A Medtech Superstar Is Born

Brian Buntz

December 12, 2014

3 Min Read
A Medtech Superstar Is Born

When we first reported on Elizabeth Holmes, the 30-year-old CEO of the secretive blood-testing firm Theranos, we hadn't heard much about her. Now, she's seemingly everywhere. A recent New Yorker article was likely the longest profile of her to date. She was featured at the 2014 TEDMED event and interviewed by TechCrunch (see video below) and Wired. And Forbes included Holmes, who is said to be worth $4.5 billion, in several features, including its 30 under 30 feature and the Youngest Richest American piece.  

In the popular media, Holmes is portrayed as a sort of Steve Jobs for the life sciences. Her company, Theranos, certainly seems like it might potentially disrupt the field of blood testing, making it possible to run 30 lab tests with only a drop or two of blood. Unlike traditional venipuncture, the tests could be performed with a simple fingerprick.

Also impressive is the fact that the tests could be run inexpensively. The costs of the tests are even published on the Theranos website, which is certainly unique for a blood-testing company. If all blood tests in the United States were performed at these prices, it could save the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services more than $200 billion in the next decade.

Not bad for a company that Holmes founded at the age of 19. After laying the groundwork for the technology at Stanford, Holmes started talking to venture capitalists and later dropped out to devote herself full-time to the company.

The company went on to receive $400 million in funding from VCs and is now valued by Forbes as $9 billion.

The New Yorker observes that the board of the company is staffed with a plethora of former government officials, including Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state George Shultz, and William H. Foege, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CEO and president of the Cleveland Clinic, Delos Cosgrove, MD, is also a supporter.

But the true value of Holmes' company remains partially obscured by its secrecy. While it has published the prices of its blood tests on its website, the accuracy of those tests has not been supported by significant clinical data.

But Holmes sees what her company is doing as not just novel but a driver of futuristic healthcare: pushing lab testing to outlets like Walgreen's, CVS, and Wal-Mart. The reason for the secrecy is to help protect the firm from competitors, she explained in the New Yorker profile.

If the promise of Theranos is part of the appeal in the popular press, another element is her whiz-kid story. Not only is she the teenage founder of a company that would be worth billions of dollars, she appears to have been a veritable prodigy before that. She taught herself Mandarin and later completed three years of Mandarin courses at Stanford while still attending high school.

Later, she enrolled in Stanford full time, began studying chemical engineering, and then spent a summer working at the Genome Institute in Singapore.

Her work in Asia helped push her to explore lab-on-a-chip technology, which enables multiple tests to be performed with small liquid amounts on a microchip. She then came up with a means to use the technology for blood testing and patented the idea, later deciding to build a company to commercialize it.

Her company has steadily expanded ever since, gaining the backing of Walgreens. It is this collaboration that will help put Theranos "within five miles of every American," Holmes explained in the New Yorker article.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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