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HBO's Theranos documentary diagnoses Elizabeth Holmes' Silicon Valley fraud

As the Theranos trial starts, want to know how Elizabeth Holmes built her startup on lies? HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley exposes bigger problems.

The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley.

HBO

She dressed like Steve Jobs and talked like she was going to save the world. Wealthy men fell at her feet and investors couldn't wait to give her money, but there was just one problem with Elizabeth Holmes and her miraculous company Theranos: It was all a lie. With jury selection starting Aug. 31 in the trial of the disgraced Theranos founder and CEO, now's a good time to revisit HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which looks inside the rise and fall of once-promising health care startup and its purportedly revolutionary blood testing invention.

If you want to understand both Holmes and why the Theranos debacle exposes deeper problems, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is streaming now on HBO Max. This 2019 film could be like the Fyre Festival documentaries that encouraged us to laugh at rich people screwing up outrageously. But The Inventor explores why this Silicon Valley fraud is more than schadenfreude.

The Inventor is directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, who, with films like The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and Going Clear, previously aimed at the likes of Enron, Wikileaks and the Church of Scientology. His documentaries often deal with entrenched, intertwined influence and abuses of power fueled by vast amounts of money. On the face of it, the story of a callow young entrepreneur might seem like a contrast, but the documentary exposes how Theranos and Silicon Valley are built on foundations of deep-rooted power, money and privilege no matter how much they protest to the contrary.  

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Elizabeth Holmes in the labs of Theranos, a company she founded with a dark secret.

Sundance

Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos, inspired by a desire to help people like an uncle suffering from cancer. Combining the words "therapy" and "diagnosis" she started a company with the intention of revolutionizing phlebotomy, replacing extensive and expensive blood tests with a machine that could divine diseases from a drop of blood. And she didn't let little things stop her, like the fact it was impossible. 

Holmes and business partner Sunny Balwani continued to make grandiose claims -- going so far as to fake demos for investors -- while even their own staff and engineers told them their vision couldn't be realized. The technology needed to catch up to the dream. A lie had been rebranded as a vision.

The documentary highlights how their vision duped high-profile investors, journalists and cheerleaders and points out the importance of stories, even in the calculating world of business. "Stories have emotions," explains behavioral economist Dan Ariely, "and data doesn't."

The narrative of a young woman founder determined to do good, with the technological chops to back it up, was just too perfect to resist. From Larry Ellison to Rupert Murdoch to Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton, a cavalcade of rich older men fell for it. And, apparently, for Holmes. 

The backing of these powerful figures, including Betsy DeVos, legitimized Theranos. These titans of industry and government wanted to be part of the story. This shielded Holmes and Balwani from scrutiny by press and regulators, but their luck could hold out only so long before they were exposed.

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Former US President Bill Clinton was one of the many rich and powerful people who fell for Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

JP Yim/Getty Images

On the one hand, the story of Theranos is a delicious yarn. Who doesn't love seeing liars and blowhards get their comeuppance, or wealthy fools and their money publicly parted? But there's more to it than dunking on rich guys and Silicon Valley douchebags. The company's chief scientist, Ian Gibbons, took his own life as a result of the lies within Theranos. And real people were put in danger when the company took the product to market too soon. 

The Theranos case exposes dangerous cracks in the foundation of modern business, especially the technology sector. Appropriately enough, the vaunted Theranos all-in-one testing device was named the Edison. The documentary cites Edison as the first celebrity businessman, a genius at marketing as much as technology. Edison knew how to tell a good story, casting himself as the main character, and he too promised more than he could deliver. He faked light bulb demonstrations for four years, pretending the technology worked long before his team of engineers worked out how to actually make it so.

Now playing: Watch this: Elizabeth Holmes on trial over Theranos role
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By invoking the name of one of our most revered innovators, The Inventor draws a line through the industrial age right up to today's Silicon Valley startup culture founded on storytelling and perception as much as innovation. Alongside the thousands of patents with his name on them, Edison also invented "fake it till you make it." A century later, Elizabeth Holmes refined his invention. 

Silicon Valley's fast-moving approach is one thing when you're building an emoji app. It's something else when you're talking about self-driving cars, medicine and health care, where real lives hang in the balance. In those high-stakes cases, diligence and safety and accountability are paramount. And those are things that aren't necessarily a priority among startups racing to scale.

When it comes to putting cars on public roads or telling people whether they have cancer, the oft-quoted Valley adage about moving fast and breaking things doesn't seem like such good advice.

"Nobody questions her motives were positive," Dan Ariely says of Holmes, describing the Theranos situation as a "story of how people became trapped." But whatever her intentions, the effects of the fraud aren't felt just in Silicon Valley. 

The Inventor is a cautionary tale for the way we look at so-called visionaries promising us the world, from businesspeople to politicians. Silicon Valley may see itself as the heart of our culture, but it's pumping blood through veins and arteries that stretch across the globe -- and it isn't that great at diagnosing its own problems.

When you take a dose of The Inventor, you get the instant satisfaction of seeing rich guys looking stupid. But it's the side effects we should be worried about.

Opening arguments in the long-delayed trial of Elizabeth Holmes begin Sept. 8 in a federal court in San Jose, California. Here's everything you need to know about the Theranos trial.