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Una Ryan joins non-profit Diagnostics for All as CEO

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 9, 2009 07:21 AM

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unaryan.jpgThe high-profile Cambridge non-profit Diagnostics for All is getting its first chief executive: Una Ryan, formerly head of the vaccine-maker Avant ImmunoTherapeutics and one-time chair of the Mass Biotech Council.

Ryan is leaving the CEO post at Waltham Technologies, a Boston University spin-out she joined earlier this year, but which has not yet raised any VC funding. Waltham was engineering blue-green algae that would be capable of turning industrial wastewater into biofuels and useful enzymes. Waltham recently vacated its lab space at the BU Medical Center and is trying to find new space, but for the time being the company is operating out of the basement of its chief scientific officer's home. (I'm told there's currently a search underway for Waltham's next CEO; Ryan will remain chairman.)

Diagnostics for All is developing very cheap health tests for the developing world, which would be printed on paper and thus disposable. The technology originated in the Harvard lab of George Whitesides, and the blueprint for the non-profit organization took first place in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition last year. Tests for diagnosing health problems like liver failure would require just a drop of blood to be applied to the paper, which changes color to indicate the result -- no lab work necessary. The paper can then be burned, avoiding contamination issues.

The organization's early work has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and eventually Diagnostics for All hopes to branch out into tests for tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS, and diabetes.

Asked about her objectives in the new job, which she will start next month, Ryan explains in an e-mail, "We plan to design paper diagnostics the size of a postage stamp that require no pumps, power or palaver. ...Initial proof-of-concept will be liver function tests for those on anti-retrovirals or diabetes drugs that have these side effects. We will then move to 'fever of unknown origin.' My personal goal is to take this concept of 'simple and inexpensive' beyond diagnostics to revolutionize the way we think about health care."

Ryan tells me that she's also planning to start a for-profit arm of Diagnostics for All.


"To serve the wealthier public who also need simple, inexpensive point-of-care diagnostics," she writes, "to satisfy the large diagnostic companies that are interested in our technology, and to provide DFA with sustainable income (not just hand-outs from Gates, etc.) and to provide DFA with expertise in product development."

Here's a talk that Whitesides gave in Boston earlier this year, at the TedxBoston conference:

Last month, Ryan was honored with a Women's Initiative Award from Cartier.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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