Sure, Theranos was a disaster…

… but it offers some ideas for today’s crisis.

OK, Elizabeth Holmes is a likely sociopath who charismatically defrauded investors out of billions of dollars and made fools of a lot supposedly smart, highly influential people.

In a nutshell: Holmes was 20-something Steve Jobs wannabe who visioned  that blood tests could be done from a single drop of blood and built a $9 billion company around the concept,

Here’s a 5-minute clip on Holmes & Theranosimage

There was a rub, though.

Holmes (and the company) crashed & burned when it was finally discovered that Theranos was Oz – the concept didn’t work.

Holmes is currently under Federal indictment, with a trial scheduled for this October.

Putting those dirty details aside for a moment, there are some things we can learn from Holmes and the Theranos saga.

Let me explain ….

I recently re-watched the 20/20 TV version of the Theranos story (titled “The Drop Out”) … this time, I watched with an eye to “learnings” that might have relevance to the coronavirus crisis.

Here are my takeaways…


1. The concept

Holmes’ initial idea was a prickly patch applied to a person’s upper arm. The patch would have micro-probes that would be constantly monitoring a person’s blood.  The patch would magically display warnings and readings if something was out-of-whack.

Far fetched, right?

That’s what I thought until I saw an ad for the Freestyle Libre — a continuous glucose monitoring system for  diabetics.

The Freestyle concept: “A sensor is worn on the back of the upper arm and glucose levels are displayed on a handheld reader or iPhone.”

Hmmm, that sounds familiar.


Holmes eventually gave up on the magic patch and refocused on blood testing done on a single drop of blood … with results generated by a small  diagnostic machine located on-site at labs, etc.


On face value, Holme’s concept was enticing.

But Theranos couldn’t make it work … and the company went belly up.

Takeaway: Note the similarities to the single drop antibody tests that are being developed for coronavirus survivors … and to the Abbot’s point-of-care rapid-testing machines (though they’re not blood analyzers)

And, ask yourself, how would you like a patch-sensor on your arm that would continuously relay  C-19 diagnostic readings and alerts? Wouldn’t you like to know if you’re infected?

Failing that, how about a single-drop blood test for the virus with instant results?


2. The distribution network

While the Theranos “product” was still in a rough prototype stage, Holmes was able to get Walgreen’s to sign up to install the Theranos testing equipment in all of its retail locations … and offer the Theronos tests in Walgreen stores.

Think about that for a moment.

Why can’t coronavirus testing be done at a broad network of retail locations?

Today, I have no idea if I can get a C-19 test (I assume not since I’m asymptomatic) …  wouldn’t know where to go to get a test if I did qualify … and, would probably need a doctor’s Rx to get in the queue,

I’d love the opportunity to walk into a Walgreen’s or CVS or Giant every week or two to see if I’ve been infected.

No muss, no fuss.

Takeway: If you want the masses to get tested (maybe regularly for surveillance) make it easy and accessible.  Make the tests available in locations that people frequent — not in isolated test centers that are 25 miles away.


3. The marketing hype

Holmes was a relentless, convincing salesperson.

Her formula: a bit of (unproven) science, a tear-jerking (faux) sincerity for saving lives, and a crowd-pleasing “you go girl” persona.

For all of her failings, Holmes could tell a good story and motivate people to invest in the company, to put her machines in their stores and to line-up to get a 1-drop blood test.

Takeaway: Getting people (especially asymptomatic folks) to believe in  broadscale testing is going to require some big-time selling of program.

Any nominations for a spokesperson?


Bottom line: Even failures like Theanos offer ideas and innovations cues.  Holmes was (a bit) wacky, but she was also a visionary. Don’t throw all the babies out with the bath water.

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