Disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes “has the ambition to rise again” despite being jailed over a years-long scam that saw her become one of America’s most celebrated tech billionaires, the creator of an award-winning podcast about the scandal has said.
Her astonishing rise and fall – from the youngest self-made female billionaire in US history to her once $9bn-valued company going under in shame – inspired podcast The Dropout, which this year was adapted into an acclaimed TV series of the same name starring Amanda Seyfried.
Host Rebecca Jarvis, an ABC News correspondent, interviewed former employers, investors, and patients over the course of several years, and has since spoken to some of the 12 jurors who decided Holmes’s fate.
“It’s a bad bet to assume this is the last we’ve heard from Elizabeth Holmes,” she told Sky News.
“She has the ambition to rise again and to do more.
“I have reporting from a handful of sources who were not part of the lawsuit, who lost money in this story, but who ultimately have said they would back her again if she came back with a new idea.”
Investors could ‘try again’ if Holmes returns
Styling herself on her idol Steve Jobs, the famed Apple co-founder, Holmes’s firm took Silicon Valley by storm on the promise of groundbreaking blood testing technology that attracted a whole host of big name investors.
Among them were Rupert Murdoch and the American pharmacy giant Walgreens, while former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger were on the board of directors.
They were all hoodwinked by the promise of tech that could test for dozens of diseases with merely a drop of blood, potentially removing the need for trips to the doctor by rolling the gadgets out in stores.
“For a while, you could walk into a Walgreens and visit one of the Theranos wellness centres – and there was this promise that the technology would find its way into most of the Walgreens in the country,” said Jarvis.
“If Elizabeth Holmes accomplished her goal, this could have been in the hands of most Americans.”
Despite the fact that the technology never worked as advertised, Jarvis says the promise of such an idea would be enough to once again entice investors.
As a female CEO, she had “defied a lot of the odds” by raising hundreds of millions of dollars, helped by crafting a “mesmerising” persona defined by turtleneck jumpers, a strikingly deep voice, and a goal to “change the world”.
“We’ve seen things like that happen with Silicon Valley – major investors who put in money again with founders who… may not have been accused of fraud, but who have lost everything,” said Jarvis.
“It’s definitely not out of the question, you would see people who lost with her once, try again and see if it works.”
Dangerous ‘pressure’ of big tech
The culture of Silicon Valley, home to companies like Apple, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, and Google owner Alphabet, suffered tremendous scrutiny as the Theranos dream unravelled.
The treacherous “fake it ’til you make it” ethos that permeates American startups creates a pressure that helps personalities like Holmes emerge and will continue to do so, according to Jarvis.
“You don’t have an Elizabeth Holmes without some of this ecosystem that exists around her,” she said.
“I have been covering tech, business, and the economy for almost two decades, and you see history repeat itself time and time again. Changes can happen – but they’re mostly incremental.”
Were there to be a positive legacy of the Theranos scandal, Jarvis believes it could lie in the willingness of whistleblowers to speak out against their employers.
Among those key to exposing Holmes were research engineer Tyler Shultz, grandson of board member George, and laboratory assistant Erika Cheung.
Mr Shultz’s relationship with his family was hugely strained by his decision to speak out, while Ms Cheung – a fresh graduate at the time – feared for her career prospects.
Both contributed to John Carreyrou’s bombshell report in The Wall Street Journal, and they feature in The Dropout podcast and show, on which Jarvis was an executive producer.
“In the near term they faced real consequences, and it wasn’t pleasant,” Jarvis told Sky News.
“But longer term, what they said was true and was upheld in a court of law – Elizabeth Holmes was convicted, the jury held her responsible for the things they said she was responsible for.
“It shows the power of speaking up when you see something that doesn’t seem right. Even if there might be consequences in the near term, the truth will ultimately prevail.”