Hulu’s The Dropout miniseries stars Amanda Seyfried as disgraced Silicon Valley superstar Elizabeth Holmes, who was the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. The real-life story of Theranos, which promised investors and customers new technology that could do any blood test from a single drop of blood (spoiler: it couldn’t), is full of drama, but as with any true event adapted for television, a creative license will be used. Read on to fact-check some of the series’ most shocking events.
Who Is The Dropout Based On?
It is, and the first three episodes of the Hulu miniseries suggest that The Dropout is closer to the truth than most based-on-true stories. As most people know, Holmes founded Theranos, which failed due to poor technology.
In early 2019, a six-episode podcast called The Dropout covered Holmes’ Theranos debacle. ABC News turned that famous podcast into a two-hour 20/20 broadcast.
The Dropout features writer and author John Carreyrou, who examined Theranos’ false claims for The Wall Street Journal, but his 2018 book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup is not the miniseries’ basis. It is expected to inspire a Jennifer Lawrence-starring Holmes/Theranos film.
How Did Everyone Fall For Theranos?
In The Dropout, Theranos secures a deal to roll out its equipment in Walgreens shops as part of a new “Wellness Centers” initiative—a massive fraud. Holmes and her team circumvent the independent consultant Walgreens engaged to analyze the technology and create a feeling of urgency by making Walgreens executives think they’re about to sign deals with CVS or Safeway. Despite never seeing Theranos’ technology, Dr. Jay Rosan (Alan Ruck), the most passionate member of Walgreens’ innovation team, encourages the rest to cooperate.
Walgreens’ real-life agreement was comparable. As in the show, Walgreens hired an independent lab expert named Kevin Hunter (Rich Sommer) to verify that Theranos’ tech did everything it claimed it did. Theranos and Walgreens ignored his grave concerns. “Dr. J” was Theranos’ biggest supporter, and the business used Walgreens’ competition with CVS to get the agreement.
Even small details like Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani (Naveen Andrews) following Kevin to the bathroom, the hidden sushi lunch, and the uncomfortable karaoke are based on genuine occurrences (although Walgreens changed the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” instead of The Romantics’ “What I Like About You”).
Theranos’ interactions with Safeway differed most from the show. In The Dropout, Holmes turns down Walgreens and Safeway, making them think they’re pursuing CVS and prompting Walgreens to pursue Theranos. Theranos worked with Walgreens and Safeway, and Safeway rebuilt hundreds of shops to add wellness centers with Theranos devices. The collaboration never launched and disbanded in 2015.
What Revealed Theranos Fraud?
The Dropout’s Wall Street Journal reporter Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) first hears about Theranos from Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), who says he got Carreyrou’s name from Adam Clapper of The Pathology Blawg.
Fuisz contacts Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf) and Rochelle (Kate Burton), Ian Gibbons’ widow, to gather embarrassing Theranos material for The Wall Street Journal after contacting Carreyrou in The Dropout. The three connect Carreyrou to sources and documentation to expose Holmes as a fraud and bring Theranos down.
While the three did meet and swap notes and actively help Carreyrou’s inquiry, they weren’t as jovial as they are in the series. Carreyrou interviewed them separately. They liked having individuals to talk to who could see the truth about Theranos and wanted the public to know.
Theranos’ blood testing claims were questioned in a New Yorker piece by pathologist Clapper, who posted about his doubts on his “Blawg.” Joe Fuisz sent the post to his father, who contacted Clapper and connected him with Gardner and Rochelle Gibbons. After that, Fuisz was contacted by Theranos lab director Adam Rosendorff, known as “Alan Beam” in Carreyrou’s book, who was having a moral crisis over the company “putting people in harm’s way.”
After speaking to Rosendorff, Clapper knew he had a big story, but he wasn’t an investigative journalist. Clapper, not Fuisz, approached Carreyrou about Theranos. Carreyrou then contacted Fuisz, Gardner, Gibbons, Rosendorff, and others. The show’s order of events is wrong, and Clapper’s role in the investigation is almost entirely given to Fuisz, but most of the rest happened.
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Elizabeth Holmes Met Ramesh Balwani How?
After meeting Balwani in China, Holmes finds a kindred spirit. Balwani, in his late 30s, and Holmes, a teenager, become acquaintances and then lovers.
TV simplifies this. The series depicts Holmes meeting Balwani on her first and only summer in China, whereas she spent three high school summers in the Mandarin program and only met him on her last summer before college. Holmes’ third year in the program, Carreyrou writes in Bad Blood that she struggled that summer with making friends and being bullied, and Balwani helped her.
The show also omits that Balwani was married to Japanese artist Keiko Fujimoto when he and Holmes met in China in 2002. They divorced between then and 2004, and Holmes moved in with Balwani in 2005, so it’s unclear if he was married when he started dating Holmes.
Elizabeth Holmes: Engineer? Elizabeth Holmes Invented Anything?
Was Holmes a genius scientist who flew too close to the sun or a con artist who deceived people? The Dropout portrays her as a gifted fluid dynamics prodigy who used her intelligence to fast-track through Stanford’s chemical engineering program. After designing Theranos’ machinery on paper, she doesn’t invent or engineer it.
Is that true? It depends. According to Bad Blood, Holmes convinced renowned Stanford scientist Channing Robertson (Bill Irwin) to let her work in his lab as a freshman. Robertson would later declare her a once-in-a-generation genius like Einstein or Mozart.
Fuisz, Holmes’ former family friend-turned-enemy, told Forbes, “She’s scientifically illiterate. She’s dim. She’s fake. She wondered “How do you con people?” Not “How to win with substance?”
Truth is probably in the middle. Holmes wasn’t Leonardo Da Vinci, but she wasn’t an idiot either. Only one thing is certain: we’ll never know Holmes’ thoughts.
Elizabeth Holmes left Stanford?
The first episode of The Dropout suggests Holmes left Stanford for reasons other than building her company, which is common knowledge. As a freshman, Holmes excitedly attends a campus party, only to lie silently on her bed as girls whisper outside her dorm room that she was sexually assaulted. Holmes then quits.
She dropped out of Stanford in 2004 to start Theranos after reporting a sexual assault on campus to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office in 2003. In her 2021 court testimony, she implied that the alleged assault influenced her decision to drop out, saying, “How would I process that experience and what would I do with my life? And I decided that I was going to build a life by building this company.”