Sunny Balwani Is Still Awaiting Trial For His Involvement In Theranos

Balwani is a major figure in The Dropout, Hulu’s new series about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

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Former Theranos COO Ramesh "Sunny' Balwani leaves the Robert F. Peckham U.S. Federal Court on June 2...
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At this point, practically everybody knows the name Elizabeth Holmes. The Stanford dropout famously founded the tech start-up Theranos, which promised to revolutionize medical testing by performing hundreds of lab tests using only a drop of blood, at age 19 in 2003. The company was initially hugely successful — in 2014, it was valued at over $9 billion — but a year later, everything came crashing down when journalist John Carreyrou reported that the company’s technology was fraudulent. The new Hulu series The Dropout, which stars Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, dramatizes the founder’s rise and fall, and shines a light on a less well-known player in the Theranos saga: Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, Theranos’ president and COO — and Holmes’ onetime romantic partner.

Balwani (played by Lost alum Naveen Andrews in The Dropout) had an instrumental role in Theranos, but has never been as public a figure as Holmes. Where Holmes courted publicity, Balwani stayed in the shadows, and much about his life, especially pre-Theranos, remains a mystery. But there’s plenty to know about one of the leading figures in the scandal. Below, what to know about Sunny Balwani, and where he is now.

Who is Sunny Balwani?

Sunny Balwani has remained something of a mysterious figure throughout the Theranos saga. Though journalists and documentarians — including, most prominently, Carreyrou — have uncovered plenty of information about his role at the company and relationship with Holmes, his origins and earlier life remain hazy. Some of Carreyrou’s sources even speculated that he had deliberately deleted information about himself from the internet.

Some facts, however, can be tracked down. Though born in Pakistan, Balwani grew up in India. His family immigrated a second time, this time to America, when he was older, and he attended the University of Texas at Austin. After working as a software engineer at Microsoft, he got rich during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, during which he founded a website called CommerceBid that allowed companies to drive down prices by forcing suppliers to compete for contracts. The website sold for $225 million — $40 million of which ultimately wound up in Balwani’s pocket, according to The New York Times. Balwani enjoyed his newfound wealth, splurging on a Lamborghini and a Porsche, both of which featured vanity plates.

Around this time, Balwani was married to the Japanese artist Keiko Fujimoto, who filed for divorce in 2002 — the same year Balwani met Holmes on a summer trip to Beijing, where Holmes was studying Mandarin. (At the time, Holmes was only 19 and Balwani was 37.) It’s unclear when, exactly, their relationship became romantic, but according to Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, the couple moved in together in 2005. Their relationship is difficult, at least from the outside, to differentiate from Balwani’s involvement with Theranos: He extended the company a $13 million loan in 2009, and became its president and COO the same year.

Although employees at Theranos suspected that Holmes and Balwani were romantically involved — multiple employees describe them coming to and leaving the office together in HBO’s Theranos documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley — the relationship was a secret, especially from investors and the media. In interviews and profiles, Holmes presented herself as an obsessive businesswoman who had no time for a personal life. Her mother lamented to The New Yorker, “As a parent, I do hope that at some point she will have time for herself.” Holmes was obsessed with Theranos, but she was also in a long-term romantic relationship — one she kept secret from everyone around her.

In his role at the company, Balwani appears to have helped Holmes to continue selling her vision to the world, even if that vision wasn’t being realized by the scientists at Theranos’ labs. Employees referred to Balwani as “the enforcer,” and Carreyrou has described him “terrorizing everyone” at the company while Holmes sought out publicity — and lied about the company’s ability to perform its (supposedly) groundbreaking blood tests. Balwani also lacked a background in science or engineering, which made him a poor fit for managing the engineers and blood technicians who were attempting to make Theranos’ promise a reality. “He would just get so angry and so upset, and also was not very well versed in the medical diagnostic world and wasn’t really well versed in the sciences, so would frequently say things that were just inappropriate,” Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung, who also appears in The Inventor, explained to ABC News. “And it became very clear to entire departments that he didn’t understand really what was going on.”

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Where is Sunny Balwani now?

Theranos rapidly collapsed in the wake of Carreyrou’s investigative reporting, which revealed that the company’s central promise — that its compact Edison machine could perform advanced blood tests on a small sample of blood, pricked from a finger — was built on a lie. The government banned Balwani from operating a blood laboratory in 2016, during its investigation into Theranos, and he left the company as a result. His relationship with Holmes also ended around this time.

Holmes was recently tried for eight counts of fraud, and her attorneys mounted a defense that implicated Balwani as the real mastermind behind the Theranos scam. Carreyrou, in an interview with The New Yorker, described this as “the Svengali defense”: a claim, in other words, that Balwani was controlling Holmes (and the company, by extension) to such an extent that she was effectively his puppet. Carreyrou doesn’t give this line of defense much credence, citing text messages between the two that were made public through S.E.C. case documents. “If you read these texts, it’s hard to believe that Sunny was the puppeteer and she was the puppet. … It gives you a sense that this was a partnership of equals.” In other words, it seems unlikely that Balwani was manipulating Holmes — and equally implausible that he was somehow in the dark about the fact that he was selling a fraudulent piece of technology. As Carreyrou explained in a Reddit AMA in 2018, “[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. When it started becoming apparent to her 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 also alleged that Balwani was controlling in their relationship and that he physically and sexually abused her, claims that Balwani denies.

Balwani has been charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud — charges his attorney, Jeffrey Coopersmith, has described as “odd,” given that Balwani did not personally profit from his involvement with Theranos. As Coopersmith told Business Insider, “I don’t have any recollection where a government charged someone where that person didn't get any financial benefit.”

Balwani’s trial is expected to begin in March of this year.

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