Can precision genomics, AI and a new perspective on preventive medicine achieve this?
Healthcare around the world is constantly evolving as scientists and physicians discover new drugs, learn more about the brain and cells, and apply known practices to new medical mysteries. One area that seems to be stagnating under the renaissance of others is pensions. For Americans in particular, preparedness is often overlooked as citizens try to keep up with the resolution of serious or pressing problems. The CDC reports that seven out of 10 deaths in the US are caused by a chronic illness, while about half of the country’s population has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as cancer or heart disease. A 2020 study shows that an estimated only 8% of Americans have routine health screenings.
I spoke to Jo Bhakdi, Founder and CEO of Quantgene, about what factors have contributed to the lack of innovation in healthcare, how he found his way from economics to medicine, and more. Quantgene combines precision genomics, cloud, AI and a new perspective on preventive medicine to protect and extend human life. Along with Quantgene’s team of scientists and engineers, Bhakdi is transforming medicine into predictive data science to improve the effectiveness and accessibility of healthcare for all. Its mission is to add a decade to the healthy human lifespan within a decade.
Rhett Power: Thank you for speaking to me. I want to ask the main question first: What problem are you solving and why are you the one solving it?
Jo Bhakdi: One of the biggest problems that I think you could solve as an entrepreneur is human life and the protection and prolongation of human life. The discipline or vertical charged with this mission is healthcare. People often forget that the mission of healthcare is to protect and prolong human life. Unfortunately, this is a controversial topic these days because some people don’t even agree with it. However, that is my view. That is the mission of medicine. I’m a child of medical professionals and doctors so I grew up with a clinical research background, but I’m an economist by trade so I’ve learned over time and through research that healthcare is the biggest bang for the buck, ie the most lives you can save with the smallest amount of money required is in prevention. It’s not about solving all diseases, but stepping in when you’re healthy and making sure you never get sick. This is actually a whole area of science and research that is very well understood in medicine but very poorly executed. Experts from many healthcare industries all agree that the most important thing we can do to reduce costs and save lives is prevention; no one disputes that. However, you look around and see that there are very few people who are actually doing this successfully. They have experts making recommendations on do’s and don’ts, but nobody throws technology and systems into the equation. This has led to what Quantgene is today. We started with genomics to solve the complicated questions and problems, and then drew on a comprehensive data system that pinpoints details for each individual patient: Where is your health now? What are your risks? What prevention do you need? Etc.
One of the reasons this is important to me is personal. My mother was a doctor and I lost her to cancer in 2015 after she missed a standard checkup. When someone like my mother, a doctor who had all the resources she needed to catch the disease early, still couldn’t get it, it affects everyone. Another reason why I think I’m the person who can solve this problem is that I like business, medicine and technology and I love abstract problems. The central challenge here is an abstract problem, but it has very real results. As everyone knows, being diagnosed with terminal cancer is a very real, not abstract, problem. To prevent that, you have to deal with data, risks, probabilities and other abstract things.
RRP: Not many people enjoy solving abstract problems. Or rather, they don’t have the time or the resources.
JB: Exactly. Most people consider these problems too abstract. What does risk mean here? What does it mean that a person’s risk is 8x higher? We know what that means. We know what to do with it. We can operationalize the whole thing. Before that I was in finance, so assessing the risk of investing in startups is similar. So in general, I think understanding the data and the probabilistic statistical part of preventive medicine is key to solving the prevention problem and then working to operationalize it and turning those abstract data points into concrete actions. I like doing that and that’s what we do at Quantgene.
RP: So what inspired you to break away from economics and finance and investment and solve the problem of extending human life?
JB: Well, I’ve gained enough experience in this area to understand innovation. I have always been very interested in the discipline of innovation. I’ve always been interested in fundamental questions, such as those posed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, about why some nations are rich and others poor. He came up with a whole theory that’s complicated, but it’s related to free markets and pricing and so on. And I always found the most interesting question similar: Why are some civilizations successful and others not? And it’s really about innovation. Some figure out how to construct reality and invent new things, some don’t. It doesn’t really depend on resources or anything like that. At an investment or corporate level, I’ve been interested in these types of questions. Why is Tesla good but GM bad? Everything is a function of innovation, and if you crack this code, you’ll crack all codes. So I funded it for a while and started to understand a little bit more how this all works, but then I kept coming back to the questions, ‘How do you make this all work? Where is the best place to apply that skill or that knowledge?” and finally it went back to my childhood and my parents who were doctors. If I had to choose what’s best for innovation, the most important thing, it’s medicine. Then I found what we do at Quantgene to be half strategic, half tactical. It was strategic because I know I want to innovate in medicine because human life comes first. It was tactical because we ran into this cancer and genome problem and we learned that you can detect cancer early in the blood. That’s how I found out in 2014 that no one was thinking about the problem the way we were thinking now, and we jumped in right away.
RRP: Why hasn’t anyone thought about it the way you have? Is it about the profit in healthcare or just because no one has thought of it before?
JB: I think the problem is that medicine and biology are so complicated that you have this infinite space of possibility. When you start researching a cell, there is literally no end. People can get excited and distracted by things very easily. I think part of the reason we can focus on that is because I’m partly an insider, having been infiltrated by medicine as a kid and learning from my parents. But I’m also an outsider because my career is in business. Now when I look at medicine, I look at it from both perspectives at the same time. I think this is very unique and allows us to view the problem differently. So, with the overarching goal of extending human life, we answer questions like: where does the economic value come from? How do we turn this into an effective business model that can sustain innovation? What are the structural barriers in the system? Are there companies that have an incentive to stop or support this?
RRP: Fascinating. But how do you translate all of this into working directly with a patient to extend their lifespan?
JB: Well, we start the whole process with a medical admission, which is very important. Our record is up to date, we collect all the data necessary to create your profile. That then goes to a doctor who looks at it without you and assesses and sets up your dashboard. Then we check if any data points are missing or if there is anything positive or negative or if immediate action needs to be taken. We check which screenings you may have missed, that you have all your tests up to date and organize your entire medical profile. Then we make an appointment for you to meet with a doctor for a telemedicine session. You will meet with one of our doctors and he will walk you through and explain everything we know and don’t know. Then we help them understand what action to take on current health issues, or to keep up to date with scans and tests to ensure we have all the information they need. Then the process diverges from there depending on which plan you pay for, how the results come back, whether you had to do additional testing, etc. But the next steps would involve advanced genomics and cancer detection.
RRP: So don’t you just draw them blood and then call them 4 weeks later to warn them if they’re at risk of cancer?
JB: No, it’s much more collaborative than that and we guide them through several steps and work with care providers when needed.
RRP: You have mentioned in a number of other interviews that your mission is to add a decade within a decade to the healthy human lifespan. When did this clock start ticking?
JB: Well that’s a very good question because if you think about what happens when we get there, we’re not going to just drop the goal. We will continue with that. So it’s basically a continuous goal every decade. Technically the clock started ticking when we started saying it, that was last year or 2020 I think. But the good news is that as we help more people, starting with the Serenity- members of Quantgene, and it will stay on.