Who is Erika Cheung?
Erika Cheung was born in Southern California, USA, in 1991. She’s a Chinese-American entrepreneur who gained prominence in the tech industry as one of the whistleblowers who exposed the fraudulent practices of the now-defunct blood-testing startup, Theranos. Erika’s testimony played a pivotal role in bringing down the company and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, since when she’s become a vocal advocate for ethical practices in the tech industry, and now serves as the executive director of the non-profit organization Ethics in Entrepreneurship.
Early life and education
Erika was born to first-generation Chinese immigrants. Growing up, she was interested in science and technology, and often spent her free time tinkering with computers. Erika was homeschooled for most of her early life, until enrolling at a community college at the age of 14. She matriculated in 2008, and went on to pursue a dual degree in Molecular Biology and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
During her time at university, Erika was involved in various extracurricular activities, including a program called BioBuilder, which introduced her to the world of biotech entrepreneurship. She also became interested in synthetic biology, and completed an internship at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, where she worked on developing biosensors for medical applications.
Exposing Elizabeth Holmes
In 2013, Erika joined Theranos, a blood-testing startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes, wh hado dropped out of Stanford University to pursue her vision of revolutionizing the healthcare industry. The company claimed to have developed proprietary technology that could perform a range of medical tests using just a few drops of blood, promising to make diagnostic testing faster, cheaper, and more accessible to the public.
Theranos attracted a great deal of attention and investment, becoming one of the most highly supported startups in Silicon Valley with a valuation of close to $10 billion at its peak. Holmes, who modeled herself after Apple’s late Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steve Jobs, was seen as a visionary and charismatic leader, who was changing the face of healthcare.
Erika became a lab assistant at Theranos right after graduating college. She heard about the company at a campus career fair, and has spoken about having been inspired by their vision to make healthcare more accessible.
However, several months after joining the company, Erika became suspicious of their practices, particularly after witnessing the way they conducted internal quality control tests. She noticed that the results were often inconsistent, and that the company was using third-party testing equipment to validate their results, which was contrary to their claims of using proprietary technology. When she brought up her concerns with Holmes and other executives she was met with hostility and told to keep quiet.
Erika wasn’t alone in her suspicions – Tyler Shultz, a member of their research engineering team, further noticed that Theranos had been removing outliers from their data, which ended up producing false results.
Undeterred, they continued to investigate the company’s practices, and eventually reached out to John Carreyrou, a journalist on the “Wall Street Journal” newspaper, who was investigating the case. In 2015, he published an article exposing the fraudulent practices of Theranos, which sparked a chain of events that led to the downfall of the company and its founder.
As the allegations against Theranos mounted, the company’s credibility and valuation began to crumble. Erika’s testimony played a crucial role in the subsequent investigations and legal proceedings against Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. She testified in front of Congress, and was also a key witness in the criminal trial. Her courage and integrity in speaking out against the company’s practices earned her widespread praise and recognition.
Holmes was indicted on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy, along with her former partner, Sunny Balwani, and the company eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Theranos’ downfall was a major scandal in the tech industry, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of hype and over-valuation in start-up culture.
Where is she now?
After leaving Theranos in 2014, Erika began working as a freelance consultant, helping early-stage start-ups with product development and growth strategies. She also became increasingly interested in ethical leadership and corporate responsibility issues, which led her to co-found the aforementioned non-profit organization Ethics in Entrepreneurship.
The Theranos saga has been a long one…
I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by Maya Shankar on @slightchangepod.
The brilliant podcast explores the less-than-linear lives people can lead. In this episode, I go into the soft underbelly of becoming a whistleblower. https://t.co/sap9Oh69rU
— Erika Cheung (@ErikaMCheung) July 15, 2022
In addition, Erika has been involved in a range of initiatives aimed at promoting social and environmental impact through technology. She’s a founding member of Betatron, a Hong Kong-based start-up accelerator focusing on supporting ventures which prioritize social impact.
In 2018, Erika was recognized by the financial magazine “Forbes” as one of the “30 Under 30 in Healthcare”, an annual list that honors young innovators who are making a significant impact in the healthcare industry. She was also featured in the documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (2019), which chronicled the rise and fall of Theranos, and the role that Erika and other whistleblowers played in exposing the company’s fraudulent practices.
Erika is a sought-after speaker on topics related to ethics in the tech industry, entrepreneurship, and social impact. She has spoken at conferences and events around the world, including TEDxHongKong and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The rise and fall of Theranos attracted a lot of media attention, and continues to be relevant to this day as more technology start-ups are being exposed for shady business practices. In 2019, ABC news launched a podcast series entitled “The Dropout”, that revealed previously unknown details about Elizabeth Holmes and her company. It became one of the most popular podcasts of the year, and was even nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Feature Story.
In 2021, Hulu bought the rights to the story, and adapted it into a limited TV series of the same name. Created by Elizabeth Meriwether, the show starred Amanda Seyfried as Holmes and Naveen Andrews as her business partner, Balwani, while Erika Cheung was portrayed by Camryn Mi-Young Kim. The series premiered on 3 March 2022, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews from the critics, who praised both the writing and actors’ performances.
What happened to Elizabeth Holmes?
Following Theranos’ downfall, Elizabeth was charged with nine counts of fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud. Her trials ended in January 2022, and the former businesswoman was sentenced to 11 years in prison, according to a “New York Times” report.
The court documents reveal that shortly before her last trial, Elizabeth and her husband bought one-way tickets to Mexico, which the prosecution called an attempt to flee the country. Elizabeth was visibly pregnant during her January 2022 trial, which postponed the start of her prison sentence. She has since given birth to her second child, and is expected to surrender in April 2023.
In 2019, she tied the knot with William ‘Billy’ Evans, an heir to the Evans Hotel Group, and they have two children. According to “CNBC”, prior to her sentencing, Elizabeth resided in her Silicon Valley estate valued at more than $135 million, while out on bail. Court documents show she is currently paying $13,000 per month to stay on her estate before commencing her prison sentence.
On St. Patrick’s Day 2023, Elizabeth attended court, which may have been her final appearance. However, the judge did not reach a verdict, and it has been reported that he intends to make a final decision in early April.