di , 10/01/2022

Business ethics lessons in the Digital Health care start-up culture

Once considered by Forbes “the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire”, Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of Theranos, promised, back in 2004, that “one tiny drop can change everything”. Considered by then as the female Steve Jobs, she dropped Stanford to start Theranos, a Sillicon Valley start-up whose technology would allow to run blood test using only a drop of blood. The technology, once treated as trade secret, soon proved to be inaccurate, forcing investigation by the Federal Drug Administration in the USA. In January 2021, Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of four counts of fraud by lying to the investors in Theranos . She is expected to appeal the decision.

The Theranos-Elizabeth Holmes is a pandora’s box in the digital health entrepreneurial world.  From one side, we promote young businesspersons to create innovative ideas and develop revolutionary companies. We also expect them to “Move fast and break things” as the Meta’s CEO used to say. Those days are over. We expect young entrepreneurs to be bold and racy and secretive of their unique inventions.

However, during all these years we were probably blinded by the astounding nature of their inventions. Steve Jobs is no longer here. And we can count pioneering inventions, once a generation, in a handful. From an intellectual property perspective, most are improvements.

It’s time for accountability.  Elizabeth Holmes’s example should probably guide our young entrepreneurs to surround them with bright and insightful professionals and engineers. To ask questions -a lot-, to have doubts, and to feel a lot of pride of their invention when it’s proven that it works. A hundred times. And then a hundred times more.

However, Elizabeth Holmes verdict should not imply a negative view towards entrepreneurs, or even more, female entrepreneurs. Probably the contrary. This should boost the role of women in companies, allowing more women to run creating, developing and heading technology companies.

A warning sign. This judgment should be interpreted as a conviction against fraudulent entrepreneurs (beyond gender) and individuals trying to take advantage of an industry that for too long has been lenient towards the grandiosity of self-proclaiming successful technology.

This decision might imply the end of the messiah role of the entrepreneur, leading us to a promised cloud. The Thomas Edison inspired “Fake it ‘til you make it” Silicon Valley mantra will certainly be revised, and probably shelved for good.

This might probably inspire all young entrepreneurs to inject accountability into their endeavors. And finally, this might also influence other companies (and former social media startups) that have shown a very complicit corporate behavior towards their users, data protection and respect of young users in such a risky environment as smartphones.

This could be, maybe, the start of a more ethical, responsible, and engaged role of businesspersons in the future, instead of an irrational idolatry of innovators

The tiny drop that changed everything…