Elizabeth Holmes raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors on the promise that her California Silicon Valley based medical-testing startup Theranos Inc. would change medicine with a single drop of blood. Now securities regulators called her a fraud and forced her to give up the company she built.
Holmes began to rise to national attention in 2013 when she claimed that Theranos had developed a medical technology that could do what seemed impossible: Its secret machines could run thousands of medical tests using the blood from a tiny finger-prick, and do so quickly and cheaply.
High-profile board members joined as well — including the diplomat Henry Kissinger, James Mattis — now the Trump administration’s Secretary of Defense, and David Boies, the lawyer who tried to stop revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment.
Holmes had claimed her machines could process 90 percent of the tests performed by standard lab equipment. Those statements won the company an agreement with a national pharmacy chain in 2010 even though the technology was not yet “commercially ready,” according to the SEC. Theranos publicly announced a partnership with the drugstore chain Walgreens, which later sued Theranos. The companies eventually settled.
The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Theranos Inc., its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, and its former President Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani with raising more than $700 million from investors through an elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.
The complaints allege that Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani made numerous false and misleading statements in investor presentations, product demonstrations, and media articles by which they deceived investors into believing that its key product – a portable blood analyzer – could conduct comprehensive blood tests from finger drops of blood, revolutionizing the blood testing industry.
In truth, according to the SEC’s complaint, Theranos’ proprietary analyzer could complete only a small number of tests, and the company conducted the vast majority of patient tests on modified and industry-standard commercial analyzers manufactured by others.
The complaints further charge that Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani claimed that Theranos’ products were deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense on the battlefield in Afghanistan and on medevac helicopters and that the company would generate more than $100 million in revenue in 2014. In truth, Theranos’ technology was never deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense and generated a little more than $100,000 in revenue from operations in 2014.
Theranos and Holmes have agreed to resolve the charges against them. Importantly, in addition to a penalty, Holmes has agreed to give up majority voting control over the company, as well as to a reduction of her equity which, combined with shares she previously returned, materially reduces her equity stake.
“The Theranos story is an important lesson for Silicon Valley,” said Jina Choi, Director of the SEC’s San Francisco Regional Office. “Innovators who seek to revolutionize and disrupt an industry must tell investors the truth about what their technology can do today, not just what they hope it might do someday.”