Elizabeth Holmes said she was abused by Sunny Balwani

On the stand in her fraud trial, the former Theranos CEO alleged sexual and emotional abuse by her former professional and personal partner.

Sunny Balwani, former president and chief operating officer of Theranos, arrives at federal court in San Jose in 2019.

On the fourth day of her testimony, Elizabeth Holmes broke down for the first time as she discussed her relationship with Sunny Balwani.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This story contains mention of sexual assault.

Elizabeth Holmes has blamed many people along the way for the swift downfall of her blood-testing startup, Theranos. But on the fourth day of her testimony in the fraud case against her, she pointed the finger at the man who was once her close professional and personal partner: Sunny Balwani.

Along with testifying that Balwani, former COO and president of Theranos, was in charge of its lab operations and finances with little oversight, Holmes testified that he controlled her life down to the minute, including daily schedules, diet plans and critiques on the way she talked in the course of a decade-long romantic relationship which they hid from the company.

Balwani faces his own fraud charges related to his work at Theranos, for which a separate trial is scheduled to start in January.

Verbal abuse occurred often, Holmes testified. She said Balwani told her what to eat, how to exercise discipline and how to act more like a man in order to better lead Theranos. According to Holmes, Balwani said she came across as a “little girl” and needed to rein in her excitement in interactions.

In one note presented to the jury, Balwani wrote to Holmes "do everything I say — word for word.” Another handwritten note listed out tenets for her to live by:

"I do not react.
I am always proactive.
I know the outcome of every encounter.
I do not hesitate."

Along with detailing the control Balwani had over her, Holmes also said he sexually abused her.

“He would 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 testified.

An attorney for Balwani denied all allegations against him, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The testimony appears to undercut the suggestion that Holmes exercised control over all decisions at the company. In a deposition for the SEC in 2017, Holmes said “I’m the CEO. I’m the ultimate decision maker for the company.”

Holmes met Balwani on a trip to China when she was 18 and he was two decades her senior. She was studying at Stanford at the time. Their romantic relationship started in 2005 and ended in 2016. In one 2015 text exchange presented to the jury, Balwani wrote to Holmes, "I have molded you." Though she denied that Balwani controlled her or forced her to lie to investors and partners, she said "he impacted everything about who I was and I don’t fully understand that."

Holmes testified that she did not overrule Balwani’s authority over Theranos lab operations and finances, claiming she “completely” had confidence in areas in which he was responsible. Even as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services closed in for its inspection of Theranos labs in fall of 2015, which led to the shutdown of testing at the lab the following year, she said Balwani told her “the lab was in great shape, and the inspection should go well.”

Things were not fine. The CMS inspection "had not gone as expected," Holmes testified, as inspectors found a number of issues. The Wall Street Journal had also published its exposé on the company in 2015, and "continued articles were published that were attracting a lot of attention," she said. This marked the beginning of the end for the company.

Holmes testified that she revered Balwani as a business expert. But after the inspection, he “wasn’t who I thought he was,” she said. This was when she decided she needed him out, she said.

After Holmes and Balwani broke things off personally and professionally, she hired Kingshuk Das, a pathologist, as full-time lab director in 2016, agreeing to void all Theranos tests on Das’ recommendation because "we didn't know what to make of them." Holmes said after Balwani’s exit, she hired new board members and executives, and changed the company’s business strategy.

Testifying about Balwani’s abuse led Holmes to her only show of real emotion so far in the trial. The normally poised founder, known for rarely blinking, broke down crying. It was a stark contrast from the confident tone she started the day with, when she discussed her vision to expand access to health care and starkly denied misleading investors about the company’s partnership with the U.S. military, claiming she was “incredibly proud” of the work Theranos was doing in its early days.

The explosive testimony was the final big play of her defense, possibly as a tactic to engender sympathy from the jury as she goes into a likely grueling cross-examination by government prosecutors. Her trial will resume Tuesday morning at the federal courthouse in San Jose.


A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.


The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.


Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well-established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories