Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes leaves after a hearing in a federal court in San Jose, California on July 17, 2019.
Stephen Lam | Reuters
Almost a decade ago, Elizabeth Holmes was named the Golden Girl of Silicon Valley and briefly crowned America’s youngest self-made billionaire.
This week she will walk into a federal court in San Jose with a very different picture: a defendant charged with fraud.
Federal attorneys in the Northern District of California have accused Holmes and Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, former Theranos president and intermittent romantic partner, of defrauding investors and patients. You face two cases of conspiracy to commit wire transfer fraud and 10 cases of wire transfer fraud each. Holmes, 37, and Balwani, 56, who will be tried separately, pleaded not guilty.
Jury selection in Holmes’ trial begins Tuesday and is expected to take at least two days, a process that in lesser-known cases typically lasts less than a day. The opening declarations are scheduled for September 8th and the process is expected to take 13 weeks.
If convicted, Holmes faces 20 years imprisonment. Prosecutors say Holmes not only defrauded investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars, but put thousands of lives at risk.
The rise and fall of Theranos
Holmes’ saga began when she had the vision to run hundreds of laboratory tests with just one prick of blood. She left Stanford at the age of 19 to start Theranos. The idea was to make blood tests cheaper, more convenient, and accessible to consumers.
The company has partnered with Walgreens and the food chain Safeway. Its board of directors included luminaries such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the late George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
But Holmes ‘vision was turned on its head in 2015 after Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou published a series of scathing reports exposing the flaws and inaccuracies of Theranos’ technology.
Patients received inaccurate test results for conditions such as HIV, cancer, and miscarriages.
“She was marketing a medical product that she knew didn’t work. Her machine only ran a handful of tests that she didn’t do well at all,” Carreyrou said in an interview with CNBC last week.
In 2018, Holmes and Balwani were charged with “massive fraud” by the Securities and Exchange Commission. This led to Theranos being dissolved and Holmes taking up residence with the SEC. She agreed to pay $ 500,000 without admitting or denying the charges. Balwani wants to fight the SEC charges.
Holmes once had some of America’s most powerful and wealthy venture capitalists behind their healthcare start-up Theranos.
Investors like media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Walton family from Walmart, the Cox family, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Mexican investor Carlos Slim were so enchanted they poured millions into Theranos.
Some of these investors are expected to testify in the Holmes trial. All of the major investors who have spent $ 700 million over a decade did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment. Prosecutors claim investors have been swayed by exaggerations and misrepresentations of blood test technology.
“When a deal becomes one, you don’t want to be on that list of investors,” said Kevin O’Leary, chairman of O’Shares ETFs and judge on CNBC’s Money Court.
O’Leary, who said about 20% of his investments have failed, didn’t mince his words when asked about the impact of Theranos investors.
“You can understand how embarrassing it is to get a zero like that,” said O’Leary. “That clearly means you didn’t do your due diligence, which all investors know as a mistake. When there is a really hot deal, the diligence process suffers immediately. You just wonder if you can get into the deal.”
According to the indictment, there have been six referrals from unnamed investors that they claim were the result of fraudulent claims about their consideration, according to prosecutors.
“It’s being scrutinized very carefully and investors are being dragged back into the press and embarrassed for it,” said O’Leary. “I can guarantee you nothing will change. When this is over, whatever happens, it will happen again. I guarantee nothing will change when it comes to investing in Silicon Valley.”
A Silicon Valley story
Instead of being an example of the best in Silicon Valley, Theranos became a black eye for startups.
One of Holmes ‘defensive strategies could be to blame the so-called “Fake it’ til you make it” motto of Silicon Valley. Earlier this year, the judge ruled that her defense team could rely on the hype and exaggeration of the startup founders to explain Holmes’ own actions.
“It will be a wake-up call for venture capitalists and young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley,” said Carreyrou. “If you go too far, if you exaggerate the envelope and exaggerate hype and lie, it becomes securities fraud.”
However, if found not guilty, some say it might encourage risk taking.
“It will take a guilty verdict to correct course and even a guilty verdict may not be enough in this case,” said Carreyrou.
Mental health defense
Explosive new court documents, unsealed just days before jury selection, shed light on how Holmes’ attorneys could build a mental health defense. In the filing, Holmes claims she was the victim of “decades” of abuse by Balwani, whom she met when she was 18 years old.
The documents indicate that she claims he abused her psychologically, emotionally and sexually. According to a file, Holmes accused Balwani of throwing sharp objects at her, controlling what she ate, when she slept, how she dressed, and monitored her calls and text messages. Balwani denied the claims.
The court records also showed that Holmes plans to take a stand in her own defense, a move many legal experts believe is risky.
Meanwhile, birth certificates from CNBC show that Holmes and her partner Billy Evans had a baby on July 10 in Redwood City, California. Holmes’ pregnancy was first announced in March when her lawyer requested that the start of the trial be postponed. Prosecutors said they had been caught off guard by the news and added at a status hearing in March, “It’s frustrating and disappointing to find out now.” The news of Holmes’ pregnancy raised questions how that would affect her process.
“It’s an uphill battle: Balwani may have influenced her because of his age or previous successes,” said Danny Cevallos, legal analyst with NBC News. “But will she convince a jury that his influence excuses her own behavior?”
Today, after her trial has been postponed again and again, she is the mother of a newborn. Holmes, once ubiquitous in the media, is silent and ignores reporters’ questions every time she walks in and out of the courthouse.
That will all change when she actually takes a stand to finally tell her side of the story.