The futuristic complex had bulletproof glass windows, hulking bodyguards, and a dystopian surveillance apparatus that would have made George Orwell blush. The company tracked its employees’ every move, monitored their emails, "key stroked" its receptionists, and aggressively litigated anyone who violated its non-disclosure agreement. This was the workplace culture at Theranos, according to HBO’s latest documentary “The Inventor," which explores disgraced founder Elizabeth Holmes’ meteoric fall from grace.
Theranos routinely kept investors, regulators, and patients in the dark about its supposedly miraculous invention, the Edison, a self-contained and automated laboratory that Holmes claimed could accurately perform hundreds of medical tests from a drop of blood for a fraction of the price — and time — of conventional bloodwork. Theranos used the constant threat of industrial espionage as a fear tactic to obscure, obstruct, and cover up Holmes’ fraudulent research. But Holmes didn't carry this all out alone.
The film, directed by Alex Gibney, shows how Holmes and Theranos’ president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, together fostered a culture of secrecy, lying, and unrelenting paranoia in a delusional quest to bring their blood test to market.
"We think that you should get things done before you talk about them,” Balwani told a crowd of employees during HBO’s “The Inventor.” “That’s the culture we have created." Balwani, company president and Holmes’ boyfriend, protected her secrets, shielded Theranos’ failures, and commanded a workplace dominated by fear and surveillance. So, who is Balwani and where is he now?
Balwani was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. in 1986. According to his LinkedIn, Balwani studied information systems at the University of Texas in the '80s. After college, he listed landing a job with Microsoft for most of the '90s. He then founded software development company CommerceBid.com in 1999, which later sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Yahoo! Finance.
“Sunny was very successful in the late '90s with a tech company that sold for a lot of money,” Douglas Matje, a former Theranos biochemist, told HBO. “He seemed kind of like a Mark Cuban character, potentially, to me in some ways, where he was at the right place, the right time, made a lot of money. His expertise was software and IT."
Balwani met Holmes in 2002, when she was only a teenager, on a Mandarin-intensive study abroad program in China, according to journalist John Carreyrou’s book, “Bad Blood.” Carreyrou claimed Holmes had difficulties making friends and was even bullied, but Balwani, in his mid-30s, reportedly stuck up for her. Balwani was previously married to a Japanese artist, but according to Carreyrou, began dating and living with the Theranos founder in 2005.
The software developer later joined Theranos in 2009 as chief operating officer, president — and unofficially — Holmes’ personal director of secret police.
“‘You are being monitored. You are being watched,’” former Theranos lab associate Erika Cheung told HBO. “We would send emails, not CC Sunny or Elizabeth, and we would get a response back from Sunny,” she added.
Cheung was one of countless employees Balwani and Theranos spied on. “I found out that I was being key stroked,” recalled former Theranos receptionist Cheryl Gafner in “The Inventor.” “That means anything that I typed was being watched internally.” The documentary claims Sunny tracked all keycard entries and exits so employees would be identified each time they moved around the building.
Balwani, like many others in Holmes’ inner circle, was convinced she was the type of iconoclastic inventor who comes along once in a lifetime. “I think Sunny saw [Holmes] as this iconic figure that he could never be, and so he, I think, found this vehicle for him to advance himself in her, and, you know, she was on board for it, too,” Matje explained.
Ken Auletta, a writer for The New Yorker who reported on Theranos, echoed this in the HBO documentary.
“He was 49 and she was 30 but she was the dominant figure in that relationship,” Auletta said. “And when he talked about her, he talked about her in a very deferential way, that she was kind of a genius.”
“They certainly would leave together, they’d come in at similar times," said Ryan Wistort in the docu-series, who used to work in research and development at Theranos. "They were always talking to each other, offline, online, in meetings, outside of meetings. They were very close.”
While Balwani and Holmes were flying across the country, delivering corporate presentations, and wheeling and dealing their fake invention, Theranos employees at the company’s headquarters were carrying out orders to fudge lab reports in an attempt to deceive regulators and patients in order to keep the company afloat. But by 2017, journalists and whistleblowers had exposed Theranos.
Much of the $900 million the company had raised were spent on legal fees, settling lawsuits, and refunding patients, according to “The Inventor.”
Holmes soon broke up with Balwani and fired him from the company. In a Reddit AMA, Carreyrou indicated she did this to place the blame on Balwani. "When it started becoming apparent to her that she would have no chance of persuading people she was really trying to change the company's culture and fix its problems, she threw Sunny under the bus," he wrote.
In 2018, Theranos officially dissolved. Both Holmes and Balwani were each charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, according to ABC News. They’ve both pled not guilty.
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