Amy DuRoss is the co-founder and CEO of Vineti, which creates next-generation technology to drive and scale high-value, personalised medicine. Previously, Amy was the managing director of GE Ventures, General Electric’s venture capital subsidiary, where she focused on creating new healthcare businesses. She has also been the Chief Business Officer at Navigenics, a genomics company sold to Life Technologies in 2012. Before that, Amy co-founded and was the Executive Director of Proposition 71, California's $3 billion stem cell research initiative passed in 2004, as well as Chief of Staff at the resulting state grant oversight agency. DuRoss holds an MBA and MA/BA in English from Stanford University. She was named a 2016 Health Innovator Fellow by the Aspen Institute.
In this interview, Amy tells us what kept her from studying science, but how she made up for it through her passion for medicine and healthcare. She gives us ideas on how to make science more fun for children.
“If we can have three-year olds navigating smartphones and tablets, they should also be able to understand how these devices work!”
What fascinates you about science, and why should people study it? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?
Studying science enables us to understand how the world around us works, and make an endless number of new discoveries. Being a human being and a citizen of this world makes it our duty to know as much as we can about how things work in our bodies as well as in our environment. We have the gift of rationality and must use it well. Studying science is a wonderful obligation, because we now have so many new tools and technologies available to study problems which had never been examined before. There is such a visibly rapid proliferation of new discoveries and a lot of progress is happening in very little time. Investigation timelines have significantly reduced.
I have three young children under the age of six, and I feel the best strategy to get children interested in science is to make it as hands on as possible and give early access. There is a general tendency to underestimate the cognitive and grasping capabilities of younger people when it comes to absorbing the fundamental mechanisms in the biological, natural and environmental sciences. I hope that the younger generation gets to grasp its hands on the tools of knowledge as soon as possible. If we can have three-year olds navigating smartphones and tablets, they should also be able to understand how these devices work!
Where do we lose people when it comes to engaging with science? Do you think there is a communication problem between the scientific community and society?
The strategy must be to meet people where their interests lie. We must be able to weave a thread between something people find interesting and really like to do, with the scientific underpinning behind it. For example, my son attends a school which delivers knowledge through project-based learning. The focus is on STEM and their philosophy is to follow individual interests of each student and trail it back to the underlying scientific basics. This pedagogical approach cultivates their interest in science in a whole new way. It is just about the access point. If you try to solely present the matter through figures, numbers and tables in a standard way without a prior back-story, there will be little response. If there is no narrative which captivates the imagination of young children, they will not enjoy science. It is not very difficult to tailor teaching methods in such a way, but just some time and effort is needed to make the material real, relatable and contextually relevant.
As another example, at my son’s school, the students do not learn mathematics through black and white worksheets. Since most of the children love the Golden State Warriors’ basketball team and are familiar with the names of the players, the problems in their mathematics class have basketball games as their back-story. They understand the importance of arithmetic, addition and subtraction and averages through the way basketball games are scored. Thus they learn counting, and other crucial concepts through something they care about, which means a lot to them.
I remember studying algebra in school and wondering why it was important. Studying these subjects isn’t just about the subject matter. It is about training minds to think critically and build the analytical skills required to digest information and develop innovative solutions. Though my son’s school is unique and not everybody is able to provide their children with the same level of access to opportunity, implementing experiential learning is quite possible within the standardised education systems of various countries. Story-based learning, and learning by doing really helps students understand concepts, their relevance and the underlying back-story.
What dissuaded you from studying science as an undergraduate? How did you cultivate an interest in science despite your degree in English and an MBA? Did your parents have a major impact on your interest?
At the time, I wasn’t sure I had the confidence to study science. It was crucial for me to meet and interact with passionate teachers, because that relationship governed my interest in the subject. As luck would have it, I had the most encouraging and inspiring teachers in humanities, which is why I decided to study it further. They gave me the confidence to pursue studies in humanities.
However, I was always fascinated by science. Stanford University is an extremely open, diverse and multidisciplinary institution and MBA candidates can petition to do side projects in any department at the university. When I started my graduate studies there, Paul Berg, the 1980 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry was working with Irving Weissman, who is one of the leading stem cell research scientists in the world. I was so captivated by stem cell research that I just knocked on their doors and asked if I could shadow them to actually see how the research is done. Though I could have read through textbooks to understand the fundamental science behind it, it would have never replaced the experience of actually being in the laboratory alongside researchers working with pipettes.
At around the same time, in 2001, President Bush issued an Executive Order, which crippled the entire stem cell research investigation in the United States. As a strong patient advocate, I really wanted to understand what stem cell therapies could do for people, and Stanford was the perfect setting for me to do so. I saw the value of this research and was deeply disturbed by what the withdrawal of federal funding would do to this incredibly promising area. American academics had started to leave the country and were finding positions elsewhere. There were also efforts to criminalise stem cell research! People who tried to receive therapies outside the country were at risk of being arrested if they returned! It made me so angry and I really felt that if I had more confidence when I was younger, I would have definitely studied medicine. It was a pity I didn’t have the right encouragement, although I had really strong women around me. My entire family consists of jurists – judges and lawyers. My great grandmother was a suffragette and was the first elected female in the state of New Jersey and my mother was the first female District Attorney in Washington D.C. and was a formidable prosecutor.
How do we get more women and girls into STEM? What do you personally do towards these aims?
I believe in laddering. We need to form personal connections between girls interested in science and women in STEM. Though my mother wasn’t into science, our family has a long history of strong female figures, who pursued their dreams and accomplished great things.
When it comes to getting women into STEM at university, a strong female bond is essential. Women in science need to support enthusiastic girls to live their dreams and follow in the footsteps of so many strong female STEM role models.
At Vineti, we have many extremely well-qualified and competent women at senior positions. I love hiring women as much as possible, without bias because I believe in progress. There is no better way to show that female leadership in STEM is possible than to experience it yourself and observe someone else do it.
In the most general sense, what do you work on at the moment? How does your company’s work benefit humanity?
I have been working in the area of personalised medicine for my entire career. Even as a child, I was a patient advocate, especially for people suffering from diabetes. I even testified in Congress at age eight. All my life, I have been quite active in raising awareness about illnesses, funding for patients and campaigning for greater access to medication and therapies for economically weaker patients. Science ultimately needs to benefit society.
Currently, I am the CEO and Co-founder of a company called Vineti. We create next-generation technology to drive and scale high-value medicine to enable the next wave of personalised medicine. We have had such a rapid iteration of learnings with the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. It has proliferated into new technologies with which we are trying to treat late stage cancer for the first time ever in the history of medicine. Normally you need to detect cancer early, and then irradiate the affected areas. However, when a patient reaches Stage 4 cancer, also called metastatic cancer, there were very few options for treatment until now. Recently, it has been shown that we can genetically modify cells and turn them into cancer assassin cells to defeat the disease in a very sick person. In these treatment methods, also known as CAR T-cell therapies, T-cells of our own immune system are modified at a genetic level to amplify the body’s intrinsic ability to protect itself, but in a targeted fashion.
Our objective with Vineti is to scale these kinds of therapies. Gene therapy for cancer is currently the most complex production and delivery requirement set in the history of biologics medicine. Our end-to-end software solution seeks to support the very personalised production to delivery route of these treatments, how these therapies are paid for, serviced and how patients are connected to the process in order to promote broad-scale, global adoption of these treatment methods. We are currently focussing on blood-borne cancers, since they are the products currently available in the market. A lot of research focus is on unlocking tumour cells, since doing so enables combating all the other types of cancer.
Outside of cancer, our solution also works with other chronic diseases addressable with gene therapy, such as thalassaemia. In theory, it should be possible to target any mutation and overcome it.
How expensive are these therapies currently? Are they within the reach of the average patient?
These therapies are very expensive and prices for treatment range from between USD 200,000 to USD 1,000,000. This is true, in part, because the process of creating personalised therapies consists of a lot of manual work. There are scientists and technicians working in clean rooms and laboratories, carrying out the cellular transformation by hand, using pipettes!
At Vineti we are trying to digitise and orchestrate the overall production and treatment process drastically reducing the amount of time, money and labour needed to create these therapies. These savings are then passed on to the patient.
What do you think is your biggest success? What drives or motivates you? How do you deal with failure, and stay motivated? If there is one thing you could change about you, what would it be?
My three sons are my biggest success! It is very difficult to juggle having children alongside a committed career. Within my professional career, I’m very proud of our Stem Cell Initiative, where we were able to put together a national level funding programme in the State of California. Since California was home to about 65 % of the biotechnology research capacity of the USA, it was crucial to find a substitute for the federal funding which had been pulled by President Bush’s administration. Keeping this research ongoing, and getting this national level funding programme in place has really helped us make the discoveries we are currently seeing. It hasn’t been the only input, though. There have been other funding bodies. The United Kingdom has provided good funding and has experienced phenomenal success in making discoveries. However, since the United States does tend to contribute disproportionately more towards basic and translational science, the USD three billion which was granted by the state of California to keep this research ongoing at a critical juncture will bear rich dividends. It has enabled the creation of a new generation of stem cell scientists.
I’m also proud of being part of the partnership ecosystem in this new wave of medicine, as well as the team we have been able to put together. Just as the underlying genetic technology has needed the support of multiple disciplines to arrive at the paradigm shift we see today. Professor Jennifer Doudna was able to put together such a large body of work and had a flashpoint which was built on the back of so much research done in the past. What we are doing to support these technologies is getting the best and the brightest across enterprise software, consumer software, deep personalised medicine, deep cell and gene therapy manufacturing, safety and compliance to develop solutions which match the progress made in molecular technology.
As for failure, the only proven clinical approach for combating fear is exposure therapy. As you keep repeating it, you face it better. I have had small failures many times in the past, and will fail at some point in the future also. What is important is learning from the mistakes of the past and avoiding them in the future. In fact, Emily Melton, a partner at DFJ Venture Capital (one of Vineti’s backers) doesn’t invest in companies led by people who haven’t failed before! It is important for her to see how someone has failed, what they have learnt from the experience and how they have bounced back. Everyone fails at some point.
What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science?
Unleashing the true power of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and deep data analytics would enable us to create far better, tailored solutions in healthcare and make new breakthroughs. These techniques have currently not been leveraged to their full potential. The tools to scrub and mix data are slowly getting automated. Even if we manage to find the right funnel for patients to get the right therapies, we can greatly reduce the trial-and-errors behind diagnosis and prevent negative effects. If we can take multiple genotypic, phenotypic, demographic and specific molecular data and combine it to give us a meaningful insight, we can do so much good by personalising medicine for people. We haven’t reached there yet, but we slowly will!
More information on Vineti, the team and their mission can be found here.