Embattled blood-testing startup Theranos needs some hotshot scientists to defend its technology, and it needs them to do it yesterday. But the people arguably in the best position to do so--those on the company's recently announced scientific and medical advisory board--have so far been quiet.
The company says that's by design--which, even given the ongoing investigations of the company, seems like a strange choice. The ongoing silence of its scientific advisers is serving only to further undercut whatever credibility Elizabeth Holmes's company may have left.
It's a silence that was underlined by Mark Suster's May 13 post about UBeam, a company that is working to power devices wirelessly. Suster's firm, UpFront Ventures, is an investor in UBeam, and Suster's post came in response to charges from the company's recently departed vice president of engineering, who claimed UBeam had exaggerated the possibilities of its technology and was nowhere near being able to release a promised prototype this year.
Here's part of what Suster had to say:
We have a lot to prove. The team knows that. It's hard work. We haven't yet shipped product or shown the public our prototypes. The product isn't yet where we want it to be -- like most startup products, it is a work in progress. ...
If for any reason we fall short of expectations we have set in the market, I will be the first person in line to admit it and then to immediately fund Meredith's next company. Her strengths so vastly outweigh any weaknesses and her vision, tenacity and resiliency far exceed any perceived limitations.
This is exactly the sort of thing that could have helped Theranos in the past several months, as multiple Wall Street Journal stories discovered problems at the company and regulators lined up to investigate. Of course, it's possible that at this rate nothing could help--because while UBeam may be having some trouble, Theranos is in a class by itself.
The Palo Alto, California, startup is now being investigated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Justice Department, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California. Its president recently left. On May 18, The Wall Street Journal wrote that Theranos had voided two years of test results run on its proprietary equipment in Arizona, which has got to be particularly scary to anyone who has had blood tests done at a Theranos clinic.
Founder Holmes has never publicly wavered from her claim that Theranos does indeed have breakthrough technology that will lead to better health for millions of people.
But she's the only one saying it. Where are the Mark Susters, who know Theranos well and are willing to defend the company?
Theranos's original board of directors didn't have much by way of scientific clout, and was instead packed with big names in government. But in April, eight pretty high-profile people joined the comapny's scientific and medical advisory board. For example, Ann Gronowski is a professor of pathology and immunology at the Washington University School of Medicine. She's been president of both the American Association of Clinical Chemistry and the American Board of Clinical Chemistry. Another adviser, Larry Kricka, is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and was director of the general chemistry lab and the endocrinology lab at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Five of Theranos's new advisers are past presidents or have served on the board of the American Association of Clinical Chemistry; four are professors of pathology or clinical chemistry.
These advisers joined the company's scientific and medical advisory board after the Wall Street Journal stories saying Theranos's proprietary technology didn't work properly, and that the company had produced inaccurate results. They joined after CMS released a report about infractions at Theranos's Newark, California, lab.
Theranos says these scientific and medical advisers had access to the company's technology and data. So why aren't they willing to speak about it? Did they really feel they understood it fully and could vouch for it? Did they believe they had the experience and knowledge to make a judgment call on Theranos's technology? And if not, what are they doing on the advisory board?
I tried to ask them these very questions. But midway through my calls, Theranos spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan got back to me instead. No one would call me back, she said. (She was right; none of the eight responded to my voicemails or emails.) "We're not putting anyone out for comment," she said. "At this point no one is talking to reporters."
Instead, she said, the next time anyone would hear from Theranos publicly would be on August 1, when Holmes is scheduled to give an address at the annual scientific meeting of the American Association of Clinical Chemistry, in Philadelphia.
"There's a ton of data that affects our technology," she said. After the meeting, "we'll be past the point of asking the question of does this work. We'll be discussing issues of scalability." Ninety minutes have been set aside for the session, and Holmes will take questions.
Given the investigations, there might not be much any adviser can say in Theranos's defense. But the upshot is that despite its illustrious board and advisers, this increasingly looks like a company with no technology and no friends--no one who is willing to pull a Suster and say, "Yes, there are problems; yes the founder is imperfect; and yes, I would back her again." The silence, as they say, is deafening. And August 1 is a long way away.