She’s a professor of medicine at Stanford and a former partner in a health care venture capital firm. She sits on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows and the boards of biotechnology companies. But that’s not why people recognize Phyllis Gardner.
Rather, it’s because of her frank assessments of Elizabeth Holmes and the massive fraud authorities say Holmes and her blood testing company perpetrated.
Gardner recounts meeting Holmes when she was a Stanford student pitching lofty medical technology ideas; she told Holmes that what she wanted to do was impossible, Gardner said, but the 19-year-old brushed her off.
The experience made Gardner an early skeptic as Holmes went on to build Theranos into a $9 billion company, hiding the fact that its technology didn’t work.
Q: Is it strange that, while you’ve had a long and successful career, the thing you’re getting public recognition for now is someone else’s fraud?
A: It’s not so much recognition. I think what people have liked is that I did not fall for [Holmes]. … I’ve always tried to help students. … I say this because I want you to know, for me to have this gut, visceral reaction like this is very unusual. I like most people, and I give them the benefit of the doubt. … She came with these ideas and she would not listen. She was brought by someone else who said she was the most brilliant person, and I’m like, “Don’t call people brilliant around me because I’m surrounded by Nobel laureates.”
Q: There were so many investors, journalists, employees, even politicians who had their reputations damaged because they fell for Theranos. You’re one of the very few people who emerges from this story looking better.
A: A lot of the people in the Valley were skeptics. The venture capitalists didn’t believe her for a second. She’d wave her arms and they’d say, “We have to know how this works.” And she’d say, “It’s a trade secret.” And they’d say, “Get out of here.”
Q: As the hype around Theranos grew, did you ever wonder if you were wrong about Holmes?
A: No. I just thought everybody was crazy. I mean, look at the board, that’s insane. That’s not corporate feasance, that’s malfeasance to have a board that knows nothing about any of this. … I knew too much inside stuff … I’ve got this inside info coming to me about how it’s not working.
Q: When people recognize you, what do they ask you about?
A: A lot of times it’s about (Holmes’) voice. “Did she?” “Was that her?” No — when she came to me she had a normal voice. You see, I have a deep voice too, so that was the funny thing. No, she didn’t have a deep voice.
Q: Why do you think Elizabeth Holmes’ voice is something people find so fascinating?
A: I think because it’s emblematic of the fact that she was a fraud. Everything was an appearance: the black turtlenecks and the deep voice and the glammed up look and everything. It was a facade, and you never could see the true Elizabeth.
Q: HBO’s documentary explores the “fake it till you make it” idea, that many startups over-promise what their technology can deliver. Is what Theranos did all that different from what happens regularly with new companies in Silicon Valley?
A: Look, in high tech, you can fake it till you make it. In medicine, you do not fake it. Ever. That is verboten, and that is why we have regulatory agencies. No. You don’t fake it till you make it. You don’t fail 10,000 times and get it right on the 10,001st. That is absolutely evil to say that, for me.
For example, (blood) clotting times. If you are under-coagulated, you bleed to death easily; if you are over-coagulated, you clot off. And it’s a very fine line, and it’s a very narrow therapeutic window. She was sending out wrong clotting times! People were changing their meds based on that. That is putting patients’ lives in imminent danger.
Q: What are the lessons from the Theranos saga for Silicon Valley?
A: I think Silicon Valley is getting too much of a hit — these were friends and family investors. They didn’t do due diligence. All that mythmaking was outside Silicon Valley. I didn’t find that many people at Stanford who thought she was amazing.
Q: Has this changed your approach to working with students or to evaluating companies?
A: No, and the reason is because when I was an adjunct partner of a venture firm for 15 years, you did due diligence. It was very rigorous. Most people are trustworthy and most people are decent. I picked this up because she wasn’t trustworthy. And why I could pick that up I don’t know, except for I’m not a man. That was part of it, trust me.