Stanford offers Ignite in locations considered “innovation hubs”: Bangalore, Beijing, Paris, and Santiago, Chile, as well as on its own campus, and now in New York. About 1,200 people have gone through the course. “We’ve created a community in these 1,200 people that’s extraordinarily talented and extremely high impact,” Coates says. “These are people that can change the world.”
That statement is no mere hyperbole. Electrical engineer Sam Mazin was doing postdoctoral work in the radiology department at Stanford when he attended a lecture, on radiation treatments for cancer, in which a Stanford oncology professor related the difficulties of being able to accurately direct radiation at tumors. Scanners using positron emission tomography (PET), which can identify tumor locations by pinpointing aggregation of radioactive tracing materials dispensed into the patient, take minutes to produce imagery. That delay makes it difficult to precisely target tumors in a breathing, moving body.
A medical imaging specialist, Mazin immediately began wondering if a new imaging technology could be combined with radiation therapy to ensure the radiation went to the exact right place: the tumor. “I became obsessed with the idea,” recalls Mazin, 36.
But the scientist and academic had “zero” business skills. Then he received an email announcing an Ignite course at Stanford in 2008, and he jumped at the opportunity to acquire knowledge that could help him bring his obsession to fruition. He was accepted to Ignite, as was his business idea for a machine that would combine real-time PET imaging simultaneously with radiation treatment.
“This was the first time I learned how to put together a business plan and how to put together a pitch,” Mazin says. Of particular value in Ignite was input from the venture capitalists and other investors Stanford brought in to guide and critique participants’ pitches, Mazin says. “That really taught me a lot about how an investor thinks, what they look for in a particular opportunity, what are the immediate risks or negatives that they perceive that might make it not work.”
‘WE SEE THAT PHOTON AND WE SHOOT BACK’
Now, having completed an $11 million funding round to develop a prototype, Mazin and his team at RefleXion Medical, backed by medical industry giant Pfizer and U.S. and French investor groups, are building the machine across the Bay from San Francisco in Hayward. Their technology bypasses time-consuming PET imaging in favor of a direct radiation-therapy response: aiming a focused beam of radiation at the source of radioactive photon emissions coming from the tracing material in the tumor. “We see that photon and we shoot back,” Mazin says. “We just repeat that many, many times.”
The treatment will need FDA approval. Mazin hopes to begin treating patients within five years. And while the machine is intended to provide more effective means of killing a tumor, and reduce radiation exposure to patients, it’s also intended to enable treatment of patients whose cancer has metastasized, or spread, to the point that radiation treatment isn’t an option and only less-effective drug therapies can be employed. “We think that approximately 10 to 15 per cent of metastatic cancer patients could become treatable with this device,” Mazin says.
Another Ignite participant who brought an idea to the program was Jenna Tregarthen. A PhD student in clinical psychology, Tregarthen had a best friend with bulimia, who was having trouble with her clinical treatment because it required a great deal of work in documenting nearly every aspect of her daily life. Without comprehensive documentation, eating disorder clinicians are “flying blind,” spending most of the treatment time struggling to get reliable information from the patient on her or his situation, and trying to get them to do their homework, Tregarthen says. What her friend and the millions of other people in the world with eating disorders needed was a way to make that important documentation process easier and more engaging, Tregarthen concluded.
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