It’s no secret that our planet is in dire shape. Climate change, resource shortages, and unchecked pollution all threaten the future of life on Earth. Our greatest minds are working around the clock to solve these issues, but as often happens in the scientific world, the biggest breakthroughs come from the most unlikely of places.
Marshall Medoff is no scientist, at least not in the ordinary sense. Yet, this elderly man turned his life upside-down to chase an experiment that might just save our environment. The odds were certainly stacked against him, but nothing could slow down Medoff’s work ethic or willingness to think outside the box. All he needed was a spark of inspiration — which came far from any laboratory.
Regular walks to Walden Pond gave Marshall Medoff plenty of time to think. Just like the scenic view moved Henry David Thoreau to pen his most famous work, it also got Marshall reconsidering humanity’s relationship with our environment.
The Massachusetts man felt so sure plant life contained some unlocked energy that was capable of, in his own words, “saving the world.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Medoff was overconfident. Many thought he was biting off more than he could chew.
After all, Marshall wasn’t some biology expert. He didn’t even have any advanced scientific education. He spent most of his career in the realm of sports business, and even there he didn’t exactly thrive.
Up until the 1990s, Medoff was best known for selling the promotional rights to the Boston Marathon to corporate interests. Critics accused him of shady dealings and selling out the hallowed endurance competition. But that was a lifetime ago.
At an age where many of his peers entered retirement, Medoff was instead looking forward to his second chapter. His Walden visits motivated him to do some real good by tackling a puzzle that’s stumped scientists for generations.
Discarded plant base, known as biomass, contains energy in the form of natural sugar; we’ve known that for quite some time. But because of the complex chemical makeup of plant life, we haven’t been able to access these nutrients.
All that sugar is held in rigid material called cellulose. It’s tough enough that humans can’t digest it — which is kind of a shame, according to Medoff because plant matter offers a rare type of sugar that won’t rot your teeth.
Medoff figured there had to be a way to break down that cellulose and extract the sugars, but he didn’t know quite where to start. He didn’t have a world-class laboratory or a team of MIT-trained scientists to support him.
All he had was some free space in his garage. So like a mad scientist, Medoff began tinkering with various experiments and inventions, often late into the night. His new obsession took over his entire existence.
Marshall admitted that his home lab completely ruined his personal life. With a house full of stacked boxes and no free time to spare, most of his friendships and relationships fell by the wayside. He realized he couldn’t do this alone.
The amateur scientist got in touch with Craig Masterman, who was an MIT chemist. Medoff asked the young talent to build him a legitimate testing site and implement his unorthodox ideas. With so many options available to him, Masterman wasn’t exactly sold.
However, the chemist found Medoff’s proposal too intriguing to turn down. Together, they constructed a new laboratory and developed a new type of electron accelerator that tore the biomass apart on a molecular level. They also came up with a name for their venture.
That’s how Xyleco was born. In stark contrast to Medoff’s garage setup, their organization soon found the direction and financial backing to make these biomass applications a reality. Marshall’s unlikely origin story didn’t hurt the company’s cause either.
Engineer and former Secretary of Defense William Perry compared Medoff to Thomas Edison — “a very eccentric genius, but a genius who had come up with this totally revolutionary idea.” And the former sports agent had the hundreds of patents to prove it.
One of Medoff’s primary focuses is the development of biofuel. Rather than rely on harmful and limited oil supplies, vehicles could run on fuel made purely from plant matter. He dreamed of a near future where every gas station sold it.
That invention is still in the works, but Xyleco has also looked to biomass to solve pollution. Today, millions of tons of plastic clogs up landfills and drifts through our oceans, and this material takes 1000 years to break down. However, Medoff isn’t against plastics.
Jenna Jambeck / University of Georgia
His team created a plastic made from plants. Besides having a much greener manufacturing process, this alternative plastic can deteriorate in a mere 11 weeks under the right conditions. It almost sounds too good to be true.
That’s probably why Xyleco has met a fair amount of backlash. Some scientists claim that Medoff — a layman making high-profile discoveries in his 80s — exaggerated many of his finds, and that the energy required for his electron accelerators exceeds reasonable limits.
But Medoff has plenty of big supporters backing him up. Nobel Prize winner Dr. Steven Chu realizes that Marshall “definitely is a character,” but believes Xyleco is on the right track to saving the planet.
Medoff also got former Secretary Perry to join his Board of Directors. The celebrated official certainly would hope that Xyleco wouldn’t crash and burn like another venture he’d supported: a daring medical company called Theranos.
William J. Perry Project
By 2015, Elizabeth Holmes had already reached the top of the world, but she was determined to go higher. The billionaire entrepreneur promised her company, Theranos, would change the world — and it did…in a way.
The New York Times
Born in 1984, Elizabeth stood out as a gifted student from a young age. She seemed destined to achieve greatness, and at age 9, she wrote a letter to her father saying she wanted to do “something that mankind didn’t know was possible.”
After mastering Mandarin in her teens, Elizabeth enrolled at Stanford University to study chemical engineering. Even such a prestigious academic setting, however, couldn’t quite keep up with Holmes’ ambitions.
So, after less than two years at Stanford, Elizabeth dropped out to found her own consumer healthcare company. Not long after, she unveiled a revolutionary idea that took the entire world by storm.
Citing a lifelong fear of needles, the budding businesswoman announced that she was about to revolutionize blood analysis. With just a finger prick, her technology could allegedly perform 50 different blood tests.
In 2004, she officially brought her company together in the form of Theranos — a portmanteau of “therapy” and “diagnosis.” Though she chose to keep the company quiet from the general public, she coaxed big spenders to support her.
The New York Times
Elizabeth found her first investor in venture capitalist and family friend Tim Draper. Soon, she brought aboard Rupert Murdoch, future Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, and the Waltons — founders of the Walmart empire.
But to become an iconic CEO, Elizabeth needed more than just a lot of dough; she had to look the part. She took a page out of Steve Jobs’s book and began wearing black turtlenecks every day. According to some, she also significantly lowered her voice.
By 2013, Elizabeth introduced Theranos to the world by inking a monster deal with Walgreen’s. Elizabeth had billions in company coffers and became the talk of the town, but she did have to deal with criticism.
The New York Times
In scientific circles, statements abounded that Holmes’ technology simply couldn’t work. While she brushed off the naysayers, the young CEO also refused to explain exactly how they were wrong. She wouldn’t tell reporters or the FDA. Not even her employees knew — save for one.
In her late teens, Elizabeth met entrepreneur Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. Though he was 19 years older and married, they entered a relationship that was both romantic and professional. Sunny became the COO of Theranos and the only other soul who knew the secrets of its technology.
For a while, the lack of transparency didn’t bother anyone. Forbes credited her the youngest self-made female billionaire in history, and Elizabeth received honors from Time Magazine and Harvard Medical School.
Elizabeth went so far as to become an icon for the next generation. In 2015, she launched a campaign called Iron Sisters to promote women in STEM fields. That was shortly before her entire world came crumbling down.
Twitter / Elizabeth Holmes
That year, disturbing rumors started to circulate about Theranos. For instance, anonymous sources whispered that Theranos secretly used other companies’ blood tests for demonstrations, while leaving their own technology completely untested.
These theories gained traction when Theranos employee Tyler Schultz turned whistleblower. Cooperating with the Wall Street Journal, he revealed that Theranos’ technology was completely inaccurate and didn’t do what the company claimed. All eyes turned to Elizabeth.
Wall Street Journal / Jason Henry
Attempting damage control, she rebuffed the allegations on CNBC’s Mad Money. She told Jim Cramer, “This is what happens when you work to change things. First, they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then all of a sudden you change the world.”
However, the general public didn’t buy her disruptor narrative any longer. Without an actual product, Theranos fell apart from the inside out and saw its $9 billion worth turn to ash.
Arizona Daily Star
After the Securities and Exchange Commission began interviewing so many Theranos insiders, it was no surprise when the bell came tolling for Elizabeth. She and Sunny were charged with eleven counts of fraud. Amazingly, she wouldn’t admit anything was wrong.
Elizabeth continued to chat pleasantly with her scant employees, adopted a husky, and found a new love interest in Billy Evans. However, no level of denial could stop Theranos from finally dissolving in 2018.
Only time would tell exactly how Holmes would pay for her crimes, but her legacy is clear. Instead of revolutionizing technology, she innovated the 21st-century scam, wrapping up rich and poor alike in her lies.
In modern society, where success and notoriety are so intertwined, some people will tell any story to get ahead. This doesn’t just happen in the business world, either.
Anna Delvey, for instance, was the life of the party. She fit in with Manhattan’s elite effortlessly, but she certainly had secrets. Her wads of cash led people to conclude that she was very wealthy, but no one really knew how she earned her money.
Anna’s story started on February 18, 2017, when she first checked in to 11 Howard, a fancy hotel in SoHo, Manhattan. Staff noticed her right away. After all, she tipped everyone $100 every time she saw them, and it was money that would pay off…
Anna quickly befriended a concierge who was roughly her same age. She asked Neff Davis from Crown Heights, Brooklyn for restaurant suggestions, but seemed to already know of every one that Neff suggested. “This was not a guest who wanted my advice, this was a guest who wanted my time.”
Neff didn’t mind spending time with Anna since she was grateful for her generous tips. Even the bellboys literally fought to help Anna because they knew that they would get a Benjamin. Anna threw cash around wherever she went.
Anna and Neff got along well and started visiting bars, restaurants, and clubs together, even mixing with artists like Guido Cacciatori, Gro Curtis, and Giorgia Tordini. Anna seemed particularly interested and knowledgeable in the world of fashion and art.
Anna knew how to climb up the social ladder, rung by rung, and kept working hard to meet even more famous, more wealthy, more successful people. She began hosting dinners and parties until all of her friends’ friends knew her name. But she always kept Neff nearby.
One night, thanks to Anna, Neff even found herself seated next to her childhood idol, Macaulay Culkin. “Which was awkward,” she said. “Because I had so many questions. And he was right there. Still, I never got the chance to be like, ‘So, your the godfather to Michael Jackson’s kids?'”
One of the closest friends Anna collected was Michael Xufu Huang, an art collector who founded his first museum at the age of 22. They planned a trip to Europe together, but Anna asked him to put flights and hotels on his credit cards, promising to pay him back… but she never did. That’s when her secrets started unraveling.
You see, Huang had seen Anna spend money, so he figured she’d be good for it. They had a great time in Venice, but when they returned, she never offered to pay him back. It didn’t seem too big of a deal, and she got away with it — this time.
It was a few weeks before her birthday when she hired a PR firm to throw her an unforgettable b-day bash at one of her favorite restaurants, Sadelle’s. When it came time to pay up, Anna was gone. The firm even contacted Huang to see if he knew where to find her, but he was just as stumped. But he knew one thing: Anna wasn’t someone he could trust anymore.
Huang began asking around to see if anyone had a deeper insight into Anna’s life. Not only did nobody know her whereabouts they also didn’t know her origin. Some assumed she was Russian, or Polish, or German. A few thought she came from oil money while others thought she was the child of a diplomat. The only thing they were certain about was her interest in parties and art.
Truthfully, Anna wasn’t just a socialite: she had a plan. She wanted to make the right contacts in the art world to set up an exclusive club with a focus on art. She had her eyes set on 281 Park Avenue South and would call it the Anna Delvey Foundation, or ADF.
Marc Kremers was a creative director and digital designer from London whom Anna convinced to work with her on the ADF. The club would have a German bakery, restaurants, a basement nightclub, an artist residency program, and roof terrace overlooking Central Park. He said at first she was “a pleasure to work with.”
But, after several months, the bills once again piled up, and Marc saw no money. “Hundreds of painful emails followed,” Mar said, “complete with fictitious financial managers CCed, who’d muscle in every-time I threatened to seek legal action. As a small business owner, it was a grueling ride and nearly shut us down.” The project was put on indefinite hold.
It was then that Anna met Martin Shkreli, an infamous businessman and hedge fund manager. He would soon be convicted of securities fraud, but not before giving Anna some tips.
Not long after, her hotel discovered that they didn’t have a working credit card on file and locked her out. She did what Martin advised and threatened to buy web domains in all the hotel managers names; in order to use them in the future, they would have to pay her tons of money. Her dark side was starting to show…
Things had gone awry for Anna. There was little progress with the ADF and she was moving from hotel to hotel while avoiding paying for anything. She literally fled the country by taking a trip to Morocco with her personal trainer and her friend, Vanity Fair‘s Rachel Deloache Williams.
Of course, Rachel never saw a dime. “She walked into my life in Gucci sandals and Céline glasses,” Rachel recalled, “and showed me a glamorous, frictionless world of hotel living and Le Coucou dinners and infrared saunas and Moroccan vacations. And then she made my $62,000 disappear.”
By July of 2017, everything had fallen apart. Anna was arrested for three counts of misdemeanor theft of services (including a dine-and-dash) and was released without bail. Now she had nowhere to go, and no one left to turn to — not even Neff. Her old friends staged an intervention and told her the ADF was sold. With nothing left to lose, she tried to escape once again.
Using the last of her money and her tricks, Anna traveled to California, where she tried to hide in a rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, back in New York, the press got hold of her story, and slowly but certainly, the mystery that was Anna Delvey began to unravel…
The truth was: Anna Delvey didn’t exist! Anna was really Anna Sorokin, a German-Russian girl from a working-class family. She tried attending the Central Saint Martins Art School in London but dropped out. She worked at Purple Magazine in Paris before moving to New York City at the age of 25. Anna Delvey got away with everything, but Anna Sorokin couldn’t.
In October of 2017, she was arrested on six charges of grand larceny for scamming wealthy NYC business acquaintances and several hotels. According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the damage was as high as $275,000. She rejected a plea deal and faced a 15-year prison sentence.
Once in Riker’s Island, Anna used her sly ways to befriend all the right prisoners. Perhaps that was how she learned how to post “throwback” pictures from jail because an old photo of her and Neff mysteriously appeared on her Instagram page.
TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes was set to produce a Netflix series detailing Anna’s scandalous New York adventures. While a couple actors have shown interest in the lead role, Anna stated she wanted Jennifer Lawrence or Margot Robbie to portray her. She actually seemed more worried about casting than her upcoming trial.
Anna conned friends and businesses out of $275,000, using falsified documents to get multiple bank loans. She floated bad checks and took out lines of credit. The plan was to pay it all back with money from the ADF, but the money never came. Still, with her skills, she could come out of prison an even smarter criminal mastermind.