In Health Tech, Beware of Getting Exactly What You Want

Last night, I watched a video about the rise and fall of disgraced biotech startup Theranos, which claimed to have invented technology that would dramatically change clinical blood testing worked.

Though it apparently never came close to delivering what it promised, Theranos managed to raise more than $700 million in investments over the course of its lifetime. Not only that, it struck huge deals with a number of high-profile customers, including Walgreens, which agreed to bring Theranos technology into its stores without even testing it.

The spectacular flameout of Theranos has generated not only tons of news coverage, but also a book, a podcast, an HBO special and even a movie. Even so, I think there’s still one lesson to be drawn from the Theranos debacle that hasn’t come up much. It reminds us to beware of being presented with something that’s too good to be true.

In this case, Theranos claimed that its blood analysis machine, the Edison, could perform hundreds of blood tests using just 1/100 to 1/1000th  the sample size needed to perform standard lab testing. Ultimately, one could imagine such a device ending up in the home of virtually every patient with complex medical needs.

Arguably, this general architecture is the Holy Grail in the age of remote monitoring and home-based patient care. Put more of the tools currently used by scientists and doctors in the hands of consumers, and the need for expensive face-to-face care falls dramatically, or so the story goes.

The thing is, it appears that if Theranos investors, partners and customers had done even a modest amount of due diligence research, they would’ve realized that the biotech vendor couldn’t deliver on its promises.

Fortunately, it’s very unusual for things to go down this way when it comes to health tech investments. If someone says their solution can walk and chew gum at the same time, tech leaders will demand to know how far that walk could get and how they defined “gum.”  That’s how it should be.

Also, it’s far, far more likely that solutions to major problems (such as the high cost of clinical blood testing) will arrive in fits and starts. There will always be interim technologies that should resolve the problem but somehow don’t, and others that seem great that somehow never become popular.

In fact, in almost 30 years of covering the business, I’ve never seen a healthcare technology spring to life that meets everyone’s needs at once. No matter how brilliant they are, nobody solves all of their thorny technical, engineering or medical problems overnight — or even in the roughly 15 years Theranos existed.

In that spirit, let’s have a cheer for the messy, infuriating, magical process of making real discoveries. The results of this process aren’t always pretty, but they make a real difference in the quality of work and our lives.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.