SAN FRANCISCO — For years Dr. Victoria Hale could see the problem. The world's poorest people — from India to Africa — were dying from curable diseases while big drug companies did little to help.
Then one day she admitted to a cab driver, an African immigrant, that she worked for a big drug company.
"He rolled his head back and laughed and said, 'You all have all the money!'" she recalls.
Hale quit her job, took out a loan and began working on a crazy dream — a nonprofit drug company.
"I wanted to do something that would put the world in a new place, put it on a new path," she says.
Hale began searching for drugs whose patents had expired, or that were sitting on a shelf because there wasn't enough profit in them. And she found one.
She brokered deals and organized a drug trial in India to combat deadly black fever.
"All these patients (in this room), if they don't get treatment, will die within six or eight months," says Dr. C.P. Thakur, India's former Minister of Health.
Including 10-year-old Dilip. But Hale proved an old, neglected drug will inexpensively cure black fever. Dilip walked out 100 percent cured. Her efforts could save 200,000 lives a year.
And then Hale met Dr. Jay Keasling, a Berkeley professor who helped invent a cheap way to synthesize a drug already proven to cure malaria. Their new partnership — his for-profit company Amyris Biotechnologies with her nonprofit Institute for OneWorld Health — could soon help save (we're not making this up) millions of lives.
"Amyris will make no profit, and OneWorld Health will make no profit," says Keasling.
"She had a vision," says Tachi Yamada. "Most people who are visionaries start out with a vision."
Yamada works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which decided along the way to give OneWorld Health $150 million.
"I actually think she's a real hero," says Yamada.
And something unexpected happened. Those big drug companies started calling.
"It's also a route back to what companies used to do, back to the hearts of so many employees who say to us, 'You really are on the right track, keep it up, how can I help? How can my department or company help you? Let's keep doing it, let's make it bigger,'" says Hale.
So how cool is Victoria Hale's job?
"It's incredibly, incredibly cool," she says. "It's exhaustingly cool, exhilaratingly cool. It's all of those things."
And if she ever sees that cabbie who pushed her to follow her heart?
"I'd say, 'I did it!'"
Millions would say — and then some.
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