The true story of Elizabeth Holmes and the founding of Theranos is so bizarre—so unlikely—that watching the TV adaptation nearly begs for a constant Google-searching to go alongside. Did that really happen? Is that person legit? Even the opening of the series hints at the unbelievability. I mean, a 19-year-old dropout founded a medical company that fooled investors, doctors, and journalists? Surely someone along the way was like, "I don't know. I'm going to pull back the curtain on this whole, take a drop of blood and save the world concept." Well, spoiler alert, that does eventually happen. But first, Holmes and Theranos made headlines for being a brilliant advancement in medical technology and then, later, the apex of an era of American scams. Getting indicted for wire fraud came much, much later.
And if you're thinking, well, some of these people have to be made up, you'd actually be wrong. All of the main players in the Theranos scheme as depicted in the miniseries—those involved and deceived—are real people, though a few might have been tweaked just slightly. But from Sunny Balwani's unorthodox leadership style to Tyler Shultz's brazen determination to reveal Theranos's fraud, the story of Theranos is rooted in deep fact (and a lot of bruised egos. Sorry guys).
Sunny Balwani (played by Naveen Andrews)
Balwani is almost too good of a TV character to have come from someone's imagination. The businessman (who was also Holmes's boyfriend, though neither disclosed the relationship to their investors) served as Theranos's eccentric, paranoid president starting in 2009. He was widely criticized for his lack of expertise, specifically when it came to medicine and medical technology. On July 7, 2022, Balwani was found guilty of nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He faces up to 20 years in prison and is currently awaiting a sentencing hearing later this year.
Channing Robertson (played by Bill Irwin)
Robertson was an Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University, and he worked at Theranos and served on its board until 2018. Though the company was steadily on the decline by 2018, Robertson believed in the project's potential and its worthiness in the medical community.
Rakesh Madhava (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar)
This one is more of an -ish situation. There is a man named Rakesh Madhava who worked at Theranos. He's a biotech engineer, which also tracks. But it's unlikely that he was as core to the Theranos operation as the series makes it seem. Madhava's character has likely been bolstered up a bit with the real-life stories of several lab players.
Edmond Ku (played by James Hiroyuki Liao)
Ku is based on the real Ku that still works in Silicon Valley. He worked at Theranos until 2008 and was tasked with coming up with the first Theranos prototype, known as Theranos 1.0.
Ian Gibbons (played by Stephen Fry)
Gibbons is a real person, and his story might be the most devastating of the lot. Brought on early as a chief scientist, Gibbons always knew that the Theranos device didn't work and, on a few occasions, tried to raise that concern to the Board of Theranos as well as its investors. He eventually attempted suicide the day before he was set to give a deposition about Theranos and died shortly after from liver failure.
Dr. Phyllis Gardner (played by Laurie Metcalf)
Gardner is a real professor at Stanford and did indeed have a run-in with Holmes before she rose to Theranos fame. Long story short, Dr. Gardner smelled the bullshit early on, in real life and on your small screen.
Richard Fuisz (played by William H. Macy)
Fuisz, an early investor in Theranos, was in fact Holmes's real neighbor. The owner of a large number of patents, he eventually ran afoul of the young founder by allegedly using one of her patents without permission. Fuisz was also one of the key individuals in the case against Theranos.
George and Tyler Shultz (played by Sam Waterston and Dylan Minnette)
The grandfather-grandson duo exists in real life, and their story is as complicated as it seems in The Dropout. (Likely moreso.) George was the former Secretary of State for Reagan, long before he joined the board of Theranos. And his involvement in the company was integral when it came to getting investors. But when his grandson, Tyler, joined the company in 2013, he raised concerns about the company—only to be silenced by his grandfather. Tyler spoke up to a reporter anyway and the company fell apart soon after. In real life, George eventually offered an apology for his putting the company first and praised his grandson.
Dr. Jay Rosan (played by Alan Ruck)
Dr. Rosan, a leading executive at Walgreens, really did fall for the Theranos scheme, going as far as to install some of the Theranos machines in Walgreens. (Of course, they did not work.) He goes down as one of the most high-profile faces to be duped into the ploy, bringing one of America's most famous pharmacies and its credibility along with him.
Larry Ellison (played by Hart Bochner)
The real Ellison, who co-founded Oracle, is one of the richest men in the world. The series depicts him as a close mentor of Holmes—he is one of the first vetted players to teacher her how to raise capital—though there's a bit of speculation as to how close the two actually were in real life.
Don Lucas (played by Michael Ironside)
Also a mentoring force, Lucas served as a board member for Theranos for years before he started doubting Holmes. The larger than life personality was a venture capitalist who had a knack for betting on the right businesses. Like a lot of players in The Dropout, he is rich as hell and remained so even after Theranos didn't pan out. Lucas passed away in late 2019.
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