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Dr. Elizabeth O’Day: “Do it and do it the right way”

My baseline for whether disruption is ‘good’ is thinking about whether the change in the industry will have a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives. Of course, this is a subjective measure, but in the case of Olaris, you can make the strong argument that our platform for determining which patients will benefit from a […]

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My baseline for whether disruption is ‘good’ is thinking about whether the change in the industry will have a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives. Of course, this is a subjective measure, but in the case of Olaris, you can make the strong argument that our platform for determining which patients will benefit from a specific therapy will improve the lives of millions.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Elizabeth O’Day.

Dr. Elizabeth O’Day is the CEO and Founder of Olaris, Inc., a precision medicine company that uses a pioneering metabolomics platform and proprietary machine learning algorithms to fundamentally improve how disease is diagnosed and treated. Olaris identifies “biomarkers of response” (BoR) to stratify patients into optimal treatment groups, increasing survival rates, decreasing adverse events and reducing unnecessary healthcare costs.

Outside of Olaris, Dr. O’Day plays an incredibly active role in partnering with government leaders and global organizations in advancing the field of precision medicine around the world. After founding Olaris, Dr. O’Day was invited to attend the first United State of Women Summit convened by the White House in 2016, and was recognized as a “nominated Change Maker.” She was also invited to participate in Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Summit to discuss collaborative ways “to end cancer as we know it.” In 2016, Dr. O’Day began serving as the co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Biotechnology. Over the last few years in this role, she has focused on leading the council in identifying policy opportunities capable of accelerating new biotech discoveries, and also guiding the dialogue about the implications of biotech advancements globally.

Most recently, Dr. O’Day was elected to serve a three-year term on the Personalized Medicine Coalition (PMC) Board of Directors beginning in June 2020. The PMC represents innovators, scientists, patients, providers and payers, to promote the understanding and adoption of personalized medicine concepts, services, and products to benefit patients and the health system. In this role, Dr. O’Day will collaborate with stakeholders across academia, industry, and government to increase access to personalized medicine.

Dr. O’Day is also supporting the next generation of scientists as adjunct faculty at Boston College, where she taught metabolism and entrepreneurship.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My journey started in the first grade when my older brother was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer. It was an extremely difficult time for our family — we essentially lived in Boston Children’s Hospital for two years. My brother survived, and from that moment on I was inspired to help find a better way to treat cancer.

Over the next two decades, as a student, I spent the vast majority of my waking hours doing everything I could to contribute to the field of cancer research. Along the way, I was fortunate to be recognized for my work. As an undergraduate at Boston College, I received many of the nation’s top undergraduate awards such as the Beckman Scholarship, Goldwater Fellowship, National Institute of Chemistry Excellence award and Finnegan award. I then received a Churchill Fellowship to pursue an MPhil in Chemistry at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and a National Science Foundation Fellowship to support my Ph.D. at Harvard University.

After I finished my Ph.D., a mentor asked me, “If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?” I wanted to cure cancer and believed that the metabolomics platform I developed during my graduate work could help accomplish that.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

A long-standing goal of precision medicine is to uncover biomarkers that differentiate drug responsiveness. To date most efforts have focused on genomics or transcriptomics, looking at DNA or RNA respectively. This is important information but only tells you “what could happen” — it’s like a risk factor. There are many other factors such as age, diet, environment and the microbiome that influence whether a drug will work in a patient.

Fortunately, all of these elements get captured in the metabolome. Thus, metabolites relay “what is actually happening” in a patient. Olaris uses that comprehensive measurement to help get the right drug to the right patient at the right time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For the first three years of the company, I was the only employee. While I certainly wasn’t alone and was supported by amazing consultants, advisors and interns, it was still quite a lot. I had to balance doing the research, raising money, and all the operational logistics. Looking back, it was a wild time of juggling multiple and disparate responsibilities. Some amazing colleagues and dear friends at Hydra Biosciences allowed me to rent a small lab area and office inside their main headquarters. There was a long hallway that separated the lab and the office space. Quite literally every day I would be running down that hallway, going back and forth between “my lab” and “my office” to set up experiments and have meetings with potential partners or investors.

One day I was caught up finishing a few critical experiments in the lab and a potential partner was waiting in my office. I quickly got the experiments to a stopping point and then started my dash down the hallway when I slipped and completely wiped out. The crash made such a sound that my guest peered his head of the of the office- “Liz- are OK?” He came to my aid and as he helped me hobble to my office, told me “if it makes you feel any better I was rushing to get here and got in a fender bender on the way.” We both laughed, and took it as a lesson that sometimes you need to slow down.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

One person who deserves a lot of the credit is my cofounder Bob Carpenter, who is a legend in the biotech world. When we first met Olaris was an idea, and I didn’t know if or how I can turn it into a reality. We went out to lunch so I could pick his brain, and he was incredibly generous with his time and distilled all this knowledge in me. He helped give me the confidence to start the company, so when I went back to him and said, “Hey, I’m thinking of giving this a go,” he said, “I’m in, let’s do this together.”

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

My baseline for whether disruption is ‘good’ is thinking about whether the change in the industry will have a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives. Of course, this is a subjective measure, but in the case of Olaris, you can make the strong argument that our platform for determining which patients will benefit from a specific therapy will improve the lives of millions.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Do it and do it the right way,” is the advice I got from Bill Sahlman, emeritus professor in entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School when I started telling him about wanting to start a company that “actually cured” cancer, and was rattling off all the amazing technology I worked on as part of my PhD. It wasn’t right away after this conversation that I started Olaris, but it set things in motion.

“Be a responsive and responsible leader” — Majid Jafar is the CEO of Crescent Petroleum the Middle East’s oldest privately-held oil and gas company. He is also advocate for precision medicine and increasing research in rare disease. He and I have worked together on numerous projects for the World Economic Forum. I once asked him his approach to leadership — he told me you have to be a “responsive and responsible leader.” I truly try to embrace this philosophy listening and responding the concerns of my stakeholders and then taking that information to act in the most responsible manner.

“Look for people who share your spark” Sir Richard Roberts was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Phil Sharp for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing. Rich told me his philosophy to recruiting top talent was not based on who was the “smartest” but rather finding individuals that were the most passionate. Rigorous science and passion are core values at Olaris.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman proposed the four stages of group development, “forming, storming, norming and performing,” that represent the phases all teams must go through in order to grow, face challenges, find solutions, and deliver results. In January, the Olaris team termed 2020 as our year of “performing.” We recently completed a project with The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, announced findings from our study of how accurately our platform can predict whether breast cancer patients will respond to trastuzumab therapy, and started new projects in gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) and immune response for kidney transplant patients.

Much of the momentum our team gained in 2020 will continue into 2021 and beyond. In the coming years,

Olaris will continue to grow, continue to do meaningful science, and see a number of our in vitro diagnostics (IVDs) be used in routine care across various therapeutic areas — so that everyone can be armed with the information to know what truly is the best treatment option for them.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I could write a novel in response to this question, but here I’ll just say this: It’s extraordinary that, as of December 2019, only 2.8% of venture capital dollars went to all female-founded teams. The number is higher for teams with male and female founders (11.5%), but that still means that more than 85% of venture capital dollars are still going to all-male founded ventures. This is a stunning disparity, and reflects that men still have an extraordinary advantage over women when it comes to getting the funding they need to grow their company.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I can’t pick just one book that’s had a deep impact on my thinking but here are a few of my favorites, “The Hard Things About Hard Things,” “The CEO Tightrope,” “Women Don’t Ask,” “The Story Brand,” “Think Outside the Building,” “Principles,” and “Radical Candor.” I also love the Timmerman Report and Long Road podcast by Luke Timmerman. I encourage all my staff, students mentees and anyone interested in biotech to follow his work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want people to feel empowered to take center stage of the health. While medicine and science can seem complex and intimidating, I think when presented thoughtfully people not only get it but want to know more. In time this can enable individuals to have the knowledge needed to live healthier lives. To start this revolution we need to build increased dialogue between healthcare providers and those receiving the care. I challenge everyone I know to first always go to their annual wellness visits and have at least 3 “discussion questions” for their doctor. Almost every time a friend or colleague has done this they report back with a story that begins “Liz did you know that…”. And while doctors are certainly busy — empowering their patients to live their best lives is usually the root cause for why they became doctors and welcome this type of engagement.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Thoreau once said, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

While being “busy” is what one signs up for in a startup, I frequently take a step back to ensure that my time and my team’s time is being used in the most effective and meaningful ways possible.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LInkedIn, and read the Olaris blog.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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