humongous house of lies.

Would the combination of powerful storytelling, negligence of facts, resistance to documentation, abundance of yes-men, paranoia, delusional time frames, and toxic work place culture sound familiar, it maybe simply because they remind you of the current White House administration 🎃 Although this administration commits its crimes in broad daylight over Twitter and on live TV, rest assured, like Theranos, it too will blow itself up. Sure, we need to do extra cardio to keep blowing the whistle, but whatever it takes to help it give that extra push. Until then, I look forward to see Kate as the inventor from hell. She already does a perfect devil 😈

Paula is Digital Product Advisor and Top 100 Women in Tech in Europe, focusing on Product, Go-to-market, and Internationalization strategies. Rated as one of the very best startup mentors in Europe, she has to date mentored over 150 digital technology companies on product, marketing and growth. Pick My Brain! is her fixed price service tailored to early stage startups, gender wage gap adjusted for female founders. Contact Paula for digital strategy work or book her as keynote speaker about #Startups #WomenInTech #GenderEquality #Entrepreneurship. Read more about her work and connect @Twitter, @LinkedIn