Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the former COO of failed blood testing startup Theranos and ex-boyfriend of founder Elizabeth Holmes, was found guilty of defrauding investors and patients.
Jury deliberations stretched for four full days following a lengthy trial that got underway in March with opening statements. Balwani was found guilty of ten counts of federal wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Balwani, the former president and COO at the failed blood testing startup, was indicted four years ago alongside Holmes, the founder and former CEO, for allegedly defrauding investors and patients. Their trials were severed after Holmes’ legal team outlined in legal filings that she planned to make accusations about their relationship as part of her defense.
Balwani’s verdict comes roughly six months after Holmes was found guilty on four of 11 federal fraud and conspiracy charges. His verdict marks an end to a rare criminal fraud case against two Silicon Valley startup executives and the final chapter of a company, and a founder, once viewed as a posterchild for the entrepreneurial dream of building a disruptive product with the potential to change the world.
“Balwani is a reminder that she, like everyone, didn’t do it by herself,” Margaret O’Mara, a historian of the tech industry and professor at the University of Washington told CNN Business. “He still had a significant role running the company.”
Holmes founded Theranos when she was 19 years old in an effort to create a cheaper, more efficient alternative to traditional blood testing, a goal she said was inspired by her own fear of needles. The startup later claimed to have developed technology capable of testing for a range of conditions, including cancer and diabetes, using just a few drops of blood. Theranos ultimately raised $945 million from investors, including well-known figures such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Walmart’s Walton family. It also struck up partnerships with prominent retailers.
Then it all came crashing down, beginning with a 2015 Wall Street Journal investigation into the startup that revealed holes in its testing methods and technological capabilities.
Balwani’s trial took place in the same San Jose, California courtroom where Holmes was convicted. His case, also presided over by Judge Edward Davila, was pushed back several times due to delays in Holmes’ trial and later by a surge in Covid-19.
To make its case against Balwani, the government called two dozen witnesses as it sought to convince jurors that he knowingly and intentionally lied to and deceived investors and patients in order to get money for Theranos. As with Holmes’ case, the government sought to untangle the layers of the alleged fraud for jurors, including concealing use of third-party manufactured machines, overstating financials, misrepresenting work with pharmaceutical companies and the military, and leveraging the media to perpetuate the scheme.
The defense, on the other hand, called two witnesses to testify. During opening and closing arguments, it portrayed Balwani as having acted in good faith and having believed in the company’s technology. It also argued prosecutors cherry-picked information to prove its case and cast doubt on whether the government had enough evidence for the jury to find Balwani guilty.
Balwani, 57, faces up to 20 years in prison as well as a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for each count of wire fraud and each conspiracy count.
Holmes, 38, is slated to be sentenced in late September.
While Holmes’ stunning rise and fall is likely what most will remember about the story of Theranos in years to come, O’Mara said Balwani is actually “more representative of the Valley in terms of his career.”
Balwani and Holmes first crossed paths in the summer of 2002. The two met while attending a summer program in Beijing to learn Mandarin. Balwani, nearly 20 years older than Holmes, had already had a successful career in the software industry and as an entrepreneur.
Originally from South Asia, Balwani moved to the United States on a student visa in 1986 to attend college in Texas. After graduating, he came to Silicon Valley and worked for tech companies such as Lotus and Microsoft. He went on to start an e-commerce company, which he eventually sold. By 2002, he was back in school to get his MBA.
As Holmes testified in her own defense in her trial, the two forged a friendship. They kept in touch and their relationship ultimately turned romantic. By 2005, the year after Holmes dropped out of Stanford to work full-time on Theranos, the pair were living together.
Balwani took a formal role at Theranos in 2009, shortly after guaranteeing a $10 million loan to the company. At the recommendation of Theranos’ board, according to Balwani’s defense, he would eventually take on the role of COO and president. Their romantic relationship, however, was largely kept private from investors, employees and business partners.
Under the leadership of Holmes and Balwani, Theranos struck a major retail partnership with Walgreens, hit a $9 billion valuation and received glowing coverage in the press. Holmes was featured on multiple magazine covers and hailed as the rare female founder of a billion-dollar business, not to mention one said to be a paper billionaire.
But in 2015, the Journal reported that Theranos had only ever performed roughly a dozen of the hundreds of tests it offered using its proprietary blood testing device, and with questionable accuracy. The Journal also revealed Theranos was relying on third-party manufactured devices from traditional blood-testing companies rather than its own proprietary technology.
Balwani, who had been overseeing the lab that processed patient samples, departed the company in May 2016. (Their personal relationship also ended at that time.) Theranos voided two years of blood test results.
In 2018, following nearly two years of turmoil, Holmes and Theranos settled “massive fraud” charges with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, but did not admit to or deny any of the allegations as part of the deal. Balwani, on the other hand, is fighting the charges. Jeffrey Coopersmith, the attorney also representing him in his criminal trial, said in a statement at the time that he “accurately represented Theranos to investors to the best of his ability.”
Theranos dissolved soon after.
While their trials were separated, each featured prominently in the other’s court proceedings.
As assistant US attorney Robert Leach told jurors during the prosecution’s opening arguments in Balwani’s trial, the government believes he and Holmes “were partners in everything, including their crimes.”
While Balwani was an integral part of Theranos and a confidante to Holmes throughout her time running the company, he was more of a behind-the-scenes force. In addition to the critical role of overseeing its patient lab, he also oversaw its key retail partnership with Walgreens and managing Theranos’ financial projections. Balwani, at times, also communicated directly with some investors to secure deals.
During her criminal trial, Holmes suggested that Balwani wielded even more power than she did at her own company in some ways. Taking the stand in her own defense, she testified that she was the victim of a decade-long abusive relationship with Balwani. She claimed Balwani exerted tremendous control over her, prescribing a restrictive lifestyle and image to become successful in the business world. At times, she alleged in testimony, he forced her to have sex with him. Balwani’s attorneys have strongly denied the allegations.
Holmes stopped short of saying Balwani directed her to mislead anyone. “He impacted everything about who I was, and I don’t fully understand that,” she testified.
Mark MacDougall, a white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said both the prosecution and the defense likely benefited by being able to see how evidence and witness testimony fared with jurors in Holmes’ trial. “Each side in Sunny’s trial would have made adjustments based on the outcome of the Holmes case, which could account for a different verdict,” he said.
While Balwani did not take the stand, his defense team’s strategy included pointing the finger back at Holmes. The defense highlighted to jurors that he, too, was a believer in Holmes and in Theranos, just as numerous other notable investors, business partners and employees had been.
The list of people who believed in Holmes and Theranos included Stanford University chemical engineering professor Channing Robertson, who served as the company’s first board member; former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Secretary of State George Shultz, who also once served on the board.
“That was the board at Theranos that the investors were understandably impressed with, as was Mr. Balwani no doubt,” said Coopersmith, during closing arguments.
The caliber of Theranos’ backers was reflected in the witnesses called by the government. Among those who testified in both trials were investor Chris Lucas, whose uncle Don Lucas was a well-known Silicon Valley investor and onetime chairman of Theranos’ board; Lisa Peterson, who helped vet a deal for the billionaire family of former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Daniel Mosley, a prominent lawyer who was introduced to Theranos through his longtime client Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State who once served on the board of the company. (Mosley went on to introduce several of his clients to Holmes and Theranos, including the DeVos family.)
“This is what Elizabeth was able to do…the charisma, the drive, the vision, the goal to change diagnostic testing, and he bought into that vision,” added Coopersmith.
Balwani’s attorneys also emphasized a missing database as reason for jurors to be skeptical of the prosecution’s case. The database contained the company’s testing records but the prosecution was never ultimately able to retrieve access before it was destroyed.
“It’s important to the process and to your deliberations that you focus on what actually is in evidence and not speculate about things that are not before you,” said assistant US attorney John Bostic in the prosecution’s rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments shortly before case went to jurors.