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If you like Elizabeth Holmes's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
David Boies,
Sergey Brin,
Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
Gertrude Elion,
Larry Ellison,
Judah Folkman,
Susan Hockfield,
Reid Hoffman,
Willem Kolff,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
Larry Page,
George Rathmann,
and James Watson

Elizabeth Holmes's
recommended reading: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

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Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes
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Elizabeth Holmes Biography

Health Technology Revolution

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  Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes was born in Washington, D.C., where her father worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and her mother worked on the staff of a congressional committee. One ancestor, Charles Fleischmann, was an inventor and entrepreneur who founded the Fleischmann Yeast Company. Another, Dr. Christian Holmes, was a distinguished surgeon who founded a hospital and medical school in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Elizabeth Holmes Biography Photo
The example of her forebears, and of her parents' work in disaster relief, encouraged Elizabeth to take an interest in science and service at an early age. When she was nine years old her father took a job in Houston, Texas with the energy company Tenneco. He was concerned that the move from Washington to Texas would disturb his children, but Elizabeth wrote him a letter assuring him that she was looking forward to living in Texas, because the state was "big on science," and she hoped to discover something new and valuable.

In Houston, Elizabeth attended the private St. John's School. Her father's previous career had often taken the family to China, and at his urging, Elizabeth and her brother learned to speak Mandarin. While she was still in high school, she completed three years of college level Mandarin in a summer program at Stanford University. She also started her own business, selling software (C++ compilers) to Chinese universities.

At first, Elizabeth Holmes was drawn to a career in medicine, but she was repelled by needles and the sight of blood and decided she would find another way of channeling her interest in science to make a difference in people's lives. After graduating from St. John's she entered Stanford as a President's Scholar, majoring in chemical engineering. At Stanford, she gravitated to Professor Channing Robertson, an authority on timed-release devices for drug delivery. Although she was only a freshman, Robertson allowed her to work in his laboratory alongside his Ph.D. students. In the first year, she learned a great deal about "lab-on-a-chip" technology and began to explore its potential for taking multiple measurements simultaneously from a single fluid sample.

Because she was already fluent in Mandarin, she was able to spend the summer following her freshman year at the Genome Institute in Singapore, working on tests for the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus. Compared to the work she had been doing at Stanford, the Institute's systems for collecting and testing blood, administering medication and monitoring the patients' progress seemed unnecessarily cumbersome. She drafted a patent application for performing multiple tests on a single drop of blood and transmitting the data wirelessly.

Elizabeth Holmes Biography Photo
On returning to Stanford that fall, Holmes told Dr. Robertson she was interested in starting a company to develop products based on her research. Soon the project was taking all of her time, and she persuaded her parents that the money they had set aside to pay for her education might be better spent seeding the development of her company. Midway through her sophomore year, she dropped out of Stanford. She was 19.

Holmes had lost an uncle and a close friend to cancers diagnosed when they were too advanced to treat effectively. Noting that many people die every year from diseases diagnosed too late, she defined her firm's mission as making health information available to those who need it most, when they can use it most. A month after leaving Stanford, she incorporated her new company, which she named Theranos, combining the words "therapy" and "diagnosis."

Dr. Robertson agreed to join Theranos in an advisory capacity. At first he worked only one day a week, introducing Holmes to venture capitalists. In the first year, she raised $6 million. For the next decade, she worked quietly, avoiding publicity and keeping her research as private as possible to avoid inviting competition. Major investors such as Oracle's Larry Ellison signed on, and Holmes drew luminaries from the worlds of industry and government to serve on her board, including former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and William Frist, retired General James Mattis and former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Theranos moved into Facebook's former headquarters at Palo Alto Research Park. A friend from Stanford, Sunny Balwani, signed on as President and Chief Operating Officer; Holmes herself serves as Chairman and CEO. Holmes's former professor, Channing Robertson, retired from Stanford and joined Theranos full-time.

Elizabeth Holmes Biography Photo
By 2014, Theranos held ten patents, including a wearable blood monitor and a device for detecting influenza virus, as well as Holmes's signature creation, the compact portable blood analysis device. Until now, getting a blood test has usually been a matter of visiting a specialized laboratory, having large amounts of blood drawn -- with multiple samples taken for multiple tests -- which are stored on site before they are loaded for bulk transport to remote facilities for testing before the results are finally communicated to the patient's doctor. Theranos uses a fingerstick to draw a single drop of blood into a cartridge, which is loaded into a compact portable reader for immediate analysis. The results are sent wirelessly from the reader to a secure database. As many as 30 different tests can be performed on a single blood sample. The patient receives results directly, days sooner than with conventional laboratory testing, at far lower cost, and with a greater degree of accuracy because the delays and errors associated with transportation and human handling have been eliminated.

Elizabeth Holmes Biography Photo
When Theranos entered the market, blood testing in the United States was a $70 billion industry, dominated by a few nationwide companies such as Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp). The blood tests offered by Theranos cost only a few dollars per test. In 2014, Holmes estimated they could save the Medicare and Medicaid programs around $200 billon in the next ten years.

Theranos signed contracts with research laboratories and with health care providers such as UCSF Medical Center, Dignity Health, and Intermountain Healthcare. Walgreens pharmacy opened Theranos Wellness Centers at its locations in Palo Alto, California and Phoenix, Arizona, with plans to add centers in all of its 8,200 stores nationwide. By 2014, Theranos had raised over $400 million, and the company was valued at roughly $9 billion, rivaling the capitalization of Quest and LabCorp. Holmes retained 50 percent of the company's stock, which made her, at age 30, the youngest female billionaire in the world.

From the beginning, critics challenged the claims Holmes made for Theranos, questioning the accuracy of the company's tests and the validity of the science. Holmes continued to defend her company and its underlying technology, but in 2016 the U.S. Attorney's office and the Securities Exchange Commission announced official investigations into Theranos that could result in Holmes being barred from engaging in the laboratory testing business for a period of years.

This page last revised on Apr 21, 2016 20:03 EDT
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