Safeway thought it was getting Theranos tech. Instead it got a mess.

Former Safeway CEO Steve Burd, who negotiated a key partnership to put Theranos testing in Safeway pharmacies, testified Wednesday at Elizabeth Holmes' fraud trial.

A Safeway store sign

Theranos promoted Safeway as a key partner.

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Former Safeway CEO Steve Burd had big visions for how Theranos' blood testing would fit into his grocery store empire. With results promised within 30 minutes, he could imagine customers getting a blood test, doing their grocery shopping and maybe even having a prescription from their doctor filled at the pharmacy based on the readings before they even left the store.

"This notion of getting results and getting a prescription possibly before leaving the store, we knew it would be appealing to customers," the former CEO testified in a San Jose courtroom Wednesday as part of Elizabeth Holmes' ongoing fraud trial.

By the end of 2012, nearly two and a half years after Safeway and Theranos inked a contract and well past the initial January 2011 launch pilot date, there wasn't a single Theranos device inside a Safeway store.

"When I try to envision the Theranos 'to do' list, the work that remains to be done appears nothing short of daunting," Burd wrote in a December 2012 email to Holmes, Theranos' founder and CEO. "I am not sure when or how it gets done."

Ultimately the deal would fizzle out in 2015 with no blood test reportedly ever offered in a Safeway location.

Prosecutors didn't reach the conclusion of Burd's testimony, which will continue next Tuesday. Instead, Burd testified to how he was lured in by Holmes' charisma to invest millions into the company and building clinics inside Safeway labs, only to face a series of delays and growing frustrations.

Holmes is facing 10 counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for her actions as CEO and founder of Theranos. She has pleaded not guilty, and her defense has argued she was a young and naive CEO who surrounded herself with other smarter people.

Burd, though, found Holmes to be competent and in charge and in no way deferential to Sunny Balwani, Theranos' president and also her boyfriend at the time.

"She never looked at Sunny to see what he might be thinking. She answered the questions herself," Burd said.

Burd had wanted to meet with Holmes since 2010 when he first heard that Safeway's health division was talking to the young blood-testing startup, and wanted to strike a deal to make it a key part of Safeway's wellness play.

Prosecutors for the U.S. government displayed slides from a 2010 board meeting deck that described the "disruptive technology opportunity." One slide promised that it was a "full diagnostic blood, saliva and urine lab in a box" with test results in 20 minutes. In another claim, Burd said Holmes had represented that Theranos was "currently cash flow neutral with a client base of pharmaceutical companies." (Earlier testimony from controller Danise Yam showed that Theranos lost money and faced dwindling revenues.)

In its earliest timeline, the company had wanted to launch "under the radar" in rural Washington state by the end of 2010 and roll out an initial pilot in Northern California by January 2011.

Safeway anticipated an $85 million financial commitment, including a $55 million cash investment in Theranos and $30 million to remodel stores. "That number ended up being very low" because they had to do more extensive remodeling, Burd said. (News reports from 2015 peg it at closer to $350 million ultimately spent, although that went unconfirmed in Wednesday's court testimony.)

In September 2010, Burd and Safeway ended up signing a deal with Theranos to install its machines in clinics at its stores. Prosecutors showed that in the paperwork for the agreement, Theranos described itself as having developed "and is developing, generations of 'mini-lab' [sic] devices that can run any blood test in real-time for less than the traditional cost of central lab tests." At the time, Burd said he was not told that a single test hadn't been validated for patient use on the Theranos proprietary devices.

There were signs of concern. At a board meeting, Holmes had brought in a device and took a Safeway board member's blood for a routine prostate test. The machine "made a bunch of noise" but never returned a result.

Theranos also kept delaying the launch. The only technical issue Theranos had raised was that they were trying to work out how to stack devices on top of each other while managing heat. Burd offered up Safeway engineers who knew about heating and cooling as help, but Holmes declined.

Holmes had also at one point blamed the work the company was doing with its Department of Defense contracts as part of the delay, although earlier testimony from General James Mattis revealed that, to his knowledge, Theranos devices had never been used in combat or on helicopters like she had told Burd.

Safeway eventually launched a pilot on its own corporate campus after Theranos kept delaying in-store launches. "We were far into this thing, but we'd never really seen the box work," Burd said.

Even with the pilot on campus, he wasn't aware that Theranos wasn't using any of its devices in the patient blood-testing lab.

"If they were using standard machines only, then all we were testing was the phlebotomist's ability to prick a finger and draw blood," he said.

Holmes would later unveil a version of the device as the Theranos "miniLab" at a 2016 medical convention.

Burd's testimony will continue next week. See Protocol's complete Theranos trial coverage.


The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

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 (

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at


'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.


Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at

Latest Stories