By Anubhav Gupta
Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Elizabeth Holmes, the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, is a woman on a mission. And that mission is to revolutionize health care, and more specifically, blood diagnostics, in a way that has never been attempted before. Her arsenal for implementing this change consists of her company Theranos (the name is a fusion of therapy and diagnostics), the $9 billion behemoth of which she owns more than 50%. Though her habitual style of dress—black turtleneck and black suit—is reminiscent of Steve Jobs, this entrepreneur is unlike anyone Silicon Valley has ever seen before.
Holmes says that two major purposes drive her: to enable people to draw their blood with a cheap, pain-free and efficient prick, and to make this technology available within 5 miles (8 km) of every American (the rest of the world is yet to be conquered).
After high school, Holmes went off to Stanford University to study Chemical Engineering. She was attracted to the work being done by Channing Robertson, the Dean of the engineering school at that time, and by the end of her freshman year, she was already outperforming his doctoral students who were researching under him. She spent the next summer working on testing techniques for the SARS virus in the Genome Institute in Singapore. It was then that the idea of simplifying blood testing struck her. By the time she returned to Stanford, Holmes had developed a way to perform multiple tests at once, using the same drop of blood, and to wirelessly deliver the resulting information to a doctor. She decided to build her own company, and in March, 2004, dropped out and found Theranos. Her first hire was Robertson, who initially acted as an advisor, but later resigned from his position at Stanford to work with her full time. With Robertson’s help, Theranos was able to raise $6 million from VCs within six months. However, Holmes insisted that she retain control of the company and remained the final decision-maker.
Blood analysis is integral to medicine. When your physician wants to check some aspect of your health, such as your cholesterol or glucose level, or look for indications of kidney or liver problems, a blood test is often required. This typically involves a long needle and several blood-filled vials, which are then sent to a lab for analysis.
Holmes believes that blood testing can be done more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively than the current system and that lives can be saved as a consequence.
Theranos has developed blood tests that can help detect dozens of medical conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer, based on a drop or two of blood drawn with a pinprick from your finger. The tests are almost pain-free and 90% cheaper than the current blood tests.
Theranos is working to make its testing available to several hospital systems. It has also opened centres in forty-one Walgreens pharmacies, with plans to open thousands more. If you show the pharmacist your I.D., your insurance card, and a doctor’s note, you can have your blood drawn right there. Holmes eventually aims to have a Theranos blood test available within 5 miles (8 km) of every American with European and world expansion to follow.
The board of her company is stocked with prominent former government officials and businessmen, including George P. Shultz, the former Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury; William H. Foege, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Bill Frist, a trained cardiac surgeon and former Senate Republican Majority Leader; Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State; Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee; William J. Perry, the former Defence Secretary; and Richard Kovacevich, a former C.E.O. and chairman of Wells Fargo.
Theranos has raised more than $400 million from various investors including Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, and is valued at $9 billion. Holmes predicts that the $75 billion blood diagnostics industry could grow to more than $200 billion as patients take it upon themselves to get routine blood tests for pregnancies, cholesterol and other issues. She speaks of the continuation of the shift in power from doctors to patients; patients can gain periodic information about their health by getting a simple blood test, like the one offered by Theranos, without having to visit the doctor.
When Holmes went off to Stanford, her parents gave her a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ to convey to her the idea of living a ‘purposeful life’. This is the aim that drives Holmes to focus all her energy and time on building Theranos into a great company. She is reported to avoid social occasions and engagements in favour of working. When questioned along these lines by a journalist, she said, ’I have done something, and we have done something, that has changed people’s lives. I would much rather live a life of purpose than the one in which I might have other things but not that.’
Anubhav Gupta is a first-year student of Economics at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. As a future investment banker, he strives to explore and learn about every nook and cranny of the financial markets. He is an avid reader with a particular interest in philosophical and historical fiction. He devotes the rest of his time to running and globetrotting.