A Timeline Of Elizabeth Holmes & Sunny Balwani’s Secret Relationship

The Theranos CEO claimed she was single — but was actually living with the company’s president.

Elizabeth Holmes attends the Forbes Under 30 Summit at Pennsylvania Convention Center on October 5, ...
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As the founder of the (supposedly) revolutionary blood-testing company Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was once one of the most lauded figures in Silicon Valley. She appeared on the cover of Fortune, was profiled in The New Yorker, and held a press conference at the Theranos lab with then-vice president Joe Biden. Her fame has only increased in recent years — but for very different reasons. Since the company’s downfall in 2015, when Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou uncovered the fact that Theranos was lying about its ability to perform blood tests on only a pinprick of blood, she’s been the subject of a book, a documentary, two podcasts, and now a Hulu series, The Dropout, in which she’s played by Amanda Seyfried. Viewers who only have a glancing familiarity with Theranos might be surprised to discover that there’s another central figure in The Dropout, and in the Theranos scandal: the company’s president and COO Sunny Balwani — who also happened to be Holmes’ long-term romantic partner.

Throughout Holmes’ rise to fame, she presented herself to the media as a single woman, driven by an obsessive quest to make Theranos successful at the expense of her personal life. “As a parent, I do hope that at some point she will have time for herself,” her mother told The New Yorker, which also reported that Theranos board member Henry Kissinger had tried to set her up on dates. There was a reason those set-ups failed: She already had a partner. But she and Balwani (played by Naveen Andrews in The Dropout) kept their relationship hidden not only from the press but also from their investors and employees. It only became public after the company collapsed under the weight of its own scandal.

Below, a timeline of Holmes’ relationship with Balwani, and how it played out against Theranos’ rise and fall.

Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani met in 2002.

Holmes and Balwani first met in 2002, the same year Balwani’s then-wife filed for divorce. The pair met in Beijing, while Holmes was on a summer trip with Stanford’s Mandarin program. At the time, she was 19 and he was 37. After the trip, Holmes and Balwani kept in contact through email. Although their relationship began platonically, according to Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies at a Silicon Valley Startup, at some point it became romantic.

They moved in together in 2005.

Holmes moved in with Balwani in 2005, two years after she founded Theranos and around a year after she’d dropped out of Stanford. Balwani enrolled in Stanford himself around this time, with the goal of studying computer science — but he dropped out himself in 2008.

Balwani started working at Theranos in 2009.

Balwani first became involved in Theranos in early 2009, when he loaned the struggling company $13 million. As he explained in court testimony (via The Dropout podcast), “The company was low on cash, and I knew of the mission and that what the company was trying to do was paramount and I offered to help the company and I ended up giving a $13 million personal loan … It was interest-free. It was a good-faith loan.” Six months later, he became the company’s president and COO. The couple didn’t disclose their relationship to employees working at Theranos, but according to employees featured in HBO’s documentary The Inventor, it was something of an open secret at the company: Holmes and Balwani lived together only four miles away from the office, and frequently arrived and left work together. Carreyrou told Business Insider that his first source from inside Theranos even called Balwani “Holmes’ older boyfriend,” and described Theranos as a “fraud being run by a couple.”

Outside the company, however, Holmes and Balwani’s secret was more, well, secret, as Henry Kissinger’s efforts to set her up indicate. Carreyrou, however, wasn’t duped. As he told Business Insider, “It instantly became clear to me that she was lying to her board about this romantic relationship that she was having with the number two of the company, who by the way, was also about 20 years older.”

Balwani’s age and experience as a successful businessman — he got rich during the dot-com boom — evidently gave him the confidence to manage Theranos’ office despite the fact that he lacked expertise in the product that the company was designing. Balwani was Holmes’ “enforcer,” a person who, according to Carreyrou, “terroriz[ed] everyone” at the company. “The atmosphere of the place became caustic” once Balwani was around, according to former Theranos vice president Anthony Nugent.

Holmes and Balwani split around the time Theranos began foundering.

Theranos couldn’t survive forever without a fully-functioning product, and Holmes and Balwani’s relationship couldn’t survive the demise of Theranos. After the government launched its investigation into Theranos in 2016, it banned Balwani from operating a blood laboratory, and he left the company. Once he was out of Theranos, his relationship with Holmes was over, too. According to Carreyrou, both break-ups were instigated by Holmes: As he wrote in a Reddit AMA in 2018, “When it started becoming apparent to [Holmes] that she would have no chance of persuading people she was really trying to change the company's culture and fix its problems, she threw Sunny under the bus. She fired him and broke up with him. His departure was dressed up in a press release as voluntary retirement, but it wasn’t.”

During her trial, Holmes alleged that Balwani had abused her.

During her fraud trial, which took place in December 2021, Holmes alleged that Balwani abused and raped her; according to her attorneys, Balwani had mounted a “decade-long campaign of psychological abuse” against her. Her attorneys argued that Balwani’s alleged abuse had “eras[ed] [Holmes’] capacity to make decisions” — a strategy to shift blame from Holmes to Balwani that Carreyrou described as “the Svengali defense.” In her testimony, Holmes described Balwani verbally abusing her — criticizing her skills as an entrepreneur and telling her she “came across as a little girl” — and said, “He would get very angry with me and then he would sometimes come upstairs to our bedroom and force me to have sex with him when I didn’t want to because he wanted me to know that he still loved me.” She also testified that her relationship with Balwani damaged her relationship with her family.

It’s impossible to know what, exactly, went on behind the scenes in Holmes and Balwani’s relationship. But people who were involved with Theranos, or have investigated it since, like Carreyrou, have expressed skepticism regarding Holmes’ characterization of her professional relationship with Balwani. According to former board member James Mattis, for instance, Holmes was “in charge” of the company, and The Verge reported that other witnesses testified that “Balwani defer[red] to Holmes.” In the same 2018 Reddit AMA, Carreyrou wrote, “[T]his was a fraud perpetrated by two partners in crime. But as I wrote in the epilogue of Bad Blood, Elizabeth always had the last say.” In a recent interview with The New Yorker, he said that text messages between the couple, made public through S.E.C. case documents since the publication of his book, reinforce the idea that their relationship was one of “a partnership of equals.” “In some of those texts,” he points out, “Sunny is even the one who voices words of caution, or expresses misgivings, whereas Elizabeth never seems to.”

Holmes was convicted of four counts of fraud, and is currently awaiting sentencing. Balwani has been charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His trial is expected to begin in March of this year.