How A Tech Entrepreneur Turned a Personal Crisis Into A War Against Cancer
Roy de Souza created one of the world’s largest internet advertising technology firms. But his real journey has just begun.
In April 2017, Roy de Souza, founder of ZEDO, and his wife, Aisha de Sequeira, Morgan Stanley Managing Director and YPO member, were on the way to an evening together at a friend’s home in South Mumbai, India, when out of nowhere, a pain in de Sequeira’s stomach grew so sharp, they rushed her to the hospital. Hours later, a CAT scan revealed she had metastatic colon cancer for which survival percentages are in the teens with aggressive forms of the disease.
“Initially, I was shocked,” says de Souza. “The survival statistics were not good. As someone who studied mathematics and engineering, those numbers were constantly going around and around in my mind, but after a while I thought, ‘There must be new technology to solve this.’ And having optimism, gives you a surprising amount of strength.”
The power of life or death
After de Sequeira was treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City by Dr. Nancy E. Kemeny — one of the world’s leading medical oncologists with an expertise in developing new chemotherapy regimens for colorectal cancer — the low survival rate numbers were still spinning around inside de Souza’s head. Only 50 percent of patients with de Sequeria’s cancer respond to treatment and his wife responded well to Dr. Kemeny’s treatments. But de Souza was not satisfied. Chemo is not a cure for colon cancer; no matter what form it comes in, it’s usually a treatment to prolong life.
After months of exhaustive research, calls with experts across the globe and consuming every article and white paper on colon cancer he could find, someone suggested the obvious.
“My friend Sri and I were on a call discussing what more could be done and someone said to us, ‘Why don’t you start a company to cure cancer?’” says de Souza, laughing. “I told them that was crazy. That wasn’t our role; we didn’t think curing cancer was our job.”
De Souza’s job, as he knew it, was at ZEDO, running the third largest global internet advertising technology firm in the world. A career that had nothing to do with health care. But the suggestion stuck in his head. He realized, that while he did not formally study medicine, he had absorbed a lot in a short amount of time, and most importantly, he knew technology and that his wife’s situation was life-or-death.
Disrupt and converge
BreakBio, the company he never intended to start, is now located in the biotech hub of Boston, Massachusetts and is headed up by de Souza and his friend of 20 years, scientist Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, better known as Sri. Coming from a large-scale systems background, Sri was first exposed to immunology, the study of the immune system, while conducting research on Ebola that was published in The Lancet. His findings went on to become the blueprint for the nation’s response in Guinea to solving the Ebola crisis in 2014.
“When Roy called to tell me the news about Aisha, I was quite shocked,” says Sri. “I started doing some research. With successful academic clinical trials for personalized cancer vaccines in 2017 and the Nobel Prizes awarded in 2018 for checkpoint inhibitors, I realized that we were at a turning point in our understanding of how to beat cancer. Immunology and technology were both playing increasing roles in cancer treatments and I thought these different trends could converge to solve this problem.”
This “problem,” cancer, is the second leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization.
So how do you go about simultaneously disrupting an industry and converging sectors to solve a problem that has long evaded the most diligent doctors and researchers in the world?
You get personal and leverage the technical.
BreakBio’s intention is to ultimately create a treatment with curative intent through personalized vaccines. Just like other vaccines, these help patients develop immunity by introducing the disease to their body in small doses. The patient’s immune system reacts to the vaccine as if it were being invaded and makes killer T-cells (a white blood cell actively participating in the immune response) to fight it, remaining in their body afterward so the next time the disease comes around, they’re able to combat it.
The key to BreakBio’s vaccines, what makes them particularly revolutionary, is that once approved by regulators, they will be personalized to every patient. Instead of a “one-size-fits-all” therapy, each vaccine will be created separately by analyzing a sample of the patient’s tumor. A biopsy will be done at their local hospital and sent to BreakBio’s lab for analysis. The company’s proprietary software will then compare the patient’s DNA cancer cells against their normal cells, gene by gene.
That’s 20,000 genes in total.
Once the software has figured out which genes in the DNA have mutated, it can then predict the kind of proteins the mutated genes are going to produce and ultimately, choose which proteins it believes are killer T-cells that can attack. These proteins in turn, will get manufactured into a vaccine that can be sent to a patient anywhere in the world.
“Some people think we’re too optimistic, that we don’t understand how complicated this is, and we fully understand that,” says de Souza. “But we have gone to great lengths to understand what the barriers have traditionally been for curing cancer and one of the major things that has been missed is this idea of personalization.”
The other major missing element? None of this would have been possible 20 years ago or perhaps even five years ago. No one was able to look at DNA for cancer cells because there was no software capable to do so with sufficient accuracy and affordability. Technological advancements, though, have allowed personalized medicine to become a reality, a way of leveraging not only science and medicine, but big data, cloud-based software and a team made up of the best-of-the best globally.
“We didn’t want logistics to stand in the way of attracting the best people to our team,” says de Souza, explaining his globally sourced and positioned team. “There are brilliant people in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Europe who want to be a part of this, but they have families and work in academic institutions … we didn’t want to tackle those kinds of issues so we put a wide angle on the best way to address this complex challenge.”
“Cancer is a global problem,” says Sri. “We found that the best research and insights are not localized to any particular part of the world; the distributed nature of our research necessitates finding the best solution wherever it may be.”
The complexities of pivoting from online advertising to revolutionizing cancer have been mitigated by the way de Souza now finds himself showing up in the world.
“I’m not saying selling online advertising is bad,” he says with a smile. “But being more useful to my family and friends and to the people around me living today is quite fulfilling. One of the key lessons I’ve applied to this venture from ZEDO is feeling confident that I can take an idea and make it happen. That, together with an incredible team, even in a totally new field, I can realize my goals. So, does anyone care strongly if I sell more advertising? Does it really matter? What matters to me right now is advising people about where to get treatment and what treatments to get, because I now know them quite well. When you are able to help someone get the treatment they require, that’s very satisfying.”
Speaking of satisfying, in June, Aisha received her fourth personalized vaccine administered in Germany — an improved version of the original injection — and continues to get better.
Next up for BreakBio is to complete their team and prepare for a series of clinical trials before going out to raise capital — all slotted to happen this year with a projected launch of early 2020.
“Some of the academics, they don’t like to talk about a cure,” says de Souza. “They don’t like to be too ambitious. And while we have to be mindful about what we say — we certainly do not have a cure at this point — we are looking for it. That’s our goal. Not just to prolong life, we want to find a cure. Which is an ambitious target that I believe can be done.”
Sri and Roy have just a published a short book to explain what they learned about foods that prevent cancer and how killer T-cells can cure it. It’s on Amazon and proceeds help their effort to cure cancer.