In the blood: The woman revolutionizing healthcare

On World Blood Donor day whose theme is "Thank you for saving my life", DiscovHER celebrates the work of Elizabeth Holmes, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Theranos, a biomedical diagnostics company reinventing the blood test. Through its cheaper, faster and less painful fingerstick method, Theranos aims to make lab testing – and health data – accessible to all and ultimately save lives. Today, the company is valued at $9 billion, making Holmes, at 31, the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

Quitting Stanford to start a business at 19

It takes conviction to quit a world-class university. Yet, in 2003, Holmes dropped out of the chemical engineering course at Stanford, where she’d been designated a President’s Scholar – awarded to the most distinguished students. Fluent in Mandarin, the 19-year-old had just returned from an internship researching SARS at the Genome Institute in Singapore when she decided to channel her college fund instead into a biomedical company. Today called Theranos, the amalgam of the words “therapy” and “diagnosis”, the diagnostics firm seeks to “detect the onset of disease in time for therapy to be effective.”

The blood test reinvented: faster, cheaper and less blood needed

For Holmes, whose fear of needles put paid to plans to study medicine, standard blood testing is akin to torture. The Theranos method eliminates vials, requiring only a drop of blood or 1/100th to 1/1000th of current tests. Blood is collected either with a fingerstick, literally a pin prick or, Theranos claims, the smallest vein draw used by any lab. Incredibly, some 30 tests can be run on one tiny drop and results delivered within hours. Motivated by the fact that in the United States, healthcare is the first cause of bankruptcy, Theranos prices as listed on its website – $2.05 for blood typing, $2.99 for cholesterol - are significantly lower than what’s currently available.

The Holmes vision: Make health information a right

The premise behind Theranos is that access to health information is a basic human right. Holmes envisions a future where blood testing is as routine as a gym session, giving everyone access to their own health data. By lowering costs and partnering with drug stores, the goal is to give people real-time health information and ultimately prevent diseases, since tests could determine if someone is pre-diabetic for instance. Holmes herself was instrumental in the passing of the first law in U.S. history to give Arizona citizens the right to direct access laboratory testing, no prescription needed. Her ambition has met concerns in the medical community: Theranos’ data hasn’t been peer-reviewed, say experts while the company’s competitors, argue that pin prick tests aren’t as reliable as veinous samples.

The power of self-belief

For Holmes, who bats away critics with aplomb, Theranos was always going to be disruptive. In her own words:

I don’t want to make an incremental change in some technology in my life. I want to create a whole new technology, and one that is aimed at helping humanity at all levels regardless of geography or ethnicity or age or gender.

That ambition was nurtured by her parents throughout her childhood in Washington: 

For example, when I was about seven years old, I began designing a time machine, and I had very detailed "engineering drawings." And I'd show them to my parents, and they would say, "Of course. How's the development going?"

A woman to match Steve Jobs or Bill Gates

At Stanford, her obvious talent and ambition inspired awe in her chemical engineering professor, Channing Robertson who has compared Holmes to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Today an active director at Theranos, Roberston became the first member on a board that counts two former U.S. secretaries of state: George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Committed to the advancement of STEM, Holmes is the youngest person to be awarded the Horatio Alger Award - recognizing outstanding achievement and philanthropic commitment and holds an honorary doctorate from Pepperdine University.

Elizabeth Holmes has a vision to make health data accessible to all. Would you like to be able to access your own lab results, without needing a doctor’s order? Have your say at @4womeninscience

For Women in Science

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