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Theranos documentary The Inventor diagnoses Silicon Valley schadenfreude

Review: This might sting a bit. Elizabeth Holmes built her startup Theranos on lies, but the fraud exposes bigger problems.

Sundance

She dressed like Steve Jobs and talked like she was going to save the world. No wonder wealthy men fell at her feet and investors couldn't wait to give her money. But there was just one problem with Elizabeth Holmes' company Theranos: It was all a lie.

New HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley looks inside the rise and fall of Theranos, a health care startup promising a miracle blood test that was revealed to be a multibillion-dollar fraud. On the face of it, this film could be like the recent spate of Fyre Festival documentaries that encouraged us to point and laugh at rich people screwing up outrageously. But The Inventor, which premiered at Sundance in January and airs on HBO on Monday, explores why this strange true story is more than a case of Silicon Valley 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 entrenched 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 that 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. It wasn't a lie, it was just that 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.

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 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.