The True (And Incredibly Dark) Story Behind ‘The Dropout’

Amanda Seyfried stars as controversial Stanford dropout, Elizabeth Holmes.

Our first look at Amanda Seyfried in a smart roll-neck and slicked back ‘do practically screamed to us ‘I mean business’. And that was precisely what Elizabeth Holmes, whom Seyfried uncannily portrays in new series The Dropout, really meant. 

The eight-part series follows the rise and fall of Holmes’ medical device company, Theranos, taking a closer look at how the Stanford University dropout went from being a successful CEO to being accused of wire fraud. 

Starring alongside Seyfried is Naveen Andrews who plays Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, who was the former president and COO of Theranos. The pair built the company together only to see it come crashing down when its promises failed to deliver, and patients’ harrowing accounts came to light. 

Here, the true events surrounding Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos that inspired The Dropout. 

(Credit: Hulu / Disney+)

Who is Elizabeth Holmes?

Elizabeth Holmes was a Stanford University student who wanted to revolutionise the way illnesses could be detected and treated.

While studying, she came up with the idea for a skin patch which could instantly diagnose health issues. Her professor told her the idea wouldn’t work, but instead of letting that deter her, she then came up with another option—a pin prick which could deliver the results that numerous blood tests could not. This formed the basis (and baseless promise) of Theranos. 

So what was Theranos?

The now-defunct company was set up to give patients ultra quick answers to their health issues. By use of a pin-prick, it claimed its ‘Edison device’ could diagnose illnesses far earlier than blood tests, ultimately fast-tracking treatment and bettering survival rates. 

In a 2014 Ted Talk, Holmes said of her company, “We see a world in which no one ever has to say, ‘If only I’d known sooner’. A world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon.”

Essentially, users would prick their finger and place the blood into a vial, which was run through the Edison device. The company claimed the Edison could perform more than 200 tests apiece. 

The problem? A pin prick of blood categorically isn’t enough to get an accurate result of any underlying or present health issues, according to the experts. 

Unsurprisingly, the product was never approved by the FDA but that didn’t stop Holmes promoting it far and wide and claiming the legitimacy of the results it returned. Official documents pertaining to the company also claimed it had the backing of medical giants, Pfizer and GSK. 

She eventually landed a deal with Walgreens, who distributed the the tests across 40 stores in the US. Per Esquire, she also sold more than 1.5 million tests to 176,000 people from her own pop-up wellness stores in Arizona. 

At its peak, the company was worth US $9 billion. But herein lies the problem: The product didn’t do what it said it did. 

(Credit: Getty)

What was wrong with Theranos?

Theranos’ supposed state of the art medical device, the Edison, actually couldn’t perform in the way it was marketed. Instead of it’s claimed ability to undertake 200 tests, each device could only manage eight or so tests. 

To add, Theranos had never been endorsed by Pfizer or GSK, despite official documents claiming that feat, and its users quickly began to report incorrect results. 

Eventually, the test’s inaccuracies (and the lies behind Theranos) found its way into the mainstream, and the Wall Street Journal published a damning exposé on the company and its founder. Following this, a full federal investigation was launched, leading to the deregistering of the company and the indictment of Elizabeth Holmes. 

In the subsequent lawsuits, people affected by the test’s inaccuracies came forward with troubling testimonies. One woman was told she was miscarrying her baby when she was actually still pregnant. Another patient was given a false positive HIV test and another person’s result suggested they could stop taking their blood thinning medication, according to Fortune

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What was Elizabeth Holmes charged with and what did she plead? 

In 2018, Holmes was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud.

She vehemently denied the allegations, claiming she didn’t know Theranos’ products were unreliable and inaccurate. But in January 2022, a jury determined beyond reasonable doubt that Holmes intentionally misled investors, and she was found guilty on one count of conspiracy and three counts of wire fraud.

In a statement from the US Attorney’s office following the 15-week trial, Special Agent in Charge Craig Fair said, “Elizabeth Holmes chose fraud over business failure.” 

“I want to thank the FBI San Francisco agents and analysts who spent years investigating allegations of fraud within Theranos to uncover the truth and ensure justice in this case.”

Pending Holmes’ sentencing hearing scheduled for later this year, she could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution. 

(Credit: Getty)

Where is Elizabeth Holmes now?

Holmes is currently free on bond and is understood to be in Silicon Valley, where she lives in an estate with her husband, William Evans.

The pair were married in 2019 and they have a baby boy, whom they welcomed in 2021.  

Where is Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani now?

Balwani, who was a Theranos’ COO and president is set to stand trial on fraud charges in the same California courthouse as Holmes, and before the same judge. He has also pleaded not guilty to his charges.

You can stream The Dropout on Disney Plus from March 3, live and on demand with a mth-to-mth or annual subscription. SIGN UP NOW

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