Elizabeth Holmes: The Youngest Female Self-Made Billionaire

When you visit your physician regarding some aspect of your health, a blood test is often required. This typically involves a long needle and several blood-filled vials, which are sent to a lab for analysis. Theranos in US is now doing blood testing more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively. Meet the creator of this revolutionary system, 30-year old Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her passion and create Theranos.

Holmes has been featured in Fortune as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. Investors value the private company at more $9 billion, and Holmes retains more than half the stock.

elizabeth holmes

Founded in 2003, the Palo Alto headquartered Theranos is a consumer health care technology company. It offers comprehensive laboratory tests from samples as small as a few drops of blood at unprecedented low prices. It has developed blood tests that can help detect dozens of medical conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer, based on just a drop or two of blood drawn with a pinprick from your finger at a cost that is generally one-quarter to one-tenth of what incumbent players currently charge.

In an interview, Holmes said that she has an aversion to needles. For her, the concept of sticking a needle into someone and sucking blood out slowly, while the person watches, is torture. She thinks that getting a blood test should instead be a wonderful experience, and the aim of Theranos is to lower the barriers.

Holmes was born in February 1984 in Washington, DC. Her father worked in USA, Africa and China as part of government agencies such as USAID.  After graduating from St John’s School, Houston in 2002, she enrolled at Stanford to study chemical engineering.

In 2003, she established Real-Time Cures in Palo Alto, whose name was changed to Theranos (an amalgam of “therapy” and “diagnosis”). Initially, she worked out of a basement of a group college house. A semester later, she dropped out to pursue her business career full-time.

Over the next decade, the company grew gradually, raising funds from various investors. During this time, it operated in “stealth mode”, remaining highly secretive to avoid potential competitors and investors who could fund a competitor.

By 2014, the company offered 200 tests and was licensed to run in every state of the US. In July 2015, FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved its platform as well as its herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) blood test. It also received FDA clearance to administer its herpes blood test outside a traditional clinical laboratory. 

Theranos has expanded rapidly. It now has 700 employees. Its phlebotomists draw blood from patients at more than 40 Walgreens in Arizona and one in Palo Alto, Calif., emailing back results to both the patient and physician within hours. Walgreens, which has 8,200 drugstores in the U.S., has committed to gradually rolling out the centres nationwide. Within five years, Holmes hopes to have one of her centres within five miles of nearly everyone in the United States.

Holmes has 18 US patents and 66 non-US patents in her name and is listed as a co-inventor on over a hundred patent applications.

On starting a business, Holmes states, “When people say, ‘I want to start a business,’ “my question is always, ‘Why?’ Because there’s got to be a mission—there’s got to be a reason you’re doing it so that no matter how hard it is, you want to keep doing it over and over and over again, because you love it.”

“And if you know what it is you’re trying to do,” she continued, “then it’s a question of being very, very open to failure.” Her attitude, she said, was: “We will fail over a thousand times till we get this thing to work, but we will get it on the 1001st time.”

Her home is a two-bedroom condo in Palo Alto, and she lives an austere life, sleeping four hours a night. Although she can quote Jane Austen by heart, she no longer devotes time to novels or friends, doesn’t date, doesn’t own a television, and hasn’t taken a vacation in ten years. She eats most of her meals at the office. She is a vegan, and several times a day she drinks a pulverized concoction of cucumber, parsley, spinach, lettuce, and celery.

“I was probably, definitely, not normal,” she said. “I was reading ‘Moby-Dick’ from start to finish when I was about nine. I read a ton of books. I still have a notebook with a complete design for a time machine that I designed when I must have been, like, seven. The wonderful thing about the way I was raised is that no one ever told me that I couldn’t do those things.”

Holmes works every day from the time she wakes up until she goes to sleep. She says,” What matters is how well we do in trying to make people’s lives better.” Henry A. Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State and a Theranos board member, describes Elizabeth Holmes as a “tech visionary…striking, somewhat ethereal, [and] iron-willed” who “combines fierce and single-minded dedication with great charm…” and is “dedicated to transforming health care around the world” .

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