- In “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” director Alex Gibney explores how the blood-testing startup Theranos and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, went from tech darlings to the company shutting down and Holmes facing criminal charges.
- Along the way, Gibney got his hands on 100 hours of leaked footage from within the company, and HBO went to court to unseal deposition footage from Theranos’ court case with investors.
- The documentary, available on Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, includes footage from all-hands meetings and company parties, as well as video of Holmes dancing to “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer.
Theranos had an unprecedented meteoric rise and subsequent catastrophic collapse – and luckily there were cameras along the way to capture it all.
The blood-testing startup had racked up a $US9 billion valuation with its big vision to test for a number of conditions using just a small sample of blood, and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was featured on the covers of business magazines and included on lists of top executives.
Then in October 2015, questions started being raised about how the company’s technology worked, prompted by investigative stories from the Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou.
In June 2018, Holmes stepped down as CEO of Theranos, remaining with the company as a founder and the chair of the board. She was also charged with wire fraud by the Department of Justice. Later that year, in September, Theranos officially shut down.
The saga is the focus of “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” a new documentary debuting Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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Director and writer Alex Gibney – known for “Going Clear,” a documentary about Scientology, and his Oscar-winning work on “Taxi to the Dark Side” – signed on to the project after the former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and now departing HBO CEO Richard Plepler suggested he look into it. Both men had been admirers of Holmes, Gibney said in an interview.
At the time, Carreyrou’s reporting was just starting to unfold, and Theranos was looking to mount a comeback, doubling down on its technology rather than operating clinical labs.
“It bore eerie similarities to other stories I’ve done in the past,” Gibney told Business Insider. He drew similarities to “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The Armstrong Lie,” about the cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Early on in the process, the documentary team had a hard time getting people to talk to them. Theranos, while it was active, had a reputation for being litigious as the documentary – and Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood” – explores.
Gibney and his team pursued other ways of telling the story, particularly exploring the psychology of lying. The team went to court to get video footage of two lawsuits filed against the blood-testing company.
Some of that footage made it into the film. But late in the process, Gibney’s team was leaked more than 100 hours of footage that Theranos had recorded for its own use.
The footage included videos of Holmes walking around the office, her and former Theranos President Sunny Balwani presenting at all-hands meetings, company parties, and Holmes dancing to “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. (MC Hammer was recently spotted attending the San Francisco screening of the documentary.)
There’s also footage of Theranos commercials, in which concerned family members buy gift cards so their loved ones can get blood work done. As a mum hands the grandma a gift card, the grandchild quietly starts crying.
The footage even captured one of Balwani’s infamous company activities: leading chants of “f— you” to people and companies he perceived as enemies.
On the lighter side, it shows Holmes and Balwani jumping in a bouncy house after the Food and Drug Administration approved one of the company’s blood tests in July 2015, a few months before The Journal’s reporting came out.
Gibney said the decision to feature that footage over the deposition tapes was that it was better to see what Holmes was like while the company was in its heyday.
“It was more interesting to see Elizabeth in the moment,” Gibney said.
There’s one incident Gibney said he wishes he could have shown in the film, but he couldn’t get any footage.
In 2008, two Theranos executives approached Theranos’ chairman of the board at the time, the venture capitalist Don Lucas, to tell him that the company’s revenue projections had been greatly exaggerated, considering the blood-testing device Theranos was building wasn’t finished. Lucas convened a board meeting, asking Holmes to wait outside, and the board reached a decision to remove her as CEO.
In “Bad Blood,” Carreyrou wrote that within the next two hours, Holmes got the board to change its mind. Gibney said he would have loved to get into how Holmes was able to change the minds of the high-powered people she had on her board at the time.
- Read more:
- The reporter who broke the Theranos saga wide open pinpoints the moment he knew he had a big story on his hands
- Meet the pharmacy quietly powering hot startups like Hims and Nurx that ship Viagra and birth-control pills straight to your door
- The mysterious story of former Theranos president Sunny Balwani, who former employees saw as an ‘enforcer’ and now faces criminal charges of wire fraud
- The mysterious former Theranos executive who’s been charged with fraud is coming out of the shadows and speaking out