Can Precision Genomics, AI and a new perspective on preventive medicine achieve this?
Healthcare is constantly evolving around the world as scientists and doctors discover new medicines, learn more about the brain and cells, and apply known practices to new medical mysteries. One area that seems to remain stagnant among the renaissance of others is preventive care. For Americans in particular, preventive care is often overlooked as citizens try to keep up with dealing with serious or emergency situations. The CDC reportsthat seven out of 10 deaths in the US are caused by a chronic disease, while about half of the country’s population has been diagnosed with a chronic disease, such as cancer or heart disease. a 2020 study shows that it is estimated that only 8% of Americans receive routine preventive screening.
I spoke with Jo Bhakdi, founder and CEO of Quantgene, about what factors played a role in the lack of innovation in preventive care, how he made 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. Together with Quantgene’s team of scientists and engineers, Bhakdi is turning medicine into predictive data science to improve the effectiveness and accessibility of healthcare for all. Its mission is to extend the healthy lifespan of humans by ten years within ten years.
Rhett Power: Thanks for talking to me. I want to ask the big question first: what problem are you solving and why are you the one solving it?
Yo Bhakdi: I think one of the biggest problems you can solve as an entrepreneur is about human life and the protection and extension of human life. The discipline, or vertical, that has been given this mission is healthcare. People often forget that the mission of healthcare is to protect and prolong human life. Unfortunately, this is a moot topic these days as some people disagree. However, that’s my opinion. That is the mission of medicine. I am a child of medical scientists and doctors, so I grew up with a background of clinical research, but I am an economist by profession, so I have learned over time and through research that the greatest “value for money” is in health care, i.e. the most lives you can save with the least amount of money required, is prevention. It’s not stepping in to fix all the illnesses, it’s stepping in when someone is healthy and making sure they never get sick. This is actually an entire field of science and research that is very well understood in medicine, but very poorly conducted. Experts from many health industries all agree that preventive care is the most important thing we can do to cut costs and save lives; no one disputes that. But you look around and see that very few people actually do that successfully. You do have experts who make recommendations about what you should and shouldn’t do, but nobody applies technology and systems in the equation. This has led to what Quantgene is today. We started with genomics to solve the complicated questions and problems, and then built in an extensive data system that determines the specifics for each individual patient: How is your health? What are your risks? What precautions 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 screening. If someone like my mother, a doctor who had all the resources she needed to detect the disease at an early stage, still failed to catch the disease, it affects everyone. Another reason why I think I am the person to solve this problem is that I like economics, medicine and technology, and abstract problems. The central challenge here is an abstract problem, but it has very real results. As everyone knows, that’s a very real non-abstract problem once you’ve been diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. To avoid that you have to deal with data, risks, probabilities and other abstract things.
RP: Not many people enjoy solving abstract problems. Or rather, they don’t have the time or resources for it.
JB: Precisely. Most people look at these problems and think they are too abstract. What does risk mean here? What does it mean that someone’s risk is 8x higher? We know what that means. We know what to do with it. We can operationalize the whole thing. I was in finance before this, so evaluating risk for investing in startups is similar. So in general, I think understanding the data and the probabilistic statistical piece of preventive medicine is key to solving the prevention problem and then working to operationalize it and turn these abstract data points into concrete actions. That’s what I like to do and that’s what we do at Quantgene.
RP: So what was it that inspired you to get out of economics and finance, investment, and solve the problem of extending human life?
JB: Well, I’ve had enough experience in that field to understand innovation. I have always been very interested in the field of innovation. I’ve always been interested in basic questions as Adam Smith poses in The Wealth of Nations about why some countries are rich and others poor. He came up with a whole theory, which is complicated, but it’s about free markets and prices and so on. And I always found the most interesting question something similar: Why are some civilizations successful and others not? And it’s really about innovation. Some figure out how to manipulate reality and invent new things and others don’t. It doesn’t really come down to resources or anything like that. On an investment level or on a company level, I’m interested in those kinds of questions. Why is Tesla good but GM bad? Everything is a function of innovation, and if you crack that code, you crack all codes. So I financed for a while and I started to understand a little bit more how this all works, but then I kept coming back to the questions, “how do you make it all work? Where do you best apply those skills or knowledge” and eventually it came all the way back to my childhood and parents who were doctors. If I had a choice of what’s best to innovate, the most important thing, it’s medicine. Then I found my way into what we do at Quantgene in a half strategic, half tactical way. 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 genomics problem, and we learned that you can detect early stage cancer in the blood. So I learned in 2014 that no one was thinking about the problem the way we were thinking about it now, and we jumped right in.
RP: Why did no one think about this in the same terms as you? Is this because of the profit in healthcare or simply because no one thought about it until now?
JB: I think the problem is that medicine and biology are so complicated that you have this infinite space of possibility. When you start research on a cell, it literally never ends. People can get excited about and distracted by things very easily. I think part of the reason we can focus on this is because I’m a partial insider, infiltrated by drugs as a kid and learned from my parents. But I am also an outsider, because my career is based on economics. Now when I look at medicine, I look at it from both angles at once. I think that’s very unique and it allows us to frame the problem differently. So with the overarching goal of extending human life, we answer the questions where does economic value come from? How do we convert this into an effective business model that can support innovation? What structural barriers are there in the system? Are there companies that are incentivized to stop it or help it?
RP: Fascinating. But how do you translate all this into direct collaboration with a patient to extend his or her lifespan?
JB: Well, we start the whole process with a medical intake, which is very important. Our intake is cutting edge, we record all the data needed to draw up your profile. This then goes to a doctor who looks at it without you and assesses and sets up your dashboard. We then look at whether data is missing, whether there is anything positive or negative, or whether immediate action is required. We review which screenings you may have missed, whether you have all your tests up to date and organize your complete medical profile. Then we will schedule an appointment for you to meet with a doctor for a telemedicine session. You meet one of our doctors and they walk you through everything we know and don’t know and explain it. We then help them understand what actions to take regarding current health issues or keep up to date with scans and tests to make sure we have all the necessary information. Then the process differs from there based on which plan you pay for, how the results come back, whether you need additional testing, etc. But the next steps include advanced genomics and cancer detection.
RP: So you don’t just collect their blood and call them 4 weeks later to warn them if they are at risk for cancer?
JB: No, it is much more collaborative than that and we go through several steps and work with healthcare providers when necessary.
RP: You’ve said in a few other interviews that your mission is to extend the healthy human lifespan by 10 years within 10 years. When did that clock start ticking?
JB: Well, that’s a really good question because when you think about what happens when we get to that, we don’t just drop the target. We’ll continue with it. So it’s actually an ongoing goal every decade. So technically the clock started ticking when we started saying it, which I think was last year or 2020. But the good news is that the goal will continue as we help more people, starting with Quantgene’s Serenity members, and it will continue on.