The house of cards that was health technology company Theranos was poised to topple over at any moment during its 16-year run. Founded by disgraced CEO Elizabeth Holmes, it promised the ability to run over a hundred tests on a single drop of blood. Not only did Holmes and Theranos overpromise while underdelivering, but the company endangered the lives of real patients.
Employees of Theranos who truly wanted to do good work were caught in their web of lies and deceit. Erika Cheung was one such employee, but she wasn't going to let Theranos continue to put the lives of others at risk. She chose to speak up, but did it make a difference?
In the Hulu series The Dropout, we see a fictionalized version of the fall of Theranos as well as Erika's contribution to its demise. Where is Erika Cheung now? Here's what we know.
Where is Erika Cheung now?
Before we get into where Erika ended up, we have to start with how she found Theranos. According to The Dropout podcast on which the Hulu series is based, Erika was a senior at UC Berkeley when she first heard about Theranos. She was poised to graduate with a degree in molecular and cell biology when Erika ran across Theranos at a campus career fair. Immediately taken in by the prospect of changing the world and making healthcare more accessible, she gave the recruiter her resume.
Almost immediately Erika got an interview and by October 2013, she was working a lab assistant, processing patient samples. The first thing she noticed was how secretive the work environment was. As she told Rebecca Jarvis, host of The Dropout podcast, "It was sort of instilled in us, in our on boarding. We need to keep certain things secret. We weren't allowed to talk to our friends and family about what's going on here." Theranos would even barricade certain portions of the lab so no one else could see what was going on.
Most of the Theranos employees were recent graduates like Erika, and they would work nearly nonstop. Despite the fact that things at Theranos felt chaotic and were not well-managed, voicing one's opinion about what was going on was not encouraged. "People were very scared of upsetting Elizabeth Holmes and upsetting [COO] Sunny Balwani," Erika said.
Soon, Erika began noticing problems with the testing. Every time she would run a test on a Theranos machine, it would inevitably fail. Unfortunately sharing her problems with supervisors would only result in temporary fixes. One such "solution" was to cherry-pick data points, going with what worked and ignoring what didn't. For Erika, the biggest issue was the fact that these tests were being performed on actual people who were making medical decisions based on their inaccurate results.
Erika began closely monitoring the problems she encountered. "I would put up error reporting sheets by the machines and they would be taken down. People didn't want to actually know the number of times we were having issues and it was probably because they were starting to realize we were having them so frequently," she explained to Rebecca Jarvis.
Other than being COO and Elizbeth Holmes's secret boyfriend, Sunny Balwani oversaw lab operations, and when Erika let him know what was going on, he became enraged. Sunny immediately questioned Erika's qualifications, basically accusing of her "starting fires where there were no fires." When Tyler Shultz started at Theranos, Erika had someone to confide in.
Tyler was the grandson of former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was on the Theranos board and was very friendly with Elizabeth Holmes. Erika explained to Tyler everything she had experienced while at the company, but when Sunny found out they were friends, he confronted Erika. Essentially, she was told to shut up and do her job.
Once it became clear that Erika's complaints were falling on deaf ears, Tyler took what she told him and contacted state regulators in New York, using an alias. It didn't take long for Tyler to start talking to Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, who would go on to write the Theranos profile that would mark the beginning of its end. It feels like Tyler gets most of the whistleblower credit, but it was really Erika's careful observation of all that was going on that made everything else possible.
Erika is now doing amazing work.
In February 2019, Erika co-founded Ethics in Entrepreneurship who, per their website, "...provide investors, entrepreneurs, and workers with resources to better recognize, and manage ethical issues in emerging companies. In a March 2020 TEDxBerkeley talk, Erika shared her story about her time at Theranos and highlighted projects that are labeled "moonshots."
Erika defines moonshots as "highly innovative projects that are very ambitious, that everyone wants to believe in." She then asks the question, "What happens when the vision is so compelling, and the desire to believe is so strong, that it starts to cloud your judgment about what reality is?"
Oftentimes projects like this do more harm than good because people are hyper-focused on the goal and less how to achieve it, which can lead to damage to the world at large.
Both the TEDx talk and Erika's company strive to put mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening. Erika's goal is to "foster stronger cultures of people who speak up, and listening to those who speak up." It's interesting what Erika did with her brief but impactful time at Theranos, and while very little if any good came out of Theranos itself, it would appear that Erika is doing her own good work.
The Dropout airs on Thursdays on Hulu.