The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, premiered on HBO this past Monday, March 18. The film, produced and directed by Alex Gibney, tracks the rise and fall of the biomedical company Theranos and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, who sold the world on the idea that hundreds of tests could be performed on a single drop of blood, taken painlessly by finger stick and analyzed automatically using a proprietary testing device called the Edison.
About the size of a microwave oven, the Edison was designed to be deployed locally to pharmacies, doctors' offices, and, ultimately, private homes, allowing people to obtain regular, low-cost screenings for all manner of disease. Theranos would upend the medical testing industry and become the Apple of health screening. It was an audacious plan with a huge potential upside.
With this story in hand, Holmes secured nearly $900 million in venture capital and packed her board with big names like Henry Kissenger, George Shultz and General Jim Mattis. By 2014, the company had grown to 800 employees and reached a value of nearly $9 billion, making Holmes, its largest shareholder, the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.
The only problem was that the Edison never really worked and, following the publication of John Carreyou’s investigative report in the Wall Street Journal in October 2015, the company’s failures, and Holmes’s elaborate efforts to hide them, were becoming widely known. By 2018, Theranos was out of business and Holmes, along with Sunny Balwani, the former president of Theranos and Holmes’s boyfriend, were charged with multiple counts of fraud by the Department of Justice.
Gibney makes excellent use of existing footage of Holmes prowling the halls of Theranos’s glass-walled office building, as well as clips from her countless public appearances. Again and again, we hear her lay out her vision for the company - from the TED stage, in media appearances, in corporate pep-talks, even sitting for a promotional video directed by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, in which she quotes Yoda - “there is no try, there is only do.”
Throughout the film Holmes remains a mystery. Was she a true believer in over her head? Is she pathological liar? A sociopath? An old-school scammer dressed up in a Steve Jobs costume? Regardless of her motivations and mental condition, she was clearly able to pull a whole lot of people at the highest levels of finance, government and business into her vision. As Gibney says in a voiceover early in the film, “to understand what happened, it pays to look past the price of the stock to the value of the story. This compelling tale of divining hundreds of diseases from a drop of blood was a testament to the imagination of the inventor.” And the credulity of everyone else , he might have added.