Ramesh Balwani: Who is Elizabeth Holmes’ ex at the heart of the Theranos trial

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Ramesh Balwani: Who is Elizabeth Holmes’ ex at the heart of the Theranos trial
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Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of failed US biotech start-up Theranos, is currently on trial in San Jose, California, facing fraud charges.

Her company – centered around “revolutionary” finger prick blood-testing technology that turned out not to be entirely sound – was once among Silicon Valley’s brightest prospects, valued at $9bn and attracting investment from some of America’s most influential business figures before its spectacular fall from grace led to its dissolution in September 2018.

Also on trial is Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, Theranos’s chief operating officer and Holmes’s former boyfriend.

Both were indicted in June 2018 on two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud and, if they are ultimately convicted in San Jose, face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count.

The pair were previously accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of deceiving investors as part of a “elaborate, years-long fraud” operation, following an investigation into claims Theranos had misrepresented the capabilities of its blood-testing equipment, which proposed to do away with the hypodermic needle.

Holmes settled with the SEC at great personal cost.

She was just 19 and a student at Stanford University when she conceived the idea for what would become the firm’s Edison “finger prick” technology, a wearable patch that, she hoped, could analyse a patient’s blood from just a few drops, removing the need for a painful piercing of the skin, a traumatic phobia for many people.

Founded in 2003, her company quickly attracted high-profile investment from the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Carlos Slim, Larry Ellison, Robert Kraft, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and future Donald Trump administration education and defence secretaries Betsy DeVos and Jim Mattis.

As US vice president in 2015, Joe Biden visited one of its facilities in Newark, California, and hailed what he saw as ”the laboratory of the future”.

But the company’s fortunes began to turn in October of that year, when John Carryrou of The Wall Street Journal wrote an article claiming Theranos had been forced to use conventional blood-testing methods in its research because its own Edison technology was providing erratic and inconsistent results.

Carryrou, allowed to pursue the story despite his newspaper being owned by Mr Murdoch, discovered that the company’s apparently innovative tech was nowhere near ready for use and had been rushed into development to meet the expectations of its influential investors.

The equipment Biden had been shown was not actually operational.

Theranos quickly began to unravel and Carryrou went on to write the best-selling book Bad Blood about the affair in 2018.

In her fourth and final day of questioning by defence attorneys on Monday, a tearful Elizabeth Holmes alleged that Balwani, 20 years her senior, has physically and psychologically abused her during the decade they had been together as a couple, demonstrating controlling behaviour throughout.

“He told me I didn’t know what I was doing in business, that my convictions were wrong, that he was astonished at my mediocrity, that if I followed my instincts I was going to fail and that I needed to kill the person I was to become what he called a new Elizabeth that could be a successful entrepreneur,” she said.

“He would tell me not to sleep much, eat only foods that would make me pure and would make me have the most energy possible in the company.”

Holmes told jurors that Balwani persistently criticised her work ethic and attempted to undermine her by suggesting she “came across as a little girl”.

“He would get very angry with me and then he would sometimes come upstairs to our bedroom and force me to have sex with him when I didn’t want to because he wanted me to know that he still loved me,” she said.

Holmes also said the abusive behavior she alleges had also harmed relations with her family.

“I saw them less than I’d ever seen them before and I spoke to them less than I had ever spoke to them before,” she said.

“Because I was trying to focus all of my time on the company. Sunny would get very upset if I was with my family. He said it was a distraction to the business.”

Holmes explained on Monday that she had first met Balwani in China while she was still a student and he an experienced executive with a background in software, appealing to him for advice on starting her fledgling company.

Elizabeth Holmes (Reuters)
Elizabeth Holmes (Reuters)

A lawyer for Balwani has denied the allegations against the tech exec.

Balwani had been born into a Sindhi Hindu family in Pakistan on 13 June 1965, his parents later emigrating to India and then the US, where he studied at the University of Texas at Austin from 1986.

He worked for Lotus Software and then Microsoft prior to 1998, when he helped to create CommerceBid, a software development company that supported businesses buying and selling over the internet, an important step towards the online retail boom that was to come with the dawning of the new millennium.

CommerceBid was duly bought by Commerce One in 1999 and Balwani joined the board of the new company before selling his stock for a reported $40m a year later, just prior to the bursting of the dot com bubble.

He divorced his wife, Japanese artist Keiko Fujimoto, in December 2002, leaving their home in San Francisco to undertake a master’s degree in Business Administration at the University of California, Berkeley, as a mature student in 2003.

It was here that he first met Holmes, then a chemical engineering major with global ambitions.

Initially offering friendship and counsel, Balwani joined her start-up, Theranos, in 2009, serving as second-in-command until his departure in 2016, charged with overseeing the company’s laboratories and with handling financial projections.

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