AIDS, Startups, Sgt. Peppers

July 10th, 2020 / 10 minute(s) reading time

Good Morning Good Morning (Origin-1981)

"Somebody needs to know the time, glad that I'm here"

In General

AIDS all started from a monkey biting a human. Or was it a hunter who came into contact with infected blood? That's what we're told, but that's wrong. It might have been either. The correct answer is we're not sure.

The virus had been around for ~60 years before it started mass infecting. People from all over the world were visiting doctors with strange symptoms. What was this strange sickness? The world needed to wake up.

Role of Startups

Not established yet

With a Little Help from My Friends (1982-1986)

"Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends,

Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friend"

In General

Freddie Mercury hopped onto the piano. He sang "Bohemian Rhapsody" to a crowd of 75,000 at Wembley Stadium. 40% of the world tuned in to the television broadcast of Live Aid. Awareness was spreading.

Role of Startups

Startups, with their unique ability to act quickly, had not yet set their sights on the AIDS crisis. However, the startup spirit was encompassed in fundraising efforts and awareness groups. Groups were forming that would have lasting impacts on the epidemic. One such, Gay Men's Health Crisis, is still prominent today. It has become the world's largest private organization assisting people living with AIDS. In addition to the billions gained at fundraisers, small organizations were stirring up media attention. News coverage of AIDS grew from 0 to 5000+ yearly stories. chart

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1987-1990)

"Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly"

In General

A drug called AZT sat on a shelf for twenty years. Initially, it was researched for cancer treatment. That didn't work. Two decades later, it popped up again in successful trials to treat AIDS. It was the first drug approved for the virus and a major turning point for the future.

Role of Startups

This period of rapid drug development was the origin of the modern biotech startup. The ultimate goal of companies was a successful product marked by an IPO. Startups attempted to find a direct way to cure AIDS. Optimism for one, Imreg, is documented here. However, all the companies listed in this article failed. A few startups did make waves though. Cetus Corporation created the polymerase chain reaction, a process to easily copy DNA. This was essential for HIV diagnosis. Instead of waiting months to test for HIV antibodies, a diagnosis could be available within days after possible contraction.

Fixing a Hole (1991-2007)

"See the people standing there who disagree and never win,

And wonder why they don't get in my door"

In General


Magic Johnson announced to the world in a press conference,

"Because of the HIV virus that I have, I will have to retire from the Lakers"

Knowledge of AIDS had spread. However, misinformation still ran rampant. People refused to play basketball with Magic, assumed he was homosexual, and publicly ridiculed him. But, this sentiment quickly changed in the Western world over the next two centuries. Acceptance and proper information spread.

While the West progressed, other places went backwards. For nearly 10 years, South Africa President Thabo Mbeki denied the reality of AIDS and millions suffered. This created a problem they're still solving today.

Role of Startups

Startups achieved less in this period. Expectations for a cure were still too optimistic. A HIV vaccine review in Science magazine from 1999 showed all the potential vaccines that would eventually fail.


But, a different type of product came out that helped. Researchers discovered the use of Emtricitabine as an effective way to prevent exposure to HIV. The original researchers licensed the discovery into a company. They were acquired by a major pharmaceutical company (Gilead), which marketed the product into Truvada. This would be bundled together as a Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug.

Getting Better (2007-Present)

"I've got to admit it's getting better (Better),

A little better all the time (It can't get no worse)"

In General

"Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" by Shakira represented more than a catchy tune for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It symbolized a change for the country and continent struggling the most with AIDS. The last century Africa has seen huge progression in its fight to end the virus. AIDS rates have gone down 25% and medical funding has reached $20 billion.

Role of Startups

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been instrumental to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Their grant system revitalized the fight to end the virus. The foundation started in 2000. It accelerated after Bill Gates stepped down from Microsoft in 2008. He spoke at a 2010 conference, and said "We are at a turning point. We can keep doing things the old way, and keep getting the same result. Or we can change".

Since then, they've funded nearly $3 billion toward HIV grants. From this funding, startups have developed potential vaccines, improved antiretroviral therapy, and created many more opportunities

A Day in the Life (Present)

"Woke up, fell out of bed,

Dragged a comb across my head"

In General

U = U. Undetectable = Untransmittable. It's a common motto for people with HIV these days. With the help of a daily antiviral pill, the virus can be so suppressed that there is zero risk of transferring the virus via sex, breastfeeding, or conception. For many with HIV today, life can be normal.

Role of Startups

Today, startups have helped the fight to end AIDS mostly through supplementary roles. Looking at the current landscape, most companies are focused on allowing HIV+ people's lives to be completely normal. HIV+ people can combine their daily medical regiment with an HIV- partner taking PrEP drugs for a nearly 0% chance of contamination. A luxury of living in the developed world is HIV cases less likely to lead to death than other parts.

When I'm Sixty-Four (Future)

"And if you say the word, I could stay with you"

In General

Magic Johnson is now almost 64. The future for younger people with HIV is even longer.

Role of Startups

The most important factor to increase the average HIV+ lifespan is improved medication. People in countries with established medicine markets are already living longer through better medication. People in unestablished countries are not.

Traditional logic is that governments or large charities are best suited to solve macro sized global problems involving medicine. However, this is wrong. A mix of both, like the Gates Foundation grants, is the best approach.

Micro solutions are often criticized for their overreliance on individual action. This responsibility is often viewed as a burden. In actuality, it is liberating. Startups can work with local citizens to provide services that lacking governments cannot. Startups are better for developing new discoveries and governments/charities are better for distributing them. The distribution issues are declining.

Anti-aging presents another optimistic option for those infected. Accelerated aging is a troubling symptom of HIV that anti-aging technology solves. Startups, even entire incubators, are tackling this issue.

Also, a combination of software and scientific discovery combat AIDS today. For example, startups are using CRISPR detection to isolate the causes of HIV. The future of HIV will be marked with the crossovers of these newer technologies. Eventually, the problem will be solved. When it is, startups will be the reason why.


Tim Proctor

I write to understand the world better.