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The Inventor’ And ‘Breakthrough’ At SXSW, Two Tales Of Science Gone Right And Wrong

While thousands of people lined up to check out Amazon’s epic “Omens” activation at SXSW, others escaped the heat and lined up for a couple of documentaries about science gone right, and terribly wrong.

Bill Haney’s triumphant Breakthrough tells the astonishing story of a renegade scientist’s visionary quest to find a cure for cancer, the disease that killed his mother. Today, Texan Jim Allison is a 2018 Nobel Prize winner for discovering how to prompt a cancer patient’s own immune system into defeating their disease, but for decades he waged an often-lonely struggle against the painful skepticism of the medical establishment. Narrated by Woody Harrelson, and featuring music by Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael, and a powerful score by Mark Orton, Breakthrough tells Allison’s story in a way that is inspiring, informative and highly entertaining. No distribution deal yet, but triple threat writer-producer-director Bill Haney told me there is substantial interest so everyone will be able to see this remarkable and moving film soon.

Allison made creating a breakthrough drug, “Ippi,” his life’s work and overcame all odds, saving thousands of lives. The key qualities that made Allison so successful are humility, persistence, courage, and conviction, something today’s CEO’s and tech titans might take to heart. This is a deeply emotional story that brings tears to the eyes.

In contrast, The Inventor, Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which airs tonight on HBO, is a documentary by Alex Gibney (Zero Days, Enron, Taxi To The Dark Side) that tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, and her unicorn start-up Theranos, which at the peak of its inflated expectations was valued at over nine billion dollars, making Holmes the richest self-made woman on the Forbes list. Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start a company that was going to revolutionize healthcare by creating a “blood test lab in a box” that could give instant results. The problem was the box didn’t work. In fact, it never worked. Holmes covered this up, with disastrous results. She is about to go on trial for fraud and could receive a lengthy sentence.

Based on the 2018 non-fiction bestseller by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley The Inventor examines how this happened. Holmes was widely regarded as a genius, “the next Steve Jobs,” and attracted to her board celebrities like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and General Jim Mattis, who were quite taken with Holmes, and completely duped.

Schultz had gotten his grandson, an engineering graduate, a job at Theranos. Several years later he and another whistleblower let the proverbial cat out of the bag: the Theranos machine, called “The Edison,” didn’t work. When the company went into business with Walgreens they were unable to fulfill their contract. Instead, they stealthily started a traditional lab in their Silicon Valley headquarters to provide the results the Edison machine could not. The unprofessional way the lab was managed caused hundreds of results to be tainted, threatening the lives of the very people Holmes claimed she was so passionate about helping.

As always, the bigger problems for Holmes and Theranos were the cover-up. Her hero Thomas Edison was fond of saying “fake it till you make it,” The first celebrity CEO, he was known to exaggerate to the point of flat out lying while working feverishly in the lab to make what he said come true. Gibney, who has never met Holmes personally, relied on news footage, and material gathered by Theranos to document its rise to stardom. Gibney interlaces it with antique silent film footage to remind us of Edison’s long shadow. Like her hero, Holmes is full of contradictions. Unlike her hero, when she could no longer fake it till she made it, the coverups, and the lawyers proliferated. In the end, Theranos spent more than one-third of the 900 million dollars it raised on legal fees. Gibney told me he believes Holmes is likely to get a lengthy prison sentence for endangering real lives with bad blood tests.

HBO will premiere The Inventor, Out for Blood in Silicon Valley on Tuesday. March 18.

Originally published at on March 18, 2019.

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