Our 'Foundry Snapshots' feature a selection of the students, ventures and founders from our diverse OXFO community.
Peter Jianrui Liu and Andreas Halner are the Co-founders of Oxford Cancer Analytics (OxCAN), one of the portfolio ventures on cohort 3 of the OXFO L.E.V8 accelerator at the Oxford Foundry. OxCAN offers personalised platforms to detect cancer early through a blood test to enable targeted curative treatments.
Peter (Jesus College) is a DPhil candidate in Clinical Medicine, and Andreas (St John's) is doing a DPhil in Clinical Medicine and Machine Learning. In 2019, the duo won the grand prize in the Oxford Foundry's All-Innovate student ideas competition, which returns this month.
Peter, what led you to the start-up life? Tell us a bit about your journey.
Peter: I still vividly remember walking by the Oxford Foundry when it first opened in my first year of DPhil, thinking what an impressive facility it looked, and what a pity it was that I wouldn't be able to benefit from its various workshops and opportunities because of the niche field I was in. Turns out I was wrong about that! Having started my medical training through the MD Program at the University of Toronto and continuing my research training through a DPhil in Clinical Medicine at Oxford, I have single-mindedly been pursuing training as a physician-scientist, to help bring cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs to patients who need them most. With a particular focus in oncology, my research and clinical trainings have made me recognize the urgent need of an affordable and non-invasive early detection test for the deadliest cancers such as lung cancer to enable curative treatments.
It was the 2019 All-Innovate Idea Competition that made me realize that entrepreneurship is a critical step to bring medical innovation to society. Entrepreneurship bridges the gap between laboratory research and society application to enable rapid innovation adoption. I was also lucky to have met a group of diversely talented colleagues with the same goal of bringing hope to patients and their families through our product DECancer, a machine learning platform for non-invasive early cancer detection.
Cancer diagnosis & prevention is an ever-evolving field – how will OxCAN make an impact?
Andreas: Current diagnostic methods rely on techniques which are costly, invasive and/or have side effects, which means these methods can't be used to regularly screen for people at a high risk of cancer. In many cases, we only have screening tests with suboptimal accuracy or no screening test at all. This means most cancers are only picked up once the patient has symptoms, at which point the cancer has often already spread across the body and is fatal. Yet, only 10% of patients with a late stage cancer diagnosis survive for at least 5 years compared to 90% if the diagnosis is at the earliest stage. Detecting cancer early could literally save millions of lives every year. That's what DECancer aims to do.
What has been the best part of the L.E.V8 accelerator programme for you so far?
Peter: I think a large part of what makes the Oxford Foundry an incubator for innovation is its people. Staff, colleagues, and peers in a supportive environment makes coming into the Oxford Foundry fun and exciting. The versatile and modern physical space further fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and learning. Entrepreneurship requires strong interdisciplinary skills and you can always find someone at or through the Foundry who can help you answer key questions to drive your idea forward and scale up your company, no matter what stage of development you are at.
Andreas: Definitely the exceptional quality of entrepreneurial support, and the real camaraderie. The Foundry team has such a wealth of experience, and they really want all of us in the L.E.V8 programme to succeed. What's more, the Foundry’s mission of creating positive social impact through entrepreneurship is all-pervasive in the programme. Being a co-founder entails being in a dynamic nexus of decisions which regularly need to be built upon, evaluated and re-evaluated; the Foundry team strikes the perfect balance between offering plenty of advice while also encouraging every startup co-founder to reflect for themselves on what is best. It has been a privilege to meet seasoned and enthusiastically supportive mentors on a weekly basis from a variety of sectors. Every aspect of the L.E.V8 programme has been a delight. I can hardly think of a better environment for a start-up to have office space than at the Oxford Foundry.
Are there any learnings from the programme that have already changed the way your venture operates?
Peter: Think Big! The possibility and potential of your idea should not be limited by how early your start-up is, but rather by the scope of its impact at the global level, and knowing the critical steps to get there. Meeting world class mentors and colleagues from around the world right at the heart of Oxford has been an incredibly humbling yet motivating experience. We have been inspired by new ideas and wisdoms from people on a daily basis since starting L.E.V8, and these encounters will form the foundation of Oxford Cancer Analytics as an Oxford-based company focusing on solving a global problem that is early cancer detection.
All-Innovate is Oxford’s first University-wide ideas competition open to ALL Oxford University students. The aim of the competition is to encourage all students to think creatively about new ideas that could somehow better society. Students do not need to have any entrepreneurial background to take part, they simply need an idea. Find out more, and enter here by 16 February 2020