Peter Sullivan ’86
Alumnus draws on engineering and software skills to create a health screening test for heavy metalsby Liz Cezat, special writer
A psychology major at University of Detroit, Peter Sullivan ’86 has always been fascinated by bridging his study of engineering, software and psychology to advance human performance. These seemingly divergent disciplines are guiding his quest to develop a noninvasive testing device to gauge the level of heavy metal (arsenic, lead and mercury) in the human body.
The test, had it existed, would have saved Sullivan, his wife Stacy and two sons, Jack, 15, and Max, 12, a lot of anguish over mysterious maladies. His sons developed autistic symptoms in preschool, had short stature, and exhibited anti-social behavior. Sullivan suffered from fatigue and food allergies. The culprits to all these maladies were high levels of toxic heavy metals in Sullivan’s wife and sons, and high amounts of mercury in Sullivan’s bloodstream. Sullivan believes his condition was due to the release of mercury from the amalgam of his silver fillings caused by tooth grinding. The origin of the other heavy metals was unknown.
To detoxify, the family underwent chelation therapy as well as lifestyle changes. After the family’s health crisis was resolved, Sullivan focused on finding a simple test to detect toxins in the human body. He is alarmed by the lack of action to remove toxins from the environment and dearth of accessible and affordable heavy metal screening.
“There are blood tests, hair tests, urine and stool tests,” Sullivan said. “We hope to develop tools and tests that are cheaper, faster and less invasive so more people can take the tests and act on the results.
“We see athletes adding legal and illegal supplements to improve their performance, but avoiding known toxins is also a safe way to improve health and performance,” he added.
His philosophy about the environmental impact on human performance crystallized over time and is in step with the Jesuit values he was taught at U of D.
He recalls the legendary Shenandoah National Park trek/retreat with fellow students, led by Gerald Cavanagh, S.J. Fr. Cavanagh asked him, “What are you going to do if you are faced with an unethical order on the job?” Peter replied, “I’ll make a decision based on my ethics training.”
That certainly played out when he was training to become a U.S. Navy pilot and realized that he might have to serve as a nuclear missile attack pilot. He knew that he couldn’t do that type of mission, although he admires those who do, and decided to pursue a different career.
He landed a job as a field engineer at Silicon Graphics in Farmington Hills and met Stacy in Silicon Valley at the company’s headquarters. They maintained a long-distance relationship for one year. He moved to California in 1990, and they married in 1992.
He earned a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford in 1998, and met the founders of Google in one of his classes.
After graduating, he worked at Excite! He managed the front page of the service, which was one of the top sites on the Internet with 26 million page views daily. He later worked as a principal designer at Interwoven and Netflix.
Stacy joined Google in 1999, one year after it was founded. When the company went public in 2004, she was an early stockholder, which gave Sullivan the means to leave the corporate world of Silicon Valley to become a social-entrepreneur.
In 2007, Sullivan founded Clear Light Ventures to fund research and development of a screening tool for heavy metals. He is using approaches from the fields of philanthropy, social venture and new social business models, such as crowd sourcing, to advance this goal.
In the past two years, he became reacquainted with UDM after visiting the campus and wandering into the development office where he made some new friends. He is now a renewed supporter of the University and its mission.
As chief culture officer at Google, Stacy once asked Peter what the culture was like at his alma mater. He said, “UDM has a warmth, social consciousness and commitment that you don’t get at other universities. It has heart.”
Peter is a third-generation U of D graduate. His father, Thomas Sullivan, earned a B.S. in 1954 and his grandfather Michael R. Sullivan earned a B.A. in 1924 and later became a dentist. His mother Doris Prus graduated from Mercy School of Nursing in 1958.