Sociopaths need data too

I just finished John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, about the fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the Silicon Valley Unicorn that pretended to be a pioneer in laboratory testing but was really just a purveyor of bloated promises and outright lies.

A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew. I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference.

A 19-year-old with a couple of semesters of chemistry under her belt suddenly knows enough science and engineering to demolish the scientific state of the art and maybe even the laws of physics when it comes to fluid dynamics. Even the products themselves kept pivoting as her original ideas were clearly impossible with the current state of technology and the people she brought in to do the actual work rotated through.

It’s bonkers, and it’s so telling that almost everyone investing was a tech billionaire or silicon valley VC with no understanding of science. A cult of personality has no business in healthcare without data. This was Holmes describing the Theranos lab process:

A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.

If you heard this in a pitch meeting, would you think future of medicine or middle school book report?

I remember the news when Theranos imploded and I think a lot of people fully embraced the schadenfreude. But reading the detailed story was just so depressing. You shouldn’t be able to run a science company while hiding all the research and data. You know, all the sciency stuff. That’s literally not how science works.

How many thousands upon thousands of hours of smart folks’ time was wasted trying to duct tape vaporware when they could have been making a substantive contribution to their fields. How much money was flushed for someone’s ambition?

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