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In Theranos Documentary 'The Inventor,' Filmmakers Capture A Stubborn Elizabeth Holmes


Somehow, she came to be billed as the next Steve Jobs, a 19-year-old college dropout inventor of a revolutionary new technology that would upend an industry and change the world, a role model for young women in tech, a darling of the business media and venture capitalists and other powerful men who pumped $9 billion into her company, crammed onto her board and defended her from all comers.

Sounds too good to be true - and according to the courts and regulators, it was. That company, Theranos, was supposed to have built technology that could run a variety of blood tests with just a finger prick. But it not only didn't work - it never worked, posing a huge risk to the health of customers who relied on the results. That one-time celebrity, CEO Elizabeth Holmes, is now facing charges of criminal conspiracy and fraud. And the story of her spectacular rise and equally stunning fall is the subject of a new documentary by Alex Gibney titled "The inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley." It airs on HBO Monday night.

Alex Gibney joined me from our NPR studios in New York along with Tyler Shultz, a former Theranos employee who turned whistleblower about the company's practices. Now, of course, hindsight is 20/20, but we wanted to know why Theranos originally seemed like such a great bet. Here's Tyler Shultz.

TYLER SHULTZ: Well, the idea was so compelling not only because of the small volumes but also because of its portability. Theoretically, this could be used in the battlefield and medevac helicopters and operating rooms and doctors' offices - maybe even in your homes. You could quickly get these results and make medical decisions based on those results.

MARTIN: As opposed to having to, you know, draw a vial of blood with all the scariness that that implies, send it off to...

SHULTZ: Correct.

MARTIN: ...A lab, get it back - that whole business.

Alex, give me - I'm going to start by asking you, how did this very young woman get all these investors to believe in her when she wasn't in medicine and had no track record?

MARTIN: Well, I think she was an extraordinarily good storyteller. And that was something that she shared with her idol, Steve Jobs. And I think she also did something very clever, which is to surround herself with respectability. On her board were George Shultz, secretary - former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, Jim Mattis, defense secretary. Her lawyer was the noted David Boyce.

There was a key scientist at Stanford named Channing Robertson who had signed on to be a key adviser to the company, and she was routinely paraded on stage by people like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. So she surrounded herself with this kind of patina of respectability that was very hard to ignore. And so everybody thought, well, everybody's in. I guess I'm in, too.

MARTIN: And, Tyler, do you want to add to that, as somebody who worked with her? And we want to note that that George Shultz on the board, former secretary of state, former secretary of the treasury, is your grandfather.


MARTIN: So what is it about her, based on your experience with her, that made her so compelling?

SHULTZ: So I would say that Elizabeth is really good at making you feel like you are so important to accomplishing this enormous vision that she's already laid out to you. And I would literally be working with these devices in the lab feeling like nothing was working. I would be very frustrated. I'd be kind of distraught. And I would go have maybe a five-minute conversation with Elizabeth, and I would leave feeling motivated, ready to go back into the lab, feeling like I was about to change the world. So she really did have an amazing gift of motivating people and getting them to do what she wanted.

MARTIN: So, Alex, pick up the thread from here. The people doing the work knew that it wasn't working. What is the larger story here? Is it the hero worship? What is it?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think you just hit it right there. I think the idea - in a way, the film is about storytelling. A very compelling story can make us want to invest in it in a way that we become caught up. It's something so good you want to believe in it. I think the other thing, too, that this is a story about - it's a story about the end justifies the means. Elizabeth had a dream. But as the dream grew further and further and further away from accomplishable reality, instead of admitting that, she kept pretending that the dream was real.

MARTIN: Tyler, what about that? I mean, you founded - you're still in biotech.

SHULTZ: I am, yeah.

MARTIN: You founded your own company. What lessons did you take from your experience at Theranos?

SHULTZ: (Laughter) Oh, man. I don't know - even know where to start. But one of the big lessons is that, you know, CEOs really do have to sell a vision, but they also need to be clear on what is vision and what is reality. I think one of the problems that Elizabeth had is that she somehow refused to acknowledge that things were not going well. This would be like if Elon Musk had a rocket explode, and people said, look at the rocket explode, and he said no, it didn't. No, it didn't. Let's do it again.

That was kind of what was happening at Theranos. Things were not working, and rather than actually work to improve them, we would repeat things. An experiment would fail, and we would just repeat it until we got the result that we wanted. And we would say, OK, great. Let's move on - which is not how good science is done.

MARTIN: But, you know, one of the painful things about this film - I have to be honest - is the - you know, your grandfather, as we said, former secretary of everything George Shultz was on her board. And at some point, when you started raising questions about what has now been, you know, demonstrated to have been fraudulent practices, that he sided with her over you. And that has to be painful. And I just - I don't even know - how do you even understand that?

SHULTZ: Yeah. It was extremely painful. But at the time, you know, I was under so much legal pressure that I basically felt like I was fighting for my own survival, in some ways. So I very quickly stopped caring. He had a really close relationship with Elizabeth, and I think he really idolized her. He treated her like a daughter. I don't think he could even conceive that she would lie to him.

GIBNEY: You know, one of the things that's interesting and important about this story and one of the reasons I wanted to do the film is that this is really about the psychology of fraud. I mean, if you think about it, there was the board, and they were convinced even though they didn't really get independent verification of how the machine worked. But there were investors - like, Rupert Murdoch put in $125 million into the company. None of the investors ever saw an audited financial statement. They just took it on faith. We're trained to believe.

You begin to be corrupted, and you're corrupted because you think it's in the service of a good cause, which is doing something good and important for your child. And what's more important than that? So I'm not excusing it. I'm just trying to describe how that slippery slope happens.

MARTIN: So, Alex, you know, I don't want to leave you without asking - did you ever talk to Elizabeth Holmes? And did you - I assume you tried to.

GIBNEY: I did.

MARTIN: Did you, like, talk to her? You did.

GIBNEY: I never did. No, no. I tried to talk to her.

MARTIN: You tried to.

GIBNEY: My producer sat down with her for five hours early in the process. But one of the things we got out of it was that Elizabeth - and this was in 2017, before her company completely dissolved, but it was certainly on the way down - saw herself as a victim. And that is the most interesting thing of all.

MARTIN: That's filmmaker Alex Gibney. His documentary, "The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley" airs Monday night on HBO. Tyler Schultz is one of the subjects in the documentary. He was a whistleblower, and he's still in biotech and has founded his own company. And he was kind enough to join us as well.

Alex Gibney, Tyler Schultz, thank you both so much for talking with us.

SHULTZ: Thank you.

GIBNEY: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN STONE SONG, "LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.