At 31 years old, Elizabeth Holmes is the world’s youngest female billionaire.
Holmes’ company is Theranos, valued at $9 billion and of which she reportedly owns half. She founded the company at the age of 19, after dropping out of the chemical engineering program at Stanford while a sophomore.
Holmes had been delving into lab-on-a-chip technology during her time at the university, and in the summer before dropping out, while working at the Genome Institute Lab in Singapore to help develop systems to detect the SARS virus, she had written a patent that utilized the technology in a wearable patch that could run multiple analyses using only a single drop of a patient’s blood. Holmes presented the patent to Channing Robertson, her chemical engineering professor at the time who would also go on to become Theranos’s first board member.
“I remember her saying, ‘And we could put a cellphone chip on it, and it could telemeter out to the doctor or the patient what was going on.” Robertson recalled to Fortune. “And I kind of kicked myself. I’d consulted in this area for 30 years, but I’d never said, here we make all these gizmos that measure, and all these systems that deliver, but I never brought the two together.”
At that point, Holmes knew exactly what she wanted to do. As the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Louis Fleischmann, the founder of Fleischmann’s Yeast, she had grown up hearing stories about how the choices people make impact not only their own lives, but others’ as well. She had it ingrained in her to make something of herself. She was going to revolutionize the lab diagnostic industry, worth tens of billions of dollars, to make testing more comprehensive, affordable and convenient for everyone.
“At a relatively early age I began to believe that building a business was perhaps the greatest opportunity for making an impact,” she said, “because it’s a tool for making a change in the world.”
Holmes was also spurred on by her cherished memories of her time spent with her uncle, who had died of cancer that quickly spread throughout his body when she was younger. She believed that helping others gain access to information about their health more easily would enable them to change their behaviors in a way that could save their lives.
“If people can really begin to understand their bodies, that can help them change their lives,” she told the San Jose Mercury News.
With the blessing of her parents, professionals who had worked careers in both the government and private sectors, Holmes dropped out of school and used her tuition money to seed her company, which she called Theranos, an amalgam of “therapy” and “diagnose.”
“I got to a point where I was enrolled in all these courses, and my parents were spending all this money, and I wasn’t going to any of them,” she told the New Yorker. “I was doing this full time.”
Today, the Palo Alto-based Theranos employs 700 people and has a partnership with Walgreens. The company offers 153 under-$10 blood tests that can detect dozens of medical conditions and illnesses, including high cholesterol and cancer, through only a prick of the finger.
Holmes has worked tirelessly over the years — she works seven days a week and limits her sleep — for such a minimal requirement test at least in part because she knows many patients who are recommended blood tests don’t end taking them because they’re afraid of needles, a fear she shares. She once told a TEDMED audience that drawing blood with needles could have been “torture experiments” dreamt up by inhabitants of another planet. “It’s right up there with spiders and snakes,” she told USA Today.
Despite being a billionaire on paper, Holmes lives in a two-bedroom condo in Palo Alto. In the spare time she once had as a child and teenager, she read Jane Austen novels, fished with her father and learned Mandarin, becoming fluent in it. However, that was long ago — she hasn’t taken a vacation from work in 10 years. She no longer reads and doesn’t even own a television. The tall, blonde and single Holmes also has no time for dates, as she’s joked she’s “married to Theranos.”
Often working in all black suits — including turtlenecks — the calm-mannered Holmes is most often compared to Steve Jobs, who she has called an “incredible symbol of what’s possible.” However, former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who serves as a Theranos board member and who also knew Jobs personally, doesn’t feel the comparison is completely accurate.
“She has sometimes been called another Steve Jobs, but I think that’s an inadequate comparison,” Perry said. “She has a social consciousness that Steve never had. He was a genius; she’s one with a big heart.”