(Bloomberg) -- Over the last five years Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and academic who’s well known in Silicon Valley, has been working on a longshot project to detect cancer in people using only their breath — similar to using a breathalyzer.
Wadhwa’s new company, which has not been previously reported, is called Vionix Biosciences Inc. Its goal of collecting health information in a less invasive way has long been a dream of technologists. See: Elizabeth Holmes’ failed blood-testing startup Theranos. But unlike Holmes, who overpromised in the company’s early days, Wadhwa is starting small. He’s brought on advisers from Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital to try to prove out the concept. So far, he’s spent about $500,000 of his own cash on the initiative and plans to spend $500,000 more, dipping into his retirement savings with the aim of having a working prototype later this year or in 2024.
If the device works, such a tool could substantially improve certain types of cancer screening and allow for earlier detection in underserved communities, though plenty of obstacles remain.
Wadhwa, 66, was born in India and immigrated to the US where he joined the technology industry. He founded two companies and wrote five books, along with a spate of prestigious teaching jobs including a stint as head of faculty at the now-embattled Singularity University, dedicated to solving the world’s problems through entrepreneurship.
Wadhwa’s career as a public commentator won both him fame and notoriety. In a series of opinion columns in the Washington Post in the 2010s he had a habit of taking positions that rankled the Silicon Valley establishment. Among them: drawing attention to the lack of meritocracy in tech, long before racial and gender disparities became accepted fact. He also launched efforts to promote women in the industry — though critics said his advocacy could be condescending, and he eventually said he’d let women lead the charge on the issue.
Wadhwa’s life as a Silicon Valley chronicler changed when his wife, Tavinder, started feeling unwell during a family holiday in Mexico in 2018, and was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She soon entered chemotherapy, underwent genomic sequencing and tried various drugs, both established and experimental.
After her diagnosis, Wadhwa started dedicating much of his time to learning about the disease. He called on friends and professional acquaintances, talking with Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, who educated him on the limits of genomic sequencing. He also had conversations with tech titans who have taken a personal interest in health. These people include Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder who’s now an active donor to cancer research with a particular focus on immunotherapy. Parker “spent many hours teaching me the basics,” he wrote in an email to friends in 2019.
Wadhwa’s eventual conclusion: Doctors need a tool that allows them to conduct on-site tests that provide a higher level of detail compared with current tests. He wanted a device that is portable, costs $5,000 or less, consumes no more than 100 watts and can produce results in under five minutes — all in a box that is roughly the size of a desktop printer.
There are reasons that vision will be difficult to realize. “Breath measurement is tricky,” said Alex Morgan, a venture capitalist at Khosla Ventures, who has not reviewed Wadhwa’s company. Morgan has invested in Invoy LLC, a startup that uses breath to measure ketones, chemicals emitted when the body is burning fat. Other companies working on breath diagnostics include the UK’s Owlstone Medical. And at the University of Colorado at Boulder, researchers recently published their results on a laser-based breathalyzer that detects Covid-19.
By this July, Wadhwa was ready to start a company dedicated to cancer detection, and incorporated Vionix. He initially thought he would start with blood tests, but he changed his mind after consulting with diagnostics specialists including Vionix’s chief scientific officer, genome scientist Binay Panda. He learned that breath may include compounds related to lung cancer, breast cancer and others. “I never thought that there was so much information in breath,” he wrote in an update to a handful of supporters in September.
Once Vionix can handle breath tests — itself a large and unproven undertaking — it plans to move on to blood tests, urine tests, and finally, saliva tests, all done on the same device and using a cold plasma-based process Wadhwa has licensed from a group in Chile. The process, which will use artificial intelligence to recognize key characteristics of disease, in theory will make it possible to detect more biomarkers than existing tools, more accurately.
Because the Vionix device would be portable, Wadhwa aims to operate both inside and outside of clinics. A portable tool would be particularly useful in poor or rural populations said Keith Flaherty, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of clinical research at Massachusetts General Hospital’s cancer center. Flaherty, a Vionix advisor, said that “this approach feels like stepping into a time machine,” but cautioned that “it’s way too soon to tell” if the technology will work as hoped.
Longtime Silicon Valley watchers will remember that Elizabeth Holmes made bold statements about her blood-testing company, Theranos, which ended with charges of fraud and the company’s collapse after investors had poured in $9 billion. Wadhwa says that in part because of Theranos’ legacy, his policy will be to get outside researchers to use Vionix and document their results, rather than validating the machine in-house. “No secrecy, no ethical lapses, no obsessions with making money,” he said. “Having said that, if I raise money, I am going to build a profitable company which could be worth billions.”
Toward the end of his wife’s illness, Wadhwa said she asked him to prevent other people from suffering the same way. Despite an aggressive course of treatment, she died the summer after her diagnosis. She was 57. Earlier detection could have led to a different outcome, Wadhwa says.
“Her words and thoughts gave me the motivation,” he said. “I will be hers forever.”
(Updates with additional context in the first paragraph. An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling in Siddhartha Mukherjee's name.)
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