You could say that the story of Elizabeth Holmes starts as a young girl hoping to discover something that would surprise all of humanity. For a long time, she succeeded. The only problem was that her dream was based on a lie.
Elizabeth Holmes is the CEO and founder of a biotech company that made a bold promise that her product (a pretty square machine) could run hundreds of medical tests in a doctor’s office on a single drop of blood. As a result, countless patients relied on this technology to make critical medical decisions.
Elizabeth Holmes continued to masquerade around presenting her invention as a new successful innovation when she knew of her failure. Hulu’s The Dropout follows her story based on the ABC podcast of the same name. How honest is the show, and does it accurately depict Elizabeth Holmes and her crimes?
The magical blood machine
In 2014, Theranos, her blood-testing startup, invented a technology never seen before. While the medical industry is familiar with taking vials of blood for each diagnostic test, Theranos claimed to be able to perform hundreds of tests (supposedly over 240) ranging from cholesterol levels to complex genetic analysis, with just a single pinprick of blood.
The main draw to Theranos was that it was so accessible to the everyday person. Holmes’s “invention” was fast and inexpensive. Theranos seemed to be offering technology that could revolutionize medicine and save lives.
David Grenache is an associate professor of pathology at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and the medical director of the Special Chemistry laboratory at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City, UT. He claims he was skeptical from the very beginning.
He states, “That [Theranos] was a fantastical claim . . . I think myself and all of my colleagues just looked at each other and said, ‘No way. That’s not possible. The technology doesn’t exist.’”
And he was right. Theranos, despite all its far-fetched promises, wasn’t able to run tests accurately on a single drop of blood. As a result, Elizabeth Holmes and former company president Sunny Balwani were indicted for fraud just two years after the company closed its labs.
A story breaks Theranos
John Carreyrou, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist of The Wall Street Journal, first broke the story in 2015. After receiving a tip doubting the performance of the Theranos technology, John’s interest was peaked by Holmes’s ground-breaking medical invention after just two semesters of chemical engineering classes at Stanford.
Once the piece was published, FDA investigations ensued all that was written in Carreyrou’s Wall Street Journal report was proven correct. Information from Theranos whistleblowers revealed that Theranos was not using its own technology because of the inefficiency of its own technology.
Despite intimidation and threats of legal action, former Theranos employees Erika Cheung & Tyler Schultz, whose grandfather George Schultz was a member of the Theranos board, began sharing their experiences of the company, its technology, and practices with the journalist.
They revealed lies to board members, a culture of intimidation & secrecy, technology that repeatedly failed quality assurance, and crucially, results sent to real patients that were fundamentally incorrect, upon which life-changing medical decisions were being made. It would seem that the company had been built on nothing more than audacious lies.
Hulu’s The Dropout podcast covers Elizabeth Holmes and her crimes
Elizabeth Holmes was just nineteen years old when she found Theranos in 2003. She and her company raised more than $700 million from capitalists & private investors, resulting in a $10 billion valuation at its peak in 2013 & 2014.
In January 2022, Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of multiple counts of defrauding investors and wire fraud. The Hulu original series The Dropout is the first dramatization of the rise and fall of Theranos. The ABC podcast series of the same name started in 2019 and continued to cover the story and trial in 2022.
The first season of the Hulu show covers the first season of the podcast, which details how Holmes went from an innocent Stanford student to becoming a tycoon of corruption in Silicon Valley. The show sticks faithfully to the podcast and dramatizes the details of Holmes’ story.
Starring Amanda Seyfried as Holmes & Naveen Andrews as her business and romantic partner Sunny Balwani, the show depicts many of the Theranos employees, investors, scientists, and journalists interviewed or described in The Dropout podcast.
The Dropout podcast does humanize Elizabeth Holmes, in a way. Holmes has become such a villain that it’s difficult to picture her as personable. The podcast & show track Holmes from her early beginnings to her demise. Each era of Holmes features new sets of people, as her intense drive and questionable tactics drove some staffers away, while her inflated promises lured others.