Una Ryan Searching for Riches to Deliver Inexpensive Diagnostics to the Poor

3/5/10

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a tiny fraction of a cent. It’s also easy and inexpensive to train people how get a drop of a patient’s blood onto the device, where channels imprinted on the paper wick the blood into separate test wells. The wells contain reagents that cause them to change color to indicate a test result, which is then photographed with a mobile phone camera; the phone sends the image file to a central lab for analysis.

At this point, accord to Ryan, funding is more of an issue than the technology. Through donations and grants, the nonprofit has raised about $3.5 million. About $3 million of that funding came from the nonprofit’s share of a $10 million grant which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded to Harvard University in November 2008. The more money Diagnostics For All can raise, she says, the faster the firm will make progress in delivering its diagnostics to developing countries.

A significant expense is the trials the firm plans to conduct to provide more data on how well its devices work. (To date, the devices have been tested only in labs.) In the third quarter of this year, according to Ryan, the devices will be tested in a trial in which, rather than sticking patients’ fingers for blood, the firm will use previously drawn blood samples from Boston-area hospitals. By the end of the year, the CEO expects to be studying the firm’s devices in the field with actual patients.

I got a sense for what Ryan’s pitch to prospective donors might be like during our meeting, which took place at the nonprofit’s office across the street from the Charles River on Memorial Drive. She took out what looked like a small metal tobacco case, which contained enough of the firm’s diagnostic devices to screen a small village for liver dysfunction. Later she talked about the commitment of her pro-bono consultants and small staff of five-full time employees. Also, we bumped into one of her staff scientists, Patrick Beattie, a Princeton University graduate who, prior to joining the nonprofit, spent three years teaching math and science as a member of the Peace Corps in Africa.

It wasn’t hard to see why Ryan quit her previous CEO post at the Waltham, MA-based clean-tech startup Waltham Technologies to join Diagnostics For All. Yet it was quite difficult not to root for her cause.

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