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Theranos whistleblower Tyler Shultz speaks at MU

Whistleblower Tyler Shultz spoke to students Friday about his experience revealing the fraud behind Theranos and offered advice on how students can go on to be ethical actors in their future fields.

Shultz spoke as a part of the 20th annual Orin Ethics Symposium hosted by the Trulaske College of Business in Bush Auditorium. The auditorium was packed with roughly 300 interested viewers waiting to hear his story.

Theranos was a biotechnology company led by Elizabeth Holmes, who misled investors and the public about the idea of a small diagnostic machine that could reveal lab results from a single drop of blood, in theory.

Starting off his narrative, Shultz remarked lightheartedly that many red flags were right in front of him from the start.

“We had zero tests validated on the Theranos machine,” Shultz said.

Working in a validation lab for Theranos, Shultz’s job was to ensure the machine was functioning properly and giving out accurate test results, using a drop of blood. He arrived at the company just as the product began its rollout into Walgreens stores. However, he stated that despite this rollout, patients would have a vial, not a drop, of blood drawn. Furthermore, the blood would not be processed through the Theranos machine and was instead processed with expensive third-party medical devices already available.

Once the lab finally saw the company’s own machine, it witnessed the beginning of the deception and fraud to come.

“I realized that there was an open secret that this technology simply did not exist because what we saw was a pipette on a robotic arm,” Shultz said, “It can only test for one thing at a time. It relied on third-party equipment to do the pipetting steps, so you needed a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar robot to do the first step before you could put it into the Theranos device.”

After taking time to think, he decided that he would try to address Holmes about discrepancies with the technology. This proved to be somewhat effective, as she listened to his concerns, but redirected him to the then-vice president of Theranos to explain the data. After that meeting, the fraud became clearer to him, and it was evident that the leaders knew they were lying to the world about the technology.

Shultz then decided to tell his story, on the record, to a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.

“Ever since that decision, my life has just been getting better and better every year,” he said.

After sharing his story, Shultz took questions from the audience, which included many students as well as faculty. One student asked how he mustered the courage to blow the whistle on such a powerful entity.

“Being young and naïve worked to my favor because I had nothing to lose,” he said.

He further explained that because Theranos was his first job, he felt like he could take a big risk because he didn’t have family, a mortgage or other large life-altering events on the line. Referencing the accounting scandal from Enron, he explained that while Sherron Watkins had trouble finding employment after blowing the whistle, he had the opposite experience. Instead, he received job offers for what he did. Shultz mentioned the example to show the change in views about blowing the whistle over the past 20 years.

Shultz encouraged students to go on to be ethical actors wherever they end up working because he was only 22 when he revealed to the world Theranos’ intent to commit fraud.

Holmes was scheduled to receive her sentencing on Oct. 17, however, the judge has granted an additional evidentiary hearing for that date, delaying it to sometime between November and January. The former chief operating officer, Sunny Balwani, is slated to receive his sentence Nov. 15.

Sigi Ris is a student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.