The season of fraudsters keeps on giving and this week it is The Dropout, the story of Stanford University dropout Elizabeth Holmes and her ill-fated business Theranos.
Once valued at $10 billion US dollars, Theranos came crashing down when it was revealed that the technology behind the brand was all smoke and mirrors.
Elizabeth had a vision to create a machine to conduct blood tests with one drop of blood. A revolutionary idea, it would have changed the way that medical blood tests were undertaken forever. Noble idea aside, the company under Elizabeth’s direction continued to accept investment ($700 million), even when they knew the technology did not work reliably.
Silicon Valley is no stranger to a failed startup, but the Theranos story is a little different, due largely to the sheer size of the investment in the company, the high profile of many of its investors and board members (Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz to name a few), Elizabeth’s age (she started the company when she was only 19) and the fact that the tech had a real impact on people’s medical diagnoses and lives.
Elizabeth and her business partner and one-time lover Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani are eventually convicted of fraud and are currently awaiting sentencing. The Hulu series charts the improbable rise and ultimate downfall of Elizabeth and Sunny.
Starring Amanda Segfried as Elizabeth and Naveen Andrews as Sunny, the acting is excellent, in particular the way that Amanda captures Elizabeth’s unique mannerisms and cultivated deep baritone voice is quite masterful. The supporting cast includes the talented Stephen Fry, who plays Ian Gibbons, one of the most tragic stories of the whole Theranos debacle.
While ultimately knowing the outcome of the story, this doesn’t detract from the entertainment value and the sheer disbelief at how the story plays out. It is like watching a train hurtling ahead at a speed that you just know will end in disaster.
The Dropout is based on the ABC podcast of the same name, which is well worth listening to prior to watching the series, particularly to hear from some of the real life people and employees affected by the Theranos story, including the brave whistleblowers who eventually brought Theranos down.