Susanne Tedrick
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The Issue With Theranos

The Issue With Theranos

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Last month, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of several charges related to defrauding investors. Sentencing will take place in September, but we are already debating whether the verdict will change Silicon Valley.

The short answer for me is, no, this will likely not have a seismic effect on the promises made by startups and the movers and shakers in the tech industry. As I discussed on the metaverse issue, tech tends to make grand declarations first and figure out the thorny and hairy details later. This can be a driver for innovation. To achieve the grand goal, you must solve a series of smaller problems. The result is expanded infrastructure, an increase in jobs, and providing a blueprint for others to introduce micro innovations.

The conversation shift related to startups—particularly biomedical startups—is explaining how they are different from Theranos. Theranos failed, the argument might begin, because this specific tech approach was wrong, or they just needed more time, or there might be criticisms of Holmes’s leadership of the company. It’s challenging to pin down what that cautionary tale is, other than simply “not failing.”

Where the conversation seems to be silent is on the fact that Holmes ultimately faced eleven charges. Seven charges were related to defrauding investors, and four were related to defrauding or conspiracy to defraud patients. Holmes was found not guilty of all charges related to patients. The end-user—patients—played a marginal role in the trial, despite the technology delivering a false miscarriage diagnosis and a false positive HIV result.

This is information that can alter the trajectory of a life. We need to remember that technology can have life-altering consequences and therefore center—or re-center—the end user’s experience as our chief concern. These kinds of concerns grow when dealing with the experiences of marginalized groups. While the goal of technology is to create a universal experience, that is not the current reality—and it may not ever be a reality.

Differently-abled users and users from distinct cultural groups have experiences with technology that need to be factored into the design. If we fail to bring them into the process at an early stage, we create products that ultimately fail. This post is not intended to pass moral or character judgment on Holmes. The focus should be on the promises made and broken by Theranos. There is still an opportunity to shift the conversation, to continue declaring major goals. But we should be able to do this while keeping the end-user in mind.