Real visionary or dream seller? American Elizabeth Holmes, once crowned the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire thanks to the promises of her blood-testing startup Theranos, had a fall as sensational as her rise that exposed the limits of Silicon Valley culture.
On Friday, the pregnant young woman was sentenced to just over 11 years in prison after being found guilty of fraud by a court in San Jose, California in January.
After a four-month trial, the jury found she had “lied and cheated” to raise money, as a prosecutor put it.
Elizabeth Anne Holmes, 38, has long been described as a visionary and the new Steve Jobs, a comparison encouraged by the black turtleneck that this wide blue-eyed blonde almost always wore like the late Apple founder.
The daughter of a parliamentary aide and a former director at Enron — a company mired in a massive fraud scandal — she was just 19 when she founded Theranos in 2003.
Like Steve Jobs, she was admitted to the renowned Stanford University, and like him, she quickly dropped out. She decides to use the money her parents set aside to fund the founding of her Palo Alto-based startup in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Then she cites personal reasons: the sudden death of an uncle who had not previously been diagnosed with an illness.
“To me, nothing matters more than what people go through when someone they love gets really, really sick,” she said in a video on the Theranos website. “The feeling of being helpless is heartbreaking and if I can build something to change that, I want to do that with my life.”
His company promised faster and cheaper diagnoses than those of traditional laboratories, thanks to the methods presented as revolutionary, allowing multiple tests with a very small amount of blood.
Investors are seduced. In 2014, Forbes estimated Ms. Holmes’ fortune at $4.5 billion and described her as the youngest billionaire not to inherit his fortune.
She was “intelligent, articulate, determined,” said during the trial Jim Mattis, a former US Secretary of Defense who, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, sat on Theranos’ board.
Elizabeth Holmes personally puts the logos of pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer on official Theranos documents promoting their products without the permission of the companies involved. And keeps the various failures of his machines secret.
But in 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a damning investigation, despite the leader’s attempts to prevent its publication by appealing to Rupert Murdoch, the American daily’s owner and also an investor in Theranos.
The articles reveal the unreliability of the startup’s technologies, which are only used for a small portion of the more than 200 tests it offers.
Theranos then multiplies the rejections. “That’s what happens when you work to change things. First people think you’re crazy and they fight you, and then all of a sudden you change the world,” Elizabeth Holmes told CNBC.
During her trial, she continued to try to convince the jury of her good faith. She also spoke about her relationship with Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her ex-COO and partner.
She specifically explained that he controlled her tightly at work and at home, trying to “mold” her into a new person, more manly and less “little girl.”
Now married and the mother of an 18-month-old boy and pregnant with a second child, her story captivated the American media because it embodied a certain image of innovative Silicon Valley before its decline.