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Elizabeth Holmes takes the stand to defend herself against fraud

In far and away the most dramatic moment of the Elizabeth Holmes trial in San Jose, Holmes herself took the stand, removed her mask and talked about founding her company and the range of blood tests her technology could perform under questioning from her attorney Kevin Downey.

(CN) — Elizabeth Holmes took the stand Friday afternoon to defend herself against the fraud charges she stands accused of in an ongoing federal criminal trial in San Jose. 

Holmes appeared poised, made eye contact with the jury often, sometimes laughing as she discussed the origins of her company Theranos and what caused her to drop out of Stanford and build a company that she believed would transform blood testing and health care. 

“I was doing it on my own, but then I did start a company,” she explained while standing straight and looking occasionally at the jury. “I tried to raise the money to get a lab and hire scientists to work with to build a company.”

Holmes detailed how without the appropriate business experience, she worked with an entrepreneurial class at Stanford to help build her business plan. 

Holmes talked about how she first became interested in chemical engineering and how she got the idea for miniaturizing blood testing equipment while working on a genomic project in Singapore in between her freshman year at Stanford. 

She appeared eager to be able to tell her story after the first 11 weeks and 31 court days have all featured others telling stories about her and her company. She laughed occasionally when asked questions by the lawyer that appeared to have obvious answers and she displayed an assurance, intelligence and technical competence when describing her technology that demonstrated why so many had such faith in her ability as a leader from about 2006 until about 2016 when her company began to fall apart. 

Holmes was allowed to testify with her mask off, something her attorneys fought zealously for, given they will try to humanize her with a jury that has heard from exclusively spurned investors and disgruntled former employers. 

Part of her testimony on Friday afternoon focused on her time demonstrating her technology to various pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, all of which demonstrated interest in her technology’s capacity. She also told her lawyer that she encouraged investors to reach out to the pharmaceutical companies in question so they could hear from third parties about Theranos. 

“I thought people working within the pharmaceutical industry could explain the impact and potential of our work,” she said toward the end of her testimony. 

Holmes did not delve into the more controversial and contested period of the company’s existence that began around 2012 when it entered into contracts with Walgreens and Safeway and appeared to make wildly hyperbolic claims about the effectiveness of her technology to reporters. 

But at the beginning of her testimony, she did draw a distinction between the number of tests her small devices could run, which was 12, and the amount of blood tests her miniaturized technology could run, which she said was more than 300. 

“In 2010, we had a breakthrough, when we figured out how to apply a formula to not just one method, but across four different methods,” she said, adding that across those four methods, Theranos “could run any test.”

Holmes is differentiating between what the breakthrough in chemistry, which allowed Theranos to run any tests on smaller blood sample sizes, could achieve and what the small devices called Edisons could achieve. 

It could be a distinction that salvages her case and keeps her out of jail, as the jury heard only yesterday Holmes tell Roger Parloff, a journalist, that Theranos could run thousands of tests when it appeared the Edison could only run 12. 

But at the top of her testimony, she repeated that claim under oath to the jury, basically saying her companies breakthrough in organic chemistry allowed them to run 1000s of tests using smaller samples, but that her portable device could only run 12. 

If this statement is consistent with previous statements, it would appear highly unlikely that a jury could convict her of fraud. 

But Holmes will have to answer several questions about whistleblower claims, about her misleading statements about revenues at various times during 2013 and 2014. So far, she has only discussed her company’s beginnings and not the more difficult and tumultuous period when things were falling apart. 

Holmes will also have to answer about how a Pfizer logo appeared on an internally produced document. Undoubtedly, these issues will be raised by the prosecution during cross-examination if the defense is so bold to skip it during direct examination. 

But on Friday, just when it appeared the prosecution ended with a bang after weeks of lead up, the momentum swung dramatically back in Holmes' favor. If she is to be exonerated, it will likely be due to her performance on the witness stand in the next few days. 

The trial is slated to resume on Monday morning.  The courtroom was packed Friday morning with several people hoping to catch Holmes' testimony, but most of them left after lunch. There was an audible gasp in the courtroom when Holmes stood up indicating she would be the next witness called. It was, by far the most dramatic moment in a trial characterized more by meticulous and technical testimony to date.

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