Yet in other ways Theranos evokes a central theme in today’s tech industry: start-ups which promise to disrupt lucrative businesses and become valued on the basis of fantasies about their potential, rather than present reality. Investors are so keen to get a piece of any sexy-sounding startup that they lap up entrepreneurs’ hype—and anyone who asks awkward questions risks being cut out of the funding round in favour of someone more trusting.
All this helps to explain the inflation of valuations among unlisted technology companies. Today there are 142 unicorns, more than three times as many as in 2013. Many of them are growing quickly. But in terms of reaching profitability, they are often far behind the stockmarket-listed competitors they are seeking to displace, and thus are burning through cash. Theranos, for example, is not believed to have any significant revenues or profits, yet it is valued about as highly as Quest Diagnostics, a listed laboratory company, which achieved $7.4 billion in revenues and nearly $600m in net profits in 2014.