Friday, September 9, 2016

The suicide of the chief scientist at Theranos

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Elizabeth Holmes, billionaire founder of Theranos, and her late chief scientist, Ian Gibbons.

Vanity Fair

"One of [Theranos founder Elizabeth] Holmes’s first major hires, thanks to an introduction by Channing Robertson, was Ian Gibbons, an accomplished British scientist who had a slew of degrees from Cambridge University and had spent 30 years working on diagnostic and therapeutic products. Gibbons was tall and handsome, with straight reddish-brown hair and blue eyes. He had never owned a pair of jeans and spoke with a British accent that was a combination of colloquial and posh. In 2005, Holmes named him chief scientist.
Gibbons, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after joining the company, encountered a host of issues with the science at Theranos, but the most glaring was simple: the results were off. This conclusion soon led Gibbons to realize that Holmes’s invention was more of an idea than a reality. Still, bound by the scientific method, Gibbons wanted to try every possible direction and exhaust every option. So, for years, while Holmes put her fund-raising talents to use—hiring hundreds of marketers, salespeople, communications specialists, and even the Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris, who was commissioned to make short industrial documentaries—Gibbons would wake early, walk his dogs along a trail near his home, and then set off for the office before seven A.M. In his downtime, he would read I, Claudius, a novel about a man who plays dumb to unwittingly become the most powerful person on earth.
While Gibbons grew ever more desperate to come up with a solution to the inaccuracies of the blood-testing technology, Holmes presented her company to more investors, and even potential partners, as if it had a working, fully realized product. Holmes adorned her headquarters and Web site with slogans claiming, “One tiny drop changes everything,” and “All the same tests. One tiny sample,” and went into media overdrive. She also proved an effective crisis manager. In 2012, for instance, Holmes began talking to the Department of Defense about using Theranos’s technology on the battlefield in Afghanistan. But specialists at the D.O.D. soon uncovered that the technology wasn’t entirely accurate, and that it had not been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration. ...
At around the same time, Theranos also decided to sue Richard Fuisz, an old friend and neighbor of Holmes’s family, alleging that he had stolen secrets that belonged to Theranos. As the suit progressed—it was eventually settled—Fuisz’s lawyers issued subpoenas to Theranos executives involved with the “proprietary” aspects of the technology. This included Ian Gibbons. But Gibbons didn’t want to testify. If he told the court that the technology did not work, he would harm the people he worked with; if he wasn’t honest about the technology’s problems, however, consumers could potentially harm their health, maybe even fatally.

Holmes, meanwhile, did not seem willing to tolerate his resistance, according to his wife, Rochelle Gibbons. Even though Gibbons had warned that the technology wasn’t ready for the public, Holmes was preparing to open “Theranos Wellness Centers” in dozens of Walgreens across Arizona. “Ian felt like he would lose his job if he told the truth,” Rochelle told me as she wept one summer morning in Palo Alto. “Ian was a real obstacle for Elizabeth. He started to be very vocal. They kept him around to keep him quiet.” Channing Robertson, who had brought Gibbons to Theranos, recalls a different conversation, noting, “He suggested to me on numerous occasions that what we had accomplished at that time was sufficient to commercialize.”
A few months later, on May 16, 2013, Gibbons was sitting in the family room with Rochelle, the afternoon light draping the couple, when the telephone rang. He answered. It was one of Holmes’s assistants. When Gibbons hung up, he was beside himself. “Elizabeth wants to meet with me tomorrow in her office,” he told his wife in a quivering voice. “Do you think she’s going to fire me?” Rochelle Gibbons, who had spent a lot of time with Holmes, knew that she wanted control. “Yes,” she said to her husband, reluctantly. She told him she thought he was going to be fired. Later that evening, gripped and overwhelmed with worry, Ian Gibbons tried to commit suicide. He was rushed to the hospital. A week later, with his wife by his side, Ian Gibbons died.
When Rochelle called Holmes’s office to explain what had happened, the secretary was devastated and offered her sincere condolences. She told Rochelle Gibbons that she would let Holmes know immediately. But a few hours later, rather than a condolence message from Holmes, Rochelle instead received a phone call from someone at Theranos demanding that she immediately return any and all confidential Theranos property."


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