CancerIQ Seeks to Make Cancer Genetics Accessible
Feyi Olopade was inspired to found her startup, CancerIQ, while she was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
During a hike, she started talking with her mother—world-renowned cancer geneticist and medical oncologist Funmi Olopade, MD—about how she was running out of funding for a project that uses technology to integrate genomic, clinical and outcomes data into one database. Her mother was searching for a way to develop this database as a commercial entity instead of relying on outside funding.
And so, on a mountain in the middle of Africa, with no access to any type of modern-day devices, tech startup CancerIQ was born.
CancerIQ does not offer genetic testing—a field that’s growing and sure to become more prominent, especially with stars such as Angelina Jolie Pitt discussing their experiences with it openly. Instead, CancerIQ provides tools for patients and genetic specialists to help make the process smoother and cost-effective, bringing the innovations of large research institutions to smaller hospitals and clinics.
Olopade credits her mother’s expertise and an advisory board made up of representatives from 12 community hospitals as keys to her company’s success.
“It’s a beautiful partnership because my mother has been years ahead of everyone. She developed her own data tools and invested money in them, even before the University of Chicago had electronic medical records,” says Olopade. “She’s also the clinical authority on how to incorporate genetics into clinical care.”
Her advisory board helped developed CancerIQ and pointed out problems that community hospitals face. Olopade says that physicians at community hospitals are under pressure to see a high volume of patients and don’t always have time to explain genetics to patients. The second issue is knowledge.
“Most people didn’t understand what to do with people’s genetic testing information and how at all that would influence clinical care. But … knowing someone’s genetic mutations could be not only the difference between life and death for that patient, but also for that patient’s family,” she says. “There are actions to be taken to improve cancer survivorship and cancer prevention that aren’t being taken because of time constraints and access to knowledge. “
The startup’s first product saves time by helping patients determine if they are good candidates for genetic counseling based on their family or personal health history. Patients can fill out these questionnaires at places like a mammography clinics or oncologist’s offices—reducing the time it takes for physicians to personally screen patients. The second product improves knowledge, by helping specialists identify risks using CancerIQ’s predictive analytics. They not only gain knowledge about the patient’s risk status – but they can do it faster. Today’s model of gathering data, running risk models, and interpreting testing results can take 4-6 hours per patient, and CancerIQ has been able to cut this cumbersome workflow down by 60%.
Many clinicians looking to integrate genetics into their practices cite CancerIQ as an easy, fast way to do so.
“They can do it using an application that designed to be a cancer genetic practice in a box. It’s cloud-based, HIPAA compliant, it’s something you can easily access online and because it was designed by users for users as soon I show it people, they say ‘yes’,” says Olopade.
Within a month of CancerIQ’s launch, 14 hospital systems subscribed to the service and are actively using it to screen for genetic risk factors.
“Timing was everything”, says Olopade, “and patients responding to Angelina Jolie’s decision has made cancer genetics top of mind.”
Before founding CancerIQ officially in June of 2013, Olopade worked in finance, McKinsey, and earned a degree from The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She says her finance background and experiences as a consultant have given her an edge in a competitive field.
“Here’s how I’ve survived: Because I am a minority and a woman, I have to prove myself more than others, and if I didn’t know how to prove myself, that would be a challenge,” she says. “But because of my business background, I know exactly how to prove our value and position the company so people don’t look at me for the color of my skin and my gender – but can make decisions to engage with CancerIQ based on my track record. When you can demonstrate that you are doing good things and making an impact, it’s no longer personal.”
CancerIQ’s compelling vision and impressive track record helped it win the health category at the 2014 Challenge Festival, winning a seed-round investment. Olopade says she was initially drawn to 1776 because it invests in startups in entrenched industries—the same ones she used to invest in as Managing Director of the Wharton Social Venture Fund. Besides enjoying meeting with her peers, 1776 also provided her with sound advice.
“(1776) had me think strategically about our growth trajectory and about how to engage patients as a way to accelerate our progress,” she says. “If enough patients come in the door and ask about CancerIQ, (we can) accelerate the pace of this actually being implemented in a number of hospital systems.”
With patients at the core of CancerIQ’s future strategy, the team has expanded to include key patient advocates and all-star engineers who have been personally effected by cancer.
Andrea Downing says she was initially drawn to the company for very personal reasons. Downing, a patient-centered design lead who helps the company create tools that are designed with the patient in mind, tested positive for a BRCA1 genetic mutation in 2006. Everyone has BRCA1 genes, but the mutation in the gene is more likely to lead to breast or ovarian cancer. After testing positive, Downing underwent a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy in 2012—or in non-medical speak, she had both her breasts removed to help reduce her risk of developing cancer.
Downing tests surveys with patients to help CancerIQ build a road map for care to ensure the process feels “empowering rather than scary,” in her words.
“Outside of traditional advocacy groups, there’s not a lot to support the patient as they stay on top of their plan and navigate and manage sometimes three or four different doctors, screenings, get surgery,” says Downing.
Patients will generally seek out genetic counseling if a family member has been diagnosed with cancer to determine their own personal risk. Those without a personal history can undergo genetic counseling if they are deemed at risk. According to the Site Cancer Center in St. Louis, “Approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of all cancers are considered to be hereditary.”
After analyzing a blood or spit test, patients get results notifying them if they have a genetic mutation or not or if further testing is needed. Genetic counseling costs vary. Some insurance companies will cover the cost entirely, but testing can come with steep fees. According to Johns Hopkins University, it costs $3,400 for one family member to undergo genetic testing and $500 for each family member after that. The number of genetic counselors is also limited—with an estimated 4,000 total working genetic counselors in the entire country, according to The National Society of Genetic Counselors.
Personal ties also drew Chris Bun, senior software engineer at Cancer IQ, to the company. The same week Bun was interviewing at Cancer IQ, his uncle was diagnosed with stage-four colorectal cancer. One of CancerIQ’s primary objectives spoke to Bun directly.
Bun says his uncle was at a community hospital, but his family then put him in a large university hospital. If the community hospital had had tools such as Cancer IQ, the outcome might have been different.
“It’s really cool because you can democratize the level of expertise at a given clinic or institution,” Bun says. “No longer are these small underfunded clinics at the mercy of the amount of funding they get or the expertise that they have at a given institution.”
Bun says he appreciates the purpose-driven nature of a startup like Cancer IQ.
“At the end of the day, we want to form our business model, but at the same time, we have this noble goal of being able to catch cancer risk and assess cancer risk for many more people,” he says. “Everything that you do, you quickly realize that you need to be passionate about it.”
Passion is what keeps Cofounder and Chief Data Officer Haibo Lu going as well.
“At the end of the day, you’re doing something that really has a tangible effect. You can read statistics, and it’s kind of a big number,” Lu says. “It’s knowing that our program and what we’re doing can help screen as many people as possible and help them detect cancers or prevent it all together. That has a much more kind of real feel.”
Lu says startup employees must have plenty of internal motivation to thrive in a startup environment.
“I believe that we can help make things better,” he says. “That belief is what’s going to guide you through some of the harder times. I think it’s really important to know that up front.”