Investing in Results: Why One Donor Supports Ariadne Labs

Photo of Yen Liow
Yen Liow

Some investors may be cautious about new start-ups with huge ambitions. Yen Liow, Managing Partner at Aravt Global LLC, had the opposite reaction when he learned about Ariadne Labs.

“We like big missions, and this one was a doozy,” Liow recalls thinking in 2008 when he met  with Ariadne Labs founder Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, to discuss Gawande’s vision of what would become Ariadne Labs. Liow has been a strong financial supporter of Ariadne ever since. 

Liow was impressed with Gawande’s vision for applying simple, scalable tools to large health care problems. 

“Ariadne Labs was formed on one simple insight – a substantial cause of damage in the delivery of high quality health care results was caused not from lack of knowledge, but from errors of complexity and poor execution,” Liow says.

Though simple, since its founding in 2012, Ariadne’s tools and solutions have enacted change at a global scale; in 2019 alone, Ariadne’s work touched the lives of 74.3 million patients worldwide. 

One of Ariadne Labs’ initial projects was to apply the concept of a checklist to promote safer surgery – a tool that would come to be known as the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist. Today, facilities in 70 percent of the world’s countries attest to using the Checklist. Its use is associated with up to a 36 percent reduction in mortality.

“The charitable world is chasing down major problems and our dollars should be given to the warriors who are solving them, not trying to make ourselves feel good just giving money away,” Liow says. “Ariadne’s mission is large; the results are breathtaking.

The checklist concept has been expanded to include a range of solutions across every life stage. Ariadne Labs researchers helped to develop and study the impact of the WHO Safe Childbirth Checklist through its BetterBirth program. Through a partnership with the Primary Health Care Performance Initiative, Ariadne Labs has contributed to development of the Primary Health Care Progression Model and the Vital Signs Profile to improve global primary care. Ariadne Labs also developed a Serious Illness Conversation Program to promote more, earlier, and better conversations among patients and clinicians about patient priorities, goals, and values for care when facing a serious illness. 

As someone with extensive business and investment experience, Liow was drawn to supporting a cause with a high opportunity for a strong return on investment. “I am unaware of many opportunities to impact global-scale outcomes with such little resources required to create value that matches what Ariadne Labs is doing.” 

Ariadne Labs has achieved its results with a small staff of just over 110 and a comparatively small budget, he noted. “Ariadne is an intellectual property firm. It is extremely high return on investment and can scale tremendously,” Liow says, adding, “As an investor, I love these situations.” 

In many ways, the vision for Ariadne Labs mirrored Liow’s own philosophy. Liow, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who immigrated to Melbourne, Australia when he was four years old, bought his first stock at age 14. He went on to graduate from the University of Melbourne and Harvard Business School. He worked at Ziff Brothers and Bain & Company before starting his own company in 2013 at age 42, Aravt Global LLC, a fundamental global equity firm headquartered in New York City.  

Both his investment strategy and his charitable giving focus on results. And that is why he has been a strong supporter of Ariadne, philanthropically supporting the lab’s mission with unrestricted funding that gives Ariadne the flexibility to determine how to most efficiently allocate the funds. 

“Some people donate charitable dollars with a lower expectation than their investments. We hold an equally high standard of expectations from ours,” Liow says. 

Liow has watched as Ariadne Labs has grown to be a multi-faceted institution with an expanded portfolio that continues to develop simple, scalable solutions that dramatically improve the delivery of health care at critical moments to save lives and reduce suffering. He notes that he has seen many great ideas fail from poor execution and leadership but Ariadne is scaling with focus and purpose. “I believe excellence at scale requires a process of codification, simplification, execution, and refinement…Ariadne exemplifies this,” he says. 

Poised between academic medicine and public health, Ariadne Labs calls on a huge range of expertise in its staff and faculty. When the COVID-19 situation began to escalate, teams of Ariadne Labs physicians, researchers, and public health experts mobilized to develop, test, and spread solutions in priority areas ranging from safe surgical systems and serious illness communication to equitable vaccine allocation and testing initiatives. Drawing on the lab’s research capabilities, front-line clinical experience, and accumulated knowledge of best practices, Ariadne was able to rapidly develop and disseminate tools with a clear impact. 

To give just a few examples, Ariadne researchers partnered with Surgo Ventures to develop and launch the free COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation Planner to help state and county decision-makers plan for equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. The tool has been promoted by the National Governors Association and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a useful tool for planning; several senior public health leaders have integrated it into planning activities for their states and jurisdictions. 

At the same time, the Serious Illness Care Program developed, in a matter of weeks, a COVID-19 Response Toolkit to facilitate conversations between patients and clinicians about what matters most in their health, something even more crucial during the pandemic. The toolkit has been downloaded more than 12,000 times and has been listed as a resource by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other leading professional societies and organizations. 

This type of rapid development – and rapid impact – has been a strong motivator for Liow’s decision to support Ariadne Labs over the years. “Investments in Ariadne do not take years for us to determine if they are working. The researchers move to refinement and implementation phase rapidly. You will see real empirical results and rapidly,” says Liow. “I believe in the mission, but more importantly I trust and believe in the team.”