(This story was originally published on 1 Ocotber 2021. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after his Sunny Balwani's conviction, on 8 July 2022.)
It has been just over a month since the start of the blockbuster trial of the now-dissolved health technology company Theranos' founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. She has been charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Holmes has been accused of swindling investors of millions of dollars by lying to them about a blood-testing technology, whose performance and capability was grossly exaggerated by Theranos.
However, there is another central character in what has been dubbed "Silicon Valley's biggest fraud", and that person is Ramesh 'Sunny' Balwani, ex-president and ex-COO of Theranos, who has been charged with the exact same counts as Holmes, with whom he was purportedly in a 'secret relationship'. Holmes has also accused Balwani of sexual harassment.
Like Holmes, Balwani has been charged with engaging "in a multi-million-dollar scheme to defraud investors" with the objective of promoting Theranos, according to the US Department of Justice.
But who is Sunny Balwani? What did his life look like before Theranos? When did he meet Holmes and what is his equation with her? What role did he play in the fraudulent activities of Theranos? What are the details of the case against him? We break it down for you.
Early Life and Career Before Theranos
Sunny Balwani was born on 13 June 1965 in Pakistan to a Sindhi Hindu family. He relocated to India for a while before eventually immigrating to the US where he did his undergraduate degree in information systems at the University of Texas (Austin), according to ABC News and Yahoo News.
Before creating a company called CommerceBid in 1999, Balwani had stints with Lotus Software and Microsoft.
In 2000, Balwani left Commerce One, and made millions by selling his shares, before doing an MBA at UC Berkeley (during which he met Holmes for the first time in China in 2002 for a Mandarin language course). He then studied computer science for four years at Stanford, the Yahoo News report added.
He joined Theranos in 2009 as its president.
Balwani was married to Japanese artist Keiko Fujimoto before their divorce in 2002.
Role in the Deceptive Rise of Theranos
The first thing that Balwani did before formally taking charge of the company along with Holmes was invest, interest-free, $13 million of his own money, which he called a "good-faith loan", Esquire reported.
Then, as President and COO of Theranos, Balwani ran its day-to-day operations. He had no training or background knowledge in biological science, according to a CBS report.
A former employee named Doug Matje said that Balwani would yell at scientists for not getting the desired results and would fire employees who had started asking questions about the inaccurate test results, the report added.
John Carreyrou, The Wall Street Journal journalist who had exposed Theranos' scam, was reportedly told by an insider that Balwani was 'terrorising' employees and used to constantly surveil them through security cameras, according to a different Yahoo report.
The HBO documentary on Theranos titled The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley showed him leading a chant of curses against Theranos' competitors and rivals.
Former employees also alleged Balwani was clueless about the details of the health technology that Theranos was selling to the public.
Talking to CBS, some of them recollected how he mispronounced technical terms related to the technology, and also made strange statements about what Theranos would achieve in the future, once claiming that the "invention is going to be way up there, um, with--with the discovery of antibiotics."
Nevertheless, he provided indispensable support to Holmes in spreading lies about the technology that falsely claimed to conduct blood tests with only a few drops of blood, or how it could detect high cholesterol and cancer.
Additionally, Balwani contributed to the rise of Theranos by allegedly fabricating investor documents that lied about multiple things like collaborating with Johns Hopkins University and big pharmaceutical companies, attaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and about their technology being used by the American military in Afghanistan, CBS reported.
In 2016, the federal Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), after an inspection of Theranos' California lab, banned Balwani from owning and operating blood labs, according to the New York Times.
Eventually, law enforcement chased him down and he was charged in 2018 with nine counts of fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud.
He was also charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission in violation of the US Securities Act for lying and misleading investors to attract more investments for Theranos.
The Relationship With Elizabeth Holmes & Sexual Harassment Allegations
According to John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Balwani met Holmes in China during a Mandarin course program in 2002. They began living with each other by 2005.
Until 2016, Holmes and Balwani had been in a long-term relationship which they had successfully hidden from Theranos' investors and employees, Esquire reported.
However, to Carreyrou it was very clear "that they were running this thing as a partnership, and that Sunny was kind of the enforcer and Holmes' older boyfriend", he told Business Insider.
Their relationship reportedly ended in 2016, when Theranos was on the verge of shutdown due to investigations that had been initiated by federal prosecutors.
Balwani has also been accused by Holmes of sexual harassment to the extent that the he influenced her ability to make decisions for the company, according to the BBC.
Their trials are to be held separately and Balwani's trial is supposed to start in January 2022, by which time Holmes' trial should have ended.
(With inputs from US Department of Justice, ABC News, Yahoo News, CBS, BBC, and Esquire)