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

3/5/10

This week I spoke with veteran biotech executive Una Ryan at her office about her strategy for raising money to advance the cause at the Harvard spinout Diagnostics For All. So it was no surprise to spot her just a few hours later at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, networking with accomplished academics and powerful industry types.

Ryan, who began work as CEO of the nonprofit diagnostics firm in early January, needs to network to execute her plan to begin providing its paper-based diagnostic tests to patients in poor countries by the end of this year, because it’s going to require a lotmore money than the two-year-old firm has in the bank today. The good news is that the firm’s co-founder, renowned chemist George Whitesides, along with his collaborators, have finished much of the engineering required to manufacture the nonprofit’s postage stamp-sized devices cheaply and easily. (The nonprofit also gained early acclaim for being a 2008 winner in the prestigious MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.)

Despite the low cost of the technology, it’s going to cost between $2 million and $5 million to begin providing the firm’s diagnostics to the developing world, in part because its products will need additional testing and operational support. It’s an urgent matter, too, since the firm’s tests could catch signs of lethal liver damage in hundreds of thousands of HIV/AIDS patients in poor countries whose medications can have undiagnosed side effects. There are also opportunities to expand use of the technology for patients with diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and diabetes.

Therefore, Ryan is leading a multi-pronged effort to raise money at the firm; there is a link on its website where people can make donations online. “It worked for Obama,” she quips. Yet in all seriousness, she believes that even small donations, if made in high numbers, could add up to a lot of money.

She has recruited volunteers to help the group write grant proposals, and she is out pressing the flesh at places like the McGovern Institute to find major donors. (Yet she’s no hanger on; last night she was one of the featured speakers for a GSAS Harvard Biotechnology Club event at Harvard Medical School.) The nonprofit also aims to generate revenue from companies that license its technology for the U.S. market and other parts of the developed world.

It’s not the first time Ryan has taken on the cause of developing medical technologies that could be applied in both wealthy markets like the U.S. and impoverished nations. As CEO at Needham, MA-based Avant Immunotherapeutics (now Celldex Therapeutics), for example, Ryan pushed for the development of vaccinations for the lucrative traveler’s diarrhea market while applying the same technology to treat diarrhea that often causes deaths to children in developing countries. The big difference at Diagnostics For All is that its primary mission is to apply its innovation to the health needs of developing countries, while Ryan’s previous gigs were at companies set up primarily to make money and bring returns to investors.

“We went for a completely different model here,” Ryan says. “George’s [Whitesides] point was that if you start with a for-profit and say you’ll do these things in the developing world, you’ll never get to it, because the venture capitalists make you exit before you ever get to do the developing world piece.”

Una Ryan

Una Ryan

Diagnostics For All is part of a global effort to prevent deaths and illnesses that strike people in the developing world due to a lack of access to modern medical facilities and treatments. To provide timely diagnoses to these people, the nonprofit chose cheap materials like paper for its devices. And unlike other diagnostic systems, the paper-based tests don’t require electricity to power fluid pumps or clean water to conduct lab tests.

A standard desktop wax printer can churn out sheets of thousands of the tests per day, each one costing 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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