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Meet the Professor With the Best B.S. Radar in Silicon Valley

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

On the far left: Dr. Phyllis Gardner, arguably the first person to be skeptical of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. She's a professor at Stanford University's School of Medicine and serves on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows. Courtesy FilmMagic for HBO.

Silicon Valley’s never short on ideas. Some are good — revolutionary, even. Some are bad. And some are ugly. You know the ones: the companies that are all talk and taglines, with no real research to back them up. They’re the “fake it till you make it” faction.

That’s why one of the best skills you can have in the world of Silicon Valley start-ups is the ability to sift science from shams.

And that’s where Dr. Phyllis Gardner comes in.

Gardner, who’s recently joined’s scientific advisory board, is a tenured professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and serves on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows.

Her name might sound familiar, and that’s because she was one of the first to voice skepticism of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now defunct blood-testing company, Theranos.

In fact, Gardner was one of a small band of collaborators who helped expose what is now considered one of the biggest frauds in the history of Silicon Valley.

Gardner’s Part in Theranos’ Fall

On Monday, January 3, 2022, Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud against investors and three charges of wire fraud.

Prosecutors argued that Holmes deliberately lied about her technology, claiming it could detect diseases in just a few blood droplets. But Phyllis Gardner was never deceived by those flashy claims. Her suspicions began about 20 years before, when Holmes was a second-year student at Stanford.

Because of her academic and industrial experience, Gardner was often sought out for her expertise.

Not only was she a trusted professor at Stanford, where she also served as senior associate dean for education and student affairs, but Gardner also found her way into the biotech industry. In 1994, she went on sabbatical to become the medical strategist for drug-delivery company ALZA Corporation (later acquired by Johnson & Johnson).

After four years, she returned to Stanford, but found she had developed a passion for biotech investing and governance. She became an adjunct partner at a venture firm for 15 years, while still working at Stanford, and witnessed the rise of countless medical start-ups. She also helped start Genomics Collaborative and spun out the first majority-owned Stanford company, called e-SKOLAR. Both companies were later acquired.

Because of this unique background, Holmes consulted Gardner in 2003. The second-year student had a big idea: a patch that would test someone’s blood for an infection and deliver antibiotics. Gardner was critical of the concept, however. She flat out said it wouldn’t work.

But Holmes didn’t listen.

"She was going to make it work and follow the model of ‘fake it until you make it,'" Gardner said. "That is so completely ridiculous in terms of health care … When you have people's lives at risk, you don't do that.

A few months later, Holmes dropped out of Stanford, but Gardner continued to follow her work with Theranos.

They both briefly met again on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows in 2015, where Gardner continues to serve to this day. The professor remained critical of Holmes, who was asked to leave after two sessions due to ongoing investigations. Later, Gardner worked with the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, who quoted her in his bombshell 2015 article questioning Theranos’ technology.

So, what did Gardner think after all this?

Well, after the scandal finally went public, Gardner said this of Holmes in a 2019 interview: “I don’t think she was naïve. I think she was a liar from day one.” The professor went on: “I thought she was endangering patients. And that’s unforgivable to me.”

A Critical Eye Matters

That commitment to due diligence is one of the reasons we’re excited to announce Gardner’s addition to’s scientific advisory board.

Adding to our team of specialists in endocrinology and physiology, Gardner brings with her over 35 years of experience in academia, medicine, pharmacology, and biotechnology investing and governance. And, crucially, she brings with her a critical eye of biotech start-ups.

We welcome her to the team. To read more about Gardner, visit her biography on our About page.

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