Theranos’ Scandal Exposes the Problem With Tech’s Hype Cycle
Theranos, a company that makes low-cost blood tests, has been celebrated as the inventor of the next major medical breakthrough, and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, has been hailed as the next Steve Jobs. But in an expose published today, The Wall Street Journal portrays Theranos as a company that is not only grossly under-delivering on its promise, but is also working hard to hide its problems.
A months-long investigation by the Journal found that, for the bulk of its blood tests, Theranos has not actually been using its own technology, which the company has claimed are capable of running tests with only a few drops of blood. Instead, it’s been relying on traditional machines from companies like Siemens. What’s more, the article alleges that in proficiency tests, Theranos’s own Edison machines have produced radically different results than traditional machines have, and internal emails reveal the company may have tried to prevent those inconsistencies from seeing the light of day.
The Journal‘s claims, many of which Theranos has contested, are damning, portraying Theranos as an Oz-like company that looms large in public consciousness but turns out to have little going on behind the facade. At the same time, the story also exposes a deeper problem with the way Silicon Valley tries to spin hype into startup gold.
It’s hardly unusual for a startup to over-hype its potential in its early days. Mark Zuckerberg was crowing about connecting every person in the world long before that claim seemed plausible. Uber executives have been talking about taking over the taxi industry for years. Even Tinder sometimes bills itself as a global social network, not just a dating app. These grandiose promises are table stakes in the tech industry, a requirement for luring both investors and early users. And typically, they’re harmless. After all, who really gets hurt when, say, Ello fails to catch on?
But Theranos is a cautionary tale of what happens when that mentality creeps into sectors other than software, such as medicine. As one Theranos patient quoted by the Journal put it, “trial and error on people, that’s not OK.” It’s not that any of this is done maliciously. It’s just that the tech industry wants its heroes. It wants to find the next Steve Jobs. It wants to be responsible for discovering not just the next big chat app, but the next big idea that will change the world. Once the industry finds a protagonist who seems to fit that narrative, the story can take on a life of its own, separate from the more mundane reality.
Moving Too Fast
Holmes started Theranos in her dorm room, and, as the oft-told story goes, she kept the company in stealth mode for 10 years, refusing to say much about its methodology or publish its findings in peer-reviewed journals. And yet, throughout that time, tech investors like Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Larry Ellison continued pouring money into the company. To date, the company has raised $400 million at a $9 billion valuation, making Holmes a celebrity in tech circles and on the conference circuit (WIRED featured Holmes in its March 2014 issue).
Fast growth and overexposure can be tricky for any young company to navigate. But when that company dictates people’s health decisions, it can be downright dangerous. So much more is at stake. That’s why these medical tech and biotech companies are among the toughest to start. Instead of raising the money to prove the concept, as so often happens in the frothy tech industry, inventors of medical technology are tasked with proving their worth first. “In the mainstream medical diagnostics industry, there’s a pretty high standard in terms of investment,” says Dr. Muneesh Tewari, an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s department of hematology and oncology. “It’s very uncommon to reach the size of Theranos without substantial disclosure and validation of results of the diagnostic performance.”
There’s an argument to be made, of course, that this process isn’t perfect, either. It means breakthrough treatments can take far too long to reach the mainstream and that large pharmaceutical companies with money to spend get to dictate which technologies are worth the investment. That the tech world would want to apply the “move fast and break things” motto to medicine as well as software makes sense. But there’s an equal and opposite argument to be made: not every industry can or should move fast.
Caught in the Cycle
Theranos isn’t the first scientific company get caught up in the tech hype cycle long before it was ready. The DNA-testing-by-mail service 23andMe was celebrated in tech circles, before the FDA ordered it to stop marketing its health-related gene analyses. The FDA argued that 23andMe’s technology hadn’t gone through the proper approvals, and, as a result, couldn’t advertise its tests to customers as indicators of health issues.
The good news for 23andMe, and perhaps even for Theranos, is that 23andMe seems to have survived the backlash. Unable to market its tests for health purposes, the company began using them for research, all while appealing to the FDA to reconsider. Now, 23andMe has announced a new $115 million round of funding, and at least one of its health tests has received FDA approval.
Theranos, no doubt, will use its substantial backing to fight the claims made by The Wall Street Journal, and work to convince the public and regulators that its technology, while still in its infancy, is more than just vaporware.
That’s the good thing about raising $400 million. It can buy you a heckuva legal team.
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