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Ian Gibbons was the first experienced scientist Elizabeth had hired after launching Theranos. He came recommended by her Stanford mentor, Channing Robertson. Ian and Robertson had met at Biotrack in the 1980s, where they had invented and patented a new mechanism to dilute and mix liquid samples.
From 2005 to 2010, Ian led Theranos’s chemistry work alongside Gary Frenzel. Ian, who had joined the startup first, was initially senior to Gary. But Elizabeth soon inverted their roles because Gary had better people skills, which made him a smoother manager. The two of them cut quite a contrast—Ian, the reserved Englishman with a wry sense of humor, and Gary, the garrulous former rodeo rider who spoke with a Texas twang. But they had a good relationship grounded in their respect for each other as scientists and would sometimes roast each other in meetings.
Ian fit the stereotype of the nerdy scientist to a T. He wore a beard and glasses and hiked his pants high above his waist. He could spend hours on end analyzing data and took copious notes documenting everything he did at work. This meticulousness carried over to his leisure time: he was an avid reader and kept a list of every single book he’d read. It included Marcel Proust’s seven-volume opus, Remembrance of Things Past, which he reread more than once.
Ian and his wife, Rochelle, had met in the early 1970s at Berkeley. He had come over from England to do a postdoctorate fellowship in the university’s department of molecular biology, where Rochelle was doing her graduate research. They’d never had children, but Ian doted on their dogs Chloe and Lucy and on Livia, a cat he’d named after the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus.
Besides reading, Ian’s other two hobbies were going to the opera— he and Rochelle regularly went to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and in the summer flew to New Mexico to attend open-air performances of the Santa Fe Opera at dusk—and photography. For laughs, he liked altering photos. One of the many he doctored showed him as a gloved and bow-tied mad scientist mixing blue and purple potions. In another, he inserted himself into the foreground of a portrait of the British royal family.
As a biochemist, Ian’s specialty was immunoassays, which was the main reason Theranos had focused its early efforts on that class of test. He was passionate about the science of blood testing and loved to teach it. In the company’s early years, he would sometimes hold little lectures to educate the rest of the staff about the fundamentals of biochemistry. He also did presentations about how to create various blood tests that were recorded and stored on the company’s servers.
One source of recurring tension between Ian and the Theranos engineers was his insistence that the blood tests that he and the other chemists designed perform as accurately inside the Theranos devices as they did on the lab bench. The data he collected suggested that was rarely the case, which caused him considerable frustration. He and Tony Nugent butted heads over this issue during the development of the Edison. As admirable as Ian’s exacting standards were, Tony felt that all he did was complain and that he never offered any solutions.
Ian also had issues with Elizabeth’s management, especially the way she siloed the groups off from one another and discouraged them from communicating. The reason she and Sunny invoked for this way of operating was that Theranos was “in stealth mode,” but it made no sense to Ian. At the other diagnostics companies where he had worked, there had always been cross-functional teams with representatives from the chemistry, engineering, manufacturing, quality control, and regulatory departments working toward a common objective. That was how you got everyone on the same page, solved problems, and met deadlines.
Elizabeth’s loose relationship with the truth was another point of contention. Ian had heard her tell outright lies more than once and, after five years of working with her, he no longer trusted anything she said, especially when she made representations to employees or outsiders about the readiness of the company’s technology.
Ian’s frustrations bubbled over in the fall of 2010 as Theranos’s courtship of Walgreens intensified. He complained to his old friend Channing Robertson. Ian thought Robertson would keep their conversation private, but he reported everything Ian had said to Elizabeth. Rochelle was in bed when Ian arrived at their Portola Valley home late that Friday night. He told his wife that Robertson had betrayed his confidence and that Elizabeth had fired him.
To their surprise, Sunny called the next day. Unbeknownst to Ian, in the intervening hours several of his colleagues had lobbied Elizabeth to reconsider. Sunny offered Ian his job back, albeit without the same responsibilities. Ian had been head of the general chemistry group, which was in charge of creating new blood tests beyond the immunoassays they’d developed for the Edison, when Elizabeth fired him. He was allowed to come back as a technical consultant to the group, but its leadership was given to Paul Patel, a biochemist who had been hired two months earlier on Ian’s recommendation.
Ian was a proud man and he took the demotion hard. The humiliation he felt was compounded when, eighteen months later, the company moved to the old Facebook building and he lost the private office he’d had at the Hillview Avenue headquarters. To be sure, he wasn’t the only one being marginalized by then: Gary Frenzel and Tony Nugent too were being sidelined as Elizabeth and Sunny hired and promoted newer recruits over them. It was as if the company’s old guard—the people who had gotten Elizabeth to this point—was being mothballed.
A FEW MONTHS BEFORE the move, Tony had noticed a poster for the movie Women in Love in Ian’s office and they got to talking. The 1969 film was based on D. H. Lawrence’s novel of the same name about the relationships between two sisters and two men in an English mining town around the time of the First World War. Ian mentioned that he’d toured Ireland when it came out, which would have coincided with when Tony was still a child growing up there. That led to other musings. Tony learned that Ian’s father had been captured in North Africa during World War II. After initially being detained in a POW camp in Italy, he had been marched across Europe to a different camp in Poland, where he was liberated at the end of the war.
The conversation eventually drifted back to the here and now and to Theranos. Tony, who like Ian no longer had Elizabeth’s favor and was being excluded from the development of the miniLab, floated the notion that perhaps the company was just a vehicle for Elizabeth and Sunny’s romance and that none of the work they did really mattered.
Ian nodded. “It’s a folie à deux,” he said.
Tony didn’t know any French, so he left to go look up the expression in the dictionary. The definition he found struck him as apt: “The presence of the same or similar delusional ideas in two persons closely associated with one another.”
After the move to the old Facebook building, Ian grew more sullen. He was relegated to a desk in the general population of employees with his back facing a wall. It was a symbol of how unimportant he’d become.
One day, the engineer Tom Brumett ran into him at Fish Market, a seafood restaurant on El Camino Real where he was meeting a friend. As they stood in line waiting for a table, Ian asked if he could join them. Tom and Ian were both in their mid-sixties and had established a friendly rapport. The first time they’d interacted was shortly after Tom came to work at Theranos in 2010. Upset that Sunny and other managers were disregarding his opinion during a discussion about what sort of engineering personnel should be hired to assist him, Tom had walked out of the meeting in a huff with thoughts of quitting. Ian had come running after him and assured him that his opinion did matter—a gesture Tom had greatly appreciated.
Over the next two years, Tom had noticed Ian’s growing gloom. As they sat down for lunch at Fish Market, Tom wondered whether Ian had followed him there. Most Theranos employees ate the food Elizabeth and Sunny had catered and didn’t leave the office during the day. What’s more, the restaurant wasn’t near the office and Ian had walked in just a minute or two after him. Ian had probably hoped to catch him alone, Tom thought. He seemed desperate for someone to talk to. But Tom was there to reconnect with his friend, a salesman for a Japanese chipmaker. They tried to include Ian in the conversation, but he remained quiet after an initial exchange of pleasantries. Later, when he replayed the scene in his mind, Tom realized he’d ignored his colleague’s silent cry for help.
Tom ran into Ian one last time in early 2013 in the office cafeteria. By then, he looked despondent. Tom tried to buck him up, reminding him that he was earning decent money and urging him not to take his work predicament so seriously. It was just a job, after all. But Ian just stared at his plate, disconsolate.
IAN’S DEMOTION WASN’T the only thing eating away at him. Although he was now a mere in-house consultant, he continued to work closely with the person who had taken his job, Paul Patel. Paul had tremendous respect for Ian as a scientist. When he was in graduate school in England, he had read all about the pioneering work on immunoassays Ian had done in the 1980s at a company called Syva.
After he was promoted, Paul continued to treat Ian as an equal and to consult with him about everything. But they differed in one crucial respect: Paul shied away from conflict and was more willing to compromise with the engineers building the miniLab than Ian was. Ian refused to give an inch and became furious when he felt he was being asked to lower his standards. Paul spent numerous evenings on the phone with him trying to calm him down. During these discussions, Ian told Paul to stand by his convictions and never to lose sight of his concern for the patient.
“Paul, it has to be done right,” Ian would say.
Sunny had put a man named Samartha Anekal, who had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering but no industry experience, in charge of integrating the various parts of the miniLab. Sam was perceived by some of his colleagues as a yes-man who did Sunny’s bidding. Throughout 2012, Ian and Paul had several tense meetings with Sam. Ian stormed out of one of them after Sam informed them that the miniLab’s spectrophotometer didn’t yet meet certain specifications Ian considered nonnegotiable. Sam had previously agreed to them but now said he needed more time. When he returned to his desk, Ian was distraught.
On weekends, Ian and Rochelle often went on walks in the rolling hills surrounding Portola Valley with Chloe and Lucy, their two American Eskimo dogs. During one of these walks, Ian told Rochelle that nothing at Theranos was working, but he didn’t go into any details. The strict nondisclosure agreements he was bound by prevented him from discussing anything specific about the company, even with his wife. He also bemoaned the turn his career had taken. He felt like an old piece of furniture that had been warehoused. Elizabeth and Sunny had long stopped listening to him.
In the early months of 2013, Ian stopped going into the office on most days and instead worked from home. He’d been diagnosed with colon cancer six years earlier and had missed some time at work after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. Colleagues assumed that the cancer had returned. But that was not the case. He remained in remission and his physical health was fine. The problem lay with his mental health: he was in the throes of a deep, undiagnosed clinical depression.
IN APRIL, Theranos informed Ian that he had been subpoenaed to testify in the Fuisz case. The prospect of being deposed made him nervous. He and Rochelle discussed the lawsuit several times. Rochelle had once done work as a patent attorney, so Ian asked her to review Theranos’s patent portfolio in the hope that she could give him some advice. While doing so, she noticed that Elizabeth’s name was on all the company’s patents, often in first place in the list of inventors. When Ian told her that Elizabeth’s scientific contribution had been negligible, Rochelle warned him that the patents could be invalidated if this was ever exposed. That only served to make him more agitated.
Ian couldn’t tell whether there was any foundation for Elizabeth’s theft allegation when he read the Fuisz patent and the early Theranos patent applications side by side. But he knew one thing for sure: he didn’t want to be involved in the case. And yet he worried that his job depended on it. He’d started drinking heavily in the evenings. He told Rochelle that he didn’t think he could ever resume a normal schedule at Theranos. The thought of going back to the office made him sick, he said. Rochelle told him he should quit if the job made him that miserable. But resigning didn’t seem like an option to him. At age sixty-seven, he didn’t think he would be able to find another job. He also clung to the idea that he could still help the company fix its problems.
On May 15, Ian contacted Elizabeth’s assistant to schedule a meeting with her, hoping to work out some sort of alternative employment arrangement. But when the assistant called back to confirm a meeting for the next day, Ian became anxious. He told Rochelle he was worried that Elizabeth would use the meeting to fire him. That same day, he got a call from the Theranos lawyer David Doyle. After trying for weeks to get the Boies Schiller attorneys to propose a date for Ian’s deposition, the Fuiszes’ lawyers had run out of patience and sent notice that he would have to appear at their offices in Campbell, California, at 9:00 a.m. on May 17.
That’s what Doyle was calling about. With the deadline for his appearance less than two days away, the lawyer encouraged Ian to invoke health issues to get out of the deposition and emailed him a doctor’s note for his physician to adapt and sign. Ian forwarded the email to his personal Gmail address and, from there, to his wife’s email address, asking her to print it. His anxiety seemed to reach a new fevered pitch.
Rochelle had known for a while that Ian wasn’t well, but she’d had other concerns weighing on her mind: she was grieving her mother, who had just passed away and left behind a complicated estate to sort out, and she had just launched a new law practice with an associate. Part of her had been resentful that she wasn’t getting the marital support she needed during this stressful period of her life. But Ian’s anguished state that day made her realize how dire his mental condition had become. She got him to agree to get help and scheduled an appointment with his general practitioner for the next morning.
WHEN ROCHELLE GOT UP around seven thirty a.m. on May 16, she saw that the bathroom light was on and the door closed. She assumed Ian was getting ready to go to the doctor’s. But when he failed to come out after a while and didn’t answer her calls, she pushed the bathroom door open. She found her husband hunched over in a chair unconscious and barely breathing. Panicked, she called 911.
Ian spent the next eight days hooked up to a ventilator at Stanford Hospital. He had taken enough acetaminophen, the active ingredient in painkillers like Tylenol, to kill a horse. Combined with the wine he’d consumed, the drug had destroyed his liver. He was pronounced dead on May 23. As an expert chemist, Ian knew exactly what he was doing. Rochelle later found a signed will that he’d had witnessed by Paul Patel and another colleague a few weeks before.
Rochelle was overwhelmed with grief but she found the strength to call Elizabeth’s office and left a message with her assistant informing her about Ian’s passing. Elizabeth didn’t call back. Instead, later that day, Rochelle received an email from a Theranos lawyer requesting that she immediately return Ian’s company laptop and cell phone and any other confidential information he might have retained.
Inside Theranos, Ian’s death was handled with the same cold, businesslike approach. Most employees weren’t even informed of it. Elizabeth notified only a small group of company veterans in a brief email that made a vague mention of holding a memorial service for him. She never followed up and no service was held. Longtime colleagues of Ian’s like Anjali Laghari, a chemist who had worked closely with him for eight years at Theranos and for two years before that at another biotech company, were left guessing about what had happened. Most thought he had died of cancer.
Tony Nugent became upset that nothing was done to honor his late colleague’s memory. He and Ian hadn’t been close. In fact, they had fought like cats and dogs at times during the Edison’s development. But he was bothered by the lack of empathy being shown toward someone who had contributed nearly a decade of his life to the company. It was as if working at Theranos was gradually stripping them all of their humanity. Determined to show he was still a human being with compassion for his fellow man, Tony downloaded a list of Ian’s patents from the patent office’s online database and cut and pasted them into an email. He embedded a photo of Ian above the list and sent the email around to the two dozen colleagues he could think of who had worked with him, making a point to copy Elizabeth. It wasn’t much, but it would at least give people something to remember him by, Tony thought.
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