Kathryn Cross ’20 Starts the First Stem Cell Safe

Kathryn Cross in a lab coat and black face mask looks at camera.
Author  Cheryl Minde ’24
Published on 

Just over a year after graduating from Wellesley, Kathryn Cross ’20 founded Anja Health, the first “stem cell safe,” which stores blood that is retrieved from the umbilical cord right after a baby is born. Stem cells from cord blood potentially can be used to treat diseases like cancer, some blood diseases, and immune system disorders––not just in the baby, but also in the parents or even other family members, as long as they are a match for the cells.

Anja Health may seem like an unexpected avenue for entrepreneurship for a media arts and sciences major with an economics minor, but Cross has always had the goal of starting a health care company. And umbilical cord blood banking has particular significance for her family.

Cross was just 3 years old when her 1-year-old brother was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after an accident in which he nearly drowned. When Cross’s parents learned about a stem cell treatment option for her brother, they looked for a stem cell match. “My family tried to find a match for my brother, but we were unfortunately unable to,” said Cross. Increasing the difficulty was the fact that Cross and her brother are biracial: Cross’s mother is Chinese and her father is white. “For anyone who is not white it is extremely difficult to find a match,” she said. “Matching [often] happens by ethnicity, and most umbilical cord blood donors come from high-income areas and thus skew white.” Cross’s brother passed away at age 19 due to complications related to pneumonia and cerebral palsy. His death inspired Cross to start Anja Health: “I knew that cord blood banking at birth could’ve helped him and can definitely help many more.”

Cross said her time at Wellesley shaped her ambitions, interests, and approach to her startup. “I took a public health course in the women’s and gender studies department where I was able to more intimately understand the intricacies of maternal mortality and pregnancy in the U.S.,” said Cross. “Because our consumers are pregnant parents, I am eternally grateful for the compassion that I gained for women’s health at Wellesley.”

In 2021, Anja Health was chosen for the startup accelerator program Y Combinator, which has an average yearly acceptance rate of 1.5% to 2%. Through the program, Cross now has access to a huge network of founders and companies, including Airbnb, Coinbase, and Nurx. She and her company can participate in all of its events, which include office hours with its highly accomplished partners, lectures by founders of successful companies, and access to the community of fellow founders and a helpful alumni network.

Cross is working to raise awareness about umbilical cord blood banking with a brand that is approachable and prioritizes consumer experiences. For students who are interested in entrepreneurship, Cross has this advice: “Startups give a great window into how businesses work, and especially if you can find a high-growth startup, you’re in for an amazing learning opportunity.”

The environment at Wellesley, Cross said, made her a more confident and compassionate leader. “Wellesley naturally encourages standing up for what you believe in and pushing for equality—understanding social dynamics behind what this means while at Wellesley has helped me navigate team and community building,” she said, “and I’m so grateful that Wellesley taught me so much!”