How To Kill A Unicorn: The cautionary tale of Theranos

A unicorn in startup jargon is an early stage tech company with a $1 billion+ valuation. Theranos is (was?) a Silicon Valley startup and a unicorn, focused on disrupting the enormous market of diagnostic blood testing.

Valuations are funny things. They are critically important to startup CEOs and investors but ultimately, they are subjective shared opinions based on complex models of present and future events. Startup CEOs and venture capital investors try very hard to keep their company’s’ valuations ever-increasing. Negative news or events can start a cascading cycle resulting in the dreaded “down round” of investment and even ejection from the unicorn club.

Theranos was a unicon, but no longer
Killing the unicorn, British Library

Background

CEO Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2004. As a 19-year old college student, Holmes pitched an idea to her Stanford professor and was advised to start a company. Through family and personal connections, venture capital money poured in, Holmes dropped out of Stanford and Theranos began its mission to change health care.

Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes
Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes – Inc. cover photo Oct. 2015

“…it doesn’t work…”

Alas, “mistakes were made” and the company and its executive team found itself in hot water with the FDA and the subject of a number of unflattering stories in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. The Theranos head of R&D committed suicide and left a note saying “it [the technology] doesn’t work.” Also, the company president recently resigned and CEO Holmes is banned from owning or operating a lab for two years. In addition, Theranos’s commercial partners, Safeway and Walgreen’s, terminated their agreements with the company.

That’s about as bleak a series of events as you can imagine, right? Well as the infomercial goes, wait, there’s more…

Negative reactions continued over the year since the WSJ story broke. In May 2016, Theranos announced that it had voided two years of results from its Edison device. Patients filed a class action lawsuit alleging they were adversely affected by Theranos’s business practices (specifically, faulty blood tests). Recently, the company announced layoffs of 40% of its labor force and closure of testing labs around the country. In October, 2016 Holmes announced that Theranos would shift its strategy toward development and manufacture of small, robotic diagnostic test equipment – a very crowded market.

In June, 2016, Forbes assessed the valuation of Theranos as $800 million and revised the estimated net worth of CEO Holmes from $4.5 billion at the company’s peak valuation (she has a 50% stake in Theranos but it’s all common stock) to zero.

Theranos valuation history
Theranos valuation history (based on public estimates)

What killed the unicorn? There are a number of bad decisions made by Theranos management and its Board of Directors. Here are 10 of the worst that I identified.

Bad Decisions

  1. Stack the Board of Directors with old, politically connected white guys (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Frist, Sam Nunn) with little or no startup, technology, or diagnostics savvy.
  2. Create a cult of personality around the CEO. Make sure she appears on popular magazine covers and is interviewed frequently on TV shows.
  3. Create a not-so-subtle emphasis on the similarities between your attractive, young CEO and Steve Jobs: both are college dropouts, both wear a uniform of black turtlenecks, both are “visionary” leaders, both are/were young billionaires (only on paper in the case of Elizabeth Holmes)..
  4. Keep the founder as CEO, no matter if she has zero prior business or medical industry experience. Do not bring in a strong executive team with relevant industry experience to complement the CEO’s energy, vision, and talent.
  5. Hype your technology but shroud its technical details in secrecy. Worse, secretly use competitor’s technology for the vast majority of the tests performed.
  6. Do not conduct randomized clinical studies to demonstrate efficacy vs. industry “gold standard” technologies. Definitely  do not publish in peer-reviewed journals.
  7. Sign agreements with major commercial partners (Walgreens, Safeway) and conduct major PR campaigns announcing the deals before the technology is mature and proven.
  8. Pay no attention to FDA, CLIA, and GLP requirements. Refuse to learn from what happened to other startups that defied or ignored the FDA (see 23andme).
  9. Aggressively promote your muddled, multi-pronged, “disruptive” business model.
  10. Deny and deflect all bad news. Accuse The Wall Street Journal of conducting a witch hunt.

Takeaways

  1. The medical device/diagnostics industry is not the technology industry. Patients’ health and lives are affected by poor management, decisions, and/or business practices. Consequently, medical technology companies are heavily regulated and conservative regarding innovation. 
  2. If you must have an inexperienced person at the helm of the startup, compensate with a seasoned, accomplished Board of Directors with relevant experience and networks.
  3. Aim to solve one problem at a time. Prioritize. Theranos touted its “Nanotainer” finger stick technology, Edison diagnostic technology, and plans to disrupt healthcare by bringing diagnostic testing directly to patients through grocery and drug stores. That’s a lot of moving parts.
  4. Expect swift and deadly reactions from entrenched competitors (including complaints to the FDA and leaks to the media). Your disruptive business model is their existential threat.
  5. As the saying goes, sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. The first step to success in the medical technology industry is a strong intellectual property portfolio and properly maintained trade secrets that create solutions to real healthcare problems. But that strategy must coexist with a culture of regulatory compliance, stringent adherence to quality standards, and sponsorship/disclosure of peer reviewed randomized clinical studies. It’s a business model that has worked for many successful companies in the industry.

Will Theranos pull out of its nose dive, emerge as a disruptive company in the ultra-competitive medical diagnostics market, and regain its unicorn status? Maybe, but given its track record and penchant for acting more like a Silicon Valley tech startup than a medical technology company, I would not bet on it.

Postscript 12.15.16 The shareholder lawsuits have begun.

References

  1. From $4.5 Billion To Nothing: Forbes Revises Estimated Net Worth Of Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes [Forbes]
  2. The wildly hyped $9 billion blood test company that no one really understands [The Washington Post]
  3. An Open Letter From Elizabeth Holmes [Theranos company website]
  4. Theranos Attacks Wall Street Journal (Again) in a Rebuttal You’ll Need a Medical Degree to Understand [recode]
  5. Expecting Data From Theranos, Lab Experts Get New Product [Bloomberg]
  6. At Theranos, Many Strategies and Snags [The Wall Street Journal]
  7. Why the Next Steve Jobs Will Be a Woman [Inc.]
  8. Theranos throws in the towel on clinical labs, officially pivots to devices [Ars Technica]
  9. How Playing the Long Game Made Elizabeth Holmes a Billionaire [Inc.]
  10. Theranos’ Scandal Exposes the Problem With Tech’s Hype Cycle [Wired]
  11. Will Shareholder Lawsuit Trigger Theranos To Return Capital To Shareholders? [Forbes]

  12. Theranos Just Got Slammed With Another Lawsuit [Fortune]