Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Attempts To Clear Up The Bad Blood With WSJ

The energy in the room was palpable as audience members waited to see if Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes would really show up this morning for her onstage interview at the Wall Street Journal Live conference. But show up, she did.

Holmes took the hot seat in the midst of a very public brawl with the Journal, which published a couple of articles alleging Theranos wasn’t using its own tech for most of the 240 tests it provides and that the accuracy of those tests results were suspect.

Fingers clacked away and the tweets popped off at a heady pace as Holmes batted down accusations and stood by her claims that the Journal got it wrong. “There’s a lot of different elements of our work that have become conflated,” Holmes said onstage.

The Theranos founder mentioned her father was a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle and said she “had deep concerns about being misrepresented” and that she’d “never seen The Wall Street Journal as a tabloid magazine.”

However, Holmes seemed stuck on explaining the methodology for much of the discussion and was reminded onstage the most pressing issue wasn’t about the process, but the data behind it. “We’re completely transparent about it,” she said. “When we use venous draws we use commercially available machines. When we do finger pricks that is proprietary technology not available.”

Just because some guy reports false stuff about us doesn’t mean we’ve changed. Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos
Part of the argument against Theranos was the use of its proprietary machines. This is a company valued at more than $9 billion, based on technology that promises to provide accurate blood work results of tests for things like HIV, diabetes and cancer faster and cheaper with just a finger prick of blood. The Journal alleged Theranos was using its technology on only one of its tests and that most of its blood tests were running on non-Theranos devices. What then is the true value of a company that must outsource most of its tests?

That had more to do with FDA compliance, according to Holmes. “We have voluntarily decided not to use our nanotainer tubes until we cut over to the left side of the road,” Holmes said, referring to switching to FDA methodology.

The Journal also alleged former employees told the news organization Theranos was diluting its blood tests. Holmes waived off claims of dilution in the tests, “I don’t even think that’s possible,” she said. “To dilute it and put it on a commercial analyzer is not what we do.”

Holmes also batted down the claim of Google Venture’s Bill Maris that Theranos and Google’s venture capital arm had been in financing discussions at one point. Maris spoke with TechCrunch yesterday and said GV had looked at Theranos, but that there was concern over the accuracy of the tests early on.

“He’s never met with us, he’s never reached out to us,” Holmes said onstage. “If he just wants to talk badly about us he’s free to talk badly about us. It’s a free country.”

A spokesperson for GV confirmed that Maris never met with Holmes. “Bill has never met her. Like he said, we looked at them earlier and decided not to go forward based on the information we saw in the outside world and the tests we did,” the spokesperson said.

Holmes also shot down a claim that former Apple exec and Theranos patient Jean-Louis Gassée had reached out to her about his concerns. Gassée wrote about his experiences with the company on Monday Note alleging he’d written a letter to Holmes:

“I’m curious to hear more about your methodology, standards, and quality controls and would like to give you an opportunity to respond before I write a Monday Note on the broader topic of lab exams and other healthcare mysteries,” wrote Gassée, who also said he had received two very different results from Theranos and the Hematology lab at Stanford.

Holmes punted accusation after accusation, even shrugging off a question about the lack of peer-reviewed papers. “It’s not that we don’t want to go that route. It’s that if you are doing 120 FDA submissions at the same time you don’t have time to sleep,” she said.

Those are still murky explanations, at best. Theranos, with it’s $400 million in funding, can’t simultaneously focus on the FDA and peer reviews?

However, Holmes also mentioned she felt an “obligation to customers to give clear answers,” and that “part of what I realized by reading these articles is maybe because we’re only in Arizona in a deep way right now, people don’t understand what we actually do.” (Note that Theranos also has a wellness center in Palo Alto, California.)

It’s hard to know who’s right in all this drama. Many of the anonymous sources quoted by the WSJ “were clearly very confused,” according to Holmes. Yet, Holmes’s onstage interview didn’t clear much of the confusion up over her scientific claims.

There might be more coming our way, however. The Theranos founder mentioned repeatedly during the interview that her company was about to drop some long-awaited knowledge on the Internet. “We’ve got a very long document about to go on the Internet,” she told the audience.

Why haven’t those documents and others already come out? Who knows. One thing, if nothing else, is clear at least – Holmes is unflappable in the face of adversity.

“Just because some guy reports false stuff about us doesn’t mean we’ve changed,” she said.