Elizabeth Holmes was formerly one of the most admired people in Silicon Valley as the creator of the (allegedly) groundbreaking blood-testing business Theranos. She was featured on the cover of Fortune, was covered in The New Yorker, and hosted a press conference at the Theranos lab alongside then-Vice President Joe Biden. Her celebrity has only grown in recent years – and for quite different reasons.
Since the company’s demise in 2015, when Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou exposed the company’s deception about its ability to perform blood tests with just a pinprick of blood, she has been the subject of a book, a documentary, two podcasts, and now a Hulu series, The Dropout, in which she is portrayed by Amanda Seyfried.
Viewers unfamiliar with Theranos may be astonished to learn that another important person in The Dropout and the Theranos debacle is Sunny Balwani, the company’s president and COO — who also happened to be Holmes’ long-term romantic partner.
Throughout Holmes’ meteoric ascent to prominence, she presented herself to the world as a single woman obsessed with ensuring Theranos’ success at the sacrifice of her personal life. “As a parent, I hope that she will find time for herself at some point,” her mother told The New Yorker, which also stated that Theranos board member Henry Kissinger attempted to set her up on dates.
There was a reason why the arrangements fell through: she already had a partner. However, she and Balwani (played by Naveen Andrews in The Dropout) concealed their relationship from the press as well as their investors and taff. It became public only aftser the corporation imploded as a result of the controversy.
The chronology below details Holmes‘ relationship with Balwani and how it intersected with the rise and fall of Theranos.
In 2002, Sunny Balwani and Elizabeth Holmes Met.
Holmes and Balwani met in 2002, the same year Balwani filed for divorce from his then-wife. The two met in Beijing during a summer trip organised by Stanford’s Mandarin programme. She was 19 years old and he was 37 years old at the time. Holmes and Balwani stayed in touch via email following their vacation. Although their connection began platonically, according to Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies at a Silicon Valley Startup, it developed into a love one at some time.
In 2005, They Shared a Residence.
Holmes moved in with Balwani in 2005, two years after establishing Theranos and less than a year after dropping out of Stanford. Around this time, Balwani enrolled at Stanford with the intention of studying computer science — but dropped out in 2008.
In 2009, Balwani Began His Career at Theranos.
Balwani first invested in Theranos in early 2009, when he made a $13 million loan to the faltering company. As he claimed in court testimony (via The Dropout podcast), “the firm was cash-strapped, and I saw the purpose and the importance of what the organisation was attempting to accomplish, and I offered to assist the company, ultimately providing a $13 million personal loan…” It was a fee-free transaction.
It was a loan made on the basis of good faith.” He was named president and chief operating officer six months later. The duo did not declare their relationship to Theranos employees, but according to colleagues interviewed for HBO‘s documentary The Inventor, it was somewhat of an open secret inside the company: Holmes and Balwani lived barely four miles apart and frequently came and departed work together.
According to Carreyrou, his first source inside Theranos referred to Balwani as “Holmes’ older boyfriend” and portrayed Theranos as a “fraud managed by a couple.”
Outside of the corporation, Holmes and Balwani‘s secret, on the other hand, was more, well, secret, as Henry Kissinger‘s efforts to frame her demonstrate. However, Carreyrou was not deceived. As he said to Business Insider, “it became immediately evident to me that she was lying to her board about this sexual relationship she was having with the company’s number two, who happened to be around 20 years her senior.”
Balwani’s age and experience as a successful businessman — he became wealthy during the dot-com boom — undoubtedly gave him the confidence to manage Theranos‘ office despite his lack of understanding in the product the company was developing.
Balwani was Holmes’ “enforcer,” a figure who “terrorized[ed] everyone” at the organisation, Carreyrou claimed. According to former Theranos vice president Anthony Nugent, “the atmosphere of the place became corrosive” once Balwani arrived.
Around the Time Theranos Began to Falter, Holmes and Balwani Parted Ways.
Without a completely functional product, Theranos cannot live indefinitely, and Holmes and Balwani’s relationship cannot survive Theranos’ downfall. Balwani quit Theranos in 2016 after the government initiated its probe into the firm. His connection with Holmes was also over once he left Theranos.
Carreyrou asserts that Holmes was responsible for both break-ups: As he explained in a 2018 Reddit AMA, “after it became clear to [Holmes] that she would have no chance of convincing people that she was genuinely attempting to reform the company’s culture and resolve its issues, she threw Sunny under the bus.” She terminated his employment and ended their relationship. His departure was announced as voluntary retirement in a news release, however it was not.”
Holmes Said That Balwani Abused Her Throughout Her Trial.
During her December 2021 fraud trial, Holmes claimed that Balwani had abused and raped her; her counsel asserted that Balwani had waged a “decade-long campaign of psychological abuse” against her. Her defenders contended that Balwani’s alleged abuse “erased [Holmes’] ability for decision-making” – an approach Carreyrou dubbed “the Svengali defence.”
Holmes testified that Balwani verbally abused her — criticising her entrepreneurial abilities and telling her she “came across as a little girl” — and that “he would occasionally get very angry with me and then force me to have sex with him when I didn’t want to because he wanted me to know he still loved me.” Additionally, she said that her contact with Balwani harmed her family.
It is impossible to ascertain precisely what transpired behind the scenes of Holmes and Balwani’s relationship. However, individuals who were associated with Theranos or have conducted subsequent investigations, such as Carreyrou, have expressed reservations about Holmes’ portrayal of her professional relationship with Balwani.
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According to former board member James Mattis, Holmes was “in charge” of the corporation, and according to The Verge, additional witnesses claimed that “Balwani defer[red] to Holmes.” Carreyrou stated in the same 2018 Reddit AMA, “This was a fraud perpetrated by two criminal partners.” However, as I stated in the epilogue to Bad Blood, Elizabeth was always the final word.”
In a subsequent interview with The New Yorker, he stated that text conversations between the pair, which have been made public as a result of S.E.C. case records since the release of his book, reinforce the notion that their relationship was one of “equal collaboration.” “In some of those writings,” he notes, “Sunny is even the one who cautions or expresses reservations, whereas Elizabeth never appears to do so.”
Holmes was convicted of fraud on four counts and is awaiting punishment. Balwani faces nine felony counts of wire fraud and two felony counts of wire fraud conspiracy. In March of this year, his trial is scheduled to begin.