On the eve of 2020, The London Times published its annual assessment of key figures who they predicted would shape the business world in 2020 – the Ones to Watch “as we enter a new decade that could herald dramatic change”. Along with the new leaders of John Lewis, BP and HSBC, they also nominated Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, who in August this year, will go on trial in the USA on eleven counts of fraud – against investors, doctors and patients.
Theranos, which at one stage was valued at $11 billion, had promised a blood-testing machine which worked off a pinprick of blood taken from a patient’s finger, giving fast results. With Henry Kissinger and George Schulz on her board, Rupert Murdoch as an investor and Safeway & Walgreens as customers, what could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was that the technology didn’t work. Not only did it not work, but it is also alleged that the fact that it didn’t work was kept a closely guarded secret by Ms Holmes and her husband/business partner – and that most tests were secretly carried out on standard laboratory equipment. The woman who Silicon Valley had once touted as the next Steve Jobs turned out only to share his penchant for black roll-necks.
Perhaps Theranos was featured as ‘One to Watch’ by The Times, because it represents a salutary lesson for Silicon Valley. A company that was once a multiple unicorn was wound up with investors losing nearly all their money. Silicon Valley had been sold a pup, and it was their own fault because they didn’t challenge the technology. Anyone trying to conduct due diligence was subjected to a highly professional smoke and mirrors show. And they bought it.
Cut to Oxford, England, 7th November 2019. The Oxford Biotech Network is celebrating the very best of the UK’s Life Sciences industry, and a company called Attomarker is short-listed for an award. Attomarker has produced a pocket-sized blood-testing laboratory, which working with an iPhone, produces results from a pinprick of blood taken from a patient’s finger, in just five minutes. Against strong competition, Attomarker wins the award. Ironically, in this context, it’s called the OBN ‘One to Watch’ Award. The scientists and investors on the judging panel commend it for making substantial progress, both in terms of accuracy and precision and in terms of commercialisation.
News gets out onto LinkedIn and an Anglo-American Texan multi-millionaire investor can’t help commenting that “Ironically this was exactly what Theranos pitched it could do, trust the Brits to deliver the steak without any sizzle!” Professor Andrew Shaw of the University of Exeter & founder of Attomarker, the very opposite of a mid-20’s sophomore, comments that in the light of what happened with Theranos, he judged it better to under-promise and over-deliver. Not only a very British response but also probably wise in the circumstances.
Since winning the OBN ‘One to Watch’ Award, Attomarker has gone on to be shortlisted for the £10m Longitude Prize, be featured in the new Wellcome Medicine galleries at the Science Museum and be shortlisted by the World Health Organisation as a Top Five global initiative in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
Attomarker is now seeking £15m to go to market. Which given the heady valuation once attributed to Theranos seems tiny. Investors at a conference in Chicago dubbed it ‘Theranos that works’. Let’s just hope that the American ‘One to Watch’ hasn’t poisoned the well for its British opposite number.
Contact: David Miller | Chief Marketing Officer | Attomarker Ltd