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Dr. Liz O’Day brings scientific rigor to the business of precision medicine

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This week I had the enormous pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Liz O’Day the founder and CEO of Olaris. Olaris is a phenomenal startup that combines machine learning with metabolomics, “the profiling of metabolites in biofluids, cells and tissues,” for in vitro diagnostics and precision treatment of a variety of ailments. Since 2016 Dr. O’Day has been co-chair of the Global Future Council on Biotechnologies at the World Economic Forum

Given the opportunity to chat with another inspiring woman founder in Healthcare, I was surprised to learn that her first entrepreneurial enterprise was in fashion.

“I didn’t know I was an entrepreneur for a long time. I was in grad school at Harvard University working towards a PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences when I started an apparel company called Lizzard Fashion, with the goal of using fashion as a medium to promote science. I started it out of my studio apartment, using my kitchen to store T-shirts and baby onesies. And when sales boomed so that we got picked up by some museums, I opened a distribution center in Chicago. It was both a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. I donated all the proceeds towards a travel scholarship for scientists to present at the annual meeting for the American Association for Cancer Research.

Whenever people told me I was entrepreneurial, I would almost get embarrassed. I thought of myself as strictly a scientist. The company was just a thing I did on the side. It was only after I started Olaris, I realized that this might be a character trait.”

Olaris Logo

I love that idea of the accidental entrepreneur, where the drive to start a business is borne out of wanting to solve a problem you encounter in the rest of your life. It’s a different path than the serial entrepreneur in search of a problem worth solving.

Also worth talking about the way people are put in buckets and kept there. Entrepreneurs come from business. Scientists stay in science. Entrepreneurism crosses all areas and disciplines, and Liz is a fantastic example of that.

“Yes. I used to teach a class at Boston College called ‘Human Metabolism, Disease and Entrepreneurship.’ The goal was to get scientists thinking about how they could turn their science into products that could help people, trying to deliberately blur those lines, because the further along in your career you get the tougher it is to cross over.

For me entrepreneurism is about not being satisfied with the status quo and asking why and how we can develop solutions to make it better. And that’s how scientists are taught to think. The fact that I had a disconnect between being an entrepreneur and being a scientist was silly. That’s why I try to speak up now and connect scientists with opportunities.”

This is a something that isn’t going away anytime soon. The old-school thinking that academia and business can never mix is long gone. Science is no longer restricted to the campus and some of the startups Microsoft works with are doing outstanding work because their businesses live or die by it.

“Academia is a great place to think and develop cool ideas. I feel so lucky that most of my life was in academia because it built this crazy curiosity in me and I got to develop amazing skill sets that I would not have if I’d jumped straight into industry. Industry requires greater focus You have to make a product and you have to deliver it, on time. That’s how we get products to market and really make a difference.

Today there is less pressure to be one or the other. People can leverage their skills from each area. Industry needs scientific development, but science has a lot to learn from industry about pacing and focus.”

My next questions directly followed on from this insight. I wanted to know how Liz’s experiences with academia and with science had informed her work with Olaris.

“Early on with Olaris, I knew we had great science. But I also knew that it’s not just great science that leads to your product becoming real or your business being successful. You need to engage multiple stakeholders. Olaris is developing diagnostics that determine whether drugs work for an individual patient. To me that makes perfect sense and serves a real need, but traditionally diagnostics companies have performed less well while therapeutics companies have delivered a higher return for investors. So, while my science made sense, I had to show that I could make money for investors. I had to demonstrate the business model.

I started talking to policy makers and political leaders about changing the way we think about diagnostics. For example, it makes no sense to pay $400,000 for a year of treatment that only works in 16% of patients, when you can spend $100 to find out if that patient is part of that 16% or not.

This is why I started working with the World Economic Forum and writing for Scientific America. It’s why I’m on the board of several precision medicine committees. It’s not just about science. You have to engage with people to make your vision a reality. It’s a work in progress.”

It’s such a fascinating perspective and I don’t think it’s limited to the world of healthcare. Sometimes, part of providing a solution means engaging with stakeholders to surface the problem. The best science, technology or service cannot find a market without an honest discussion about what the market needs and engagement with the full range of beneficiaries.

Having started with the science, grappled with engaging stakeholders, I wondered how Liz was dealing with scaling the business and the challenges she faced there.

“As a scientist I try to have a data-driven approach to everything. Accountability to science is our first core value. When we bring on commercial people, I ask what are the skillsets we need and how best can we fill them. Also, humility is a value. One thing you learn as a scientist is that once you think you have figured something out, Biology will come and slap you in the face!

Our third core value is a commitment to revolutionary impact. On everybody’s first day, I tell them, “You could have accepted a job somewhere else that would have paid you more and been less stressful. But you decided to join us on this mission, and I want you to think about why and what you’re in it for.” I want to make an impact and I think that’s something we’re all striving to do.”

Dr. Elizabeth O’Day

I love hearing Liz’s passion for science, her savvy understanding of the need to deliver a return to investors, and how these two things come together in building out her team.

Liz is a powerhouse and I hope it’s not indelicate to say that she was nine months pregnant when we did the interview and showing few signs of slowing down. I asked Liz about the one thing she would change about her experience as a founder and an entrepreneur.

“As you know, 85% of venture dollars still go to white men. Increasing opportunities for women and minorities is something that I am passionate about. Early on with Olaris, I was the token woman entrepreneur. I spoke on every stage, and everybody felt good about giving me a chance to share my story. But I would share the stage with dudes that had half the degrees that I did. They were able to raise funding and build teams, while I had to scrap. I’m still here but I wish there was a more equitable distribution of both capital and opportunity. Sorry if that’s a cliché.”

I don’t think it’s a cliché at all. It’s a core principle of Microsoft for Startups that whoever you are, wherever you are, you get access to the same opportunities. Any chance to amplify that message and the experiences of people like Liz are exactly what we’re here for.

“Yes, and I was interviewed for a podcast recently where I spoke about how Microsoft for Startups had supported me as a young-ish, woman scientist and first-time CEO. Having that Microsoft stamp of approval was super valuable for me, entering conversations and raising money.”

Liz is a tremendous example of a driven entrepreneur who has crossed over from academia determined to marry the rigor of science with a keen commercial vision. I am very excited to keep following Olaris as they move towards their goal of having a global impact on the way diagnostics should dictate treatment options.

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