Elizabeth Holmes describes Theranos’s ‘big idea’ to jurors

Defence in surprise move to put founder on stand in case focusing on Silicon Valley culture

Theranos founder and former chief executive Elizabeth Holmes (centre) along with her mother Noel Holmes and partner Billy Evans arrive for her trial in San Jose, California on Monday. Photograph: Ethan Swope/Getty Images

Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder accused by US prosecutors of defrauding hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, took the stand in her own criminal trial, telling jurors on Monday: “We thought this was a really big idea.”

The defence made the surprise move to call the 37-year-old to the stand last week, giving her the chance to defend herself against claims she lied about the capabilities of the supposedly revolutionary Theranos blood-testing machine.

Ms Holmes’s testimony on Monday focused on the formative days of Theranos, part of a defence strategy to convince the jury the young entrepreneur had wholeheartedly believed the technology was ambitious but possible.

Defence lawyer Kevin Downey had Ms Holmes talk the jury through several pictures and technical slides. At one point she used a computer mouse to point out individual components of an early Theranos machine.

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One exhibit, a presentation slide apparently prepared by Ian Gibbons, then-chief scientist at Theranos, detailed several milestones the team felt had been met. Gibbons took his own life in 2013, days before a deposition in a patent lawsuit about the company’s technology.

“I took away that we were hitting the design goals for this system,” Ms Holmes said of the presentation, speaking slowly in her trademark low voice. “The system was performing in a way that was excellent.”

Research partnerships

In an apparent effort to counter claims Theranos was developing its technology in deep secrecy, the defence showed slides and documentation detailing research partnerships and peer-reviewed studies.

Several were listed under the heading "Completed Successes", with examples including work that took place at London's Royal Marsden Hospital in conjunction with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

Ms Holmes’s appearance on the stand in the federal courthouse in San Jose, California, will give the prosecution, intent on painting a picture of her as a calculated liar, a chance to cross-examine the founder of Theranos. That grilling is unlikely to take place until after the US Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

“She doesn’t have to prove that she’s innocent,” said Amanda Kramer, a former federal prosecutor who is a partner at Covington & Burling. “She just has to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.”

“The defendant’s answers on cross-examination . . . are going to be more spontaneous, less prepared, less practised,” Ms Kramer added. Defendants testifying in their own trials is rare, she said, “because it is so risky”.

Fraud

Ms Holmes has been charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In a brief appearance on Friday, Ms Holmes told the jury about the early days of creating Theranos when she was just 19. At its peak the company was valued at $9 billion, with Holmes owning about half.

Journalists and onlookers gathered outside the courtroom from around 3am on Monday while Ms Holmes entered court moments just before 8am, flanked by her partner, Billy Evans.

Watching from the back of the courtroom was John Carreyrou, the former Wall Street Journal reporter whose articles on the company set in course the chain of events that led to Ms Holmes’s downfall.

The media’s eagerness to follow the case is such that Judge Edward Davila admonished the room for loud, incessant typing as reporters sought to document Ms Holmes’s testimony.

Beyond Ms Holmes’s fate, observers have suggested the spirit of Silicon Valley itself is on trial, with questions over how accountable bold entrepreneurs should be if their ideas do not pan out as intended.

“Trying your hardest and coming up short is not a crime,” Lance Wade, an attorney for Holmes, said during opening arguments.

Holmes had promised that Theranos could greatly reduce the cost and discomfort of having blood drawn and analysed.

Machine

The Theranos Edison machine was billed as a unit about the size of a personal computer that could take a small amount of blood through a “nanotainer” and conduct more than 200 tests.

The tiny, half-inch vial became a central prop for Holmes as she graced magazine covers and conference stages the world over.

Ms Holmes’s first full day on the stand ultimately served up a parade of memos detailing how hard the young entrepreneur had indeed tried, with glowing notes from qualified individuals expressing enthusiasm for the technology.

However, the testimony has not yet addressed what happened at Theranos when its technology started failing to live up to that optimism. Nor did it counter the prosecution’s claim that, in the pursuit of more money, Holmes allegedly set out to deceive investors about deals Theranos had in place.

The trial began in the US federal court in San Jose, California, on August 31st, having been delayed by Covid-19 restrictions and Ms Holmes’s pregnancy. She gave birth to a boy in July.

Over 11 weeks, until it rested its case on Friday, the prosecution called on 29 witnesses, including the former US defence secretary Jim Mattis, who was a board member of Theranos and invested some of his money in the company.

With Holmes on the stand again on Tuesday, the defence is expected to argue that she was emotionally abused by Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, chief operating officer of Theranos and former boyfriend of Holmes. Balwani’s lawyers have denied those claims. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021.