The Astellas C3 Prize, launched last April at the World Medical Innovation Forum, culminated at Stanford Medicine X where finalists presented their cancer care innovations. OnComfort was announced as the Grand Prize winner, while Prostmate and Litebooknamed as First Prize winners. I recently sat down with one of the C3 Prize judges Robert Herjavec of Shark Tank and Dancing with the Stars fame to talk about why he got involved with the Astellas initiative, and why these technologies are so important to him personally.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
MedTech Boston: Hi, Robert. Good morning.
Robert Herjavec: Good morning, Rob. How are you?
MedTech Boston: It’s a pleasure and really an honor to talk with you. First my wife and mother-in-law wouldn’t leave me alone unless I congratulated you and your new wife. I think they really care more about Dancing with the Stars than Shark Tank.
RH: It’s funny because that is definitely the target audience. I did a speech last week and I said “does anyone here watch Dancing with the Stars?” in Erie, Pennsylvania and I think 90% of the room went crazy. It’s a great show.
MedTech Boston: You did a great job and, hey, it’s certainly healthy to dance as well. That’s a form of exercise.
RH: Exercise is the best way to stay fit mentally, physically, absolutely.
MedTech Boston: My readers aren’t only from Boston, but I write for several publications like MedTech Boston. Do you have any connections to Boston? What’s your history here?
RH: Well I’ve tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon way more time times than I want to admit. And I’ve actually qualified for the Boston Marathon as a 75 –year-old man. Unfortunately my age hasn’t caught up with my qualifying time. I love Boston, I have been there many times, and I’ve been in Provincetown a few times. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the state.
MedTech Boston: Certainly for healthcare and life sciences we are very aware of our leadership position, and that was part of my rationale for going out to the West Coast to Stanford Medicine X. One of the big stories that I saw there was actually the winner of the Astellas C3 Prize, OnComfort.
RH: One of the things you would know, with oncology and cancer care is that it disrupts your routine. It’s very difficult to be yourself when you can’t do the things that you’re normally used to doing. You know in the case of my mom, she was a really outgoing, bright, fun person and as the toll of chemo took its toll on her, she really became very sad, and one dimensional for her, and I think that’s really difficult. If you look at some of the other technologies that were at the Stanford MedX –there were different ways to take care of people for fatigue and for stress and a variety of different things.
MedTech Boston: I can relate. I recently lost my father-in-law to a brain tumor and so this is very personal for me. I think for folks like you there is this new concept of venture philanthropy where you have this tremendous domain experience, but then there is also a humanitarian cause because you want to see these technologies commercialized, you want to see them out there and actually help people.
RH: The key word of what you said is that you want to “help” people. I think that there are two phases for most people who are entrepreneurial or from a tech background. Your first urge is to try to fix everything and to apply technology to fix it. Your second urge, somewhere along the way, is when your hope and your focus turn to care and how you can use technology to make people’s lives better and easier.
MedTech Boston: It’s ironic because there are more caregivers than there are patients. After all, we are caregiver communities and as our society changes and we rely on digital tools, and as families become more distributed we don’t have that social system that used to exist to help ourselves.
RH: That’s a great point because we always assume if you get cancer, you have a support system around you and it’s no different than if you don’t have cancer. A lot of people are disenfranchised and on their own, and struggling with a lot of mental issues, and stress and fatigue.
MedTech Boston: Being in Boston, one of the things we do well is to understand the relationship between philanthropy and innovation. We’ve seen great strides in organizations like the CF Foundation partnering with Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and I think it’s great what Astellas is doing partnering with these early stage companies. I don’t think Astellas Oncology has a monopoly on cancer care innovation. What kind of advice would you give emerging entrepreneurs? How should they even approach individuals like you that could make a huge impact?
RH: The first thing you said is that it’s great that Astellas is involved. You can’t solve a problem unless you shine a light on it. There’s so many areas where you can get involved. It’s really commendable for Astellas to get involved with that. IT was an amazing program that really culminated with these presentations at Stanford. We had over 100 different companies submit their application.
We get invited to do many things, and Astellas reached out to me. We pick and choose things that are meaningful and have an impact. We really feel this really has an opportunity to create impact in the community. What’s great about it is, I would give the same advice as the companies on Shark Tank. It’s great to have an idea but you have to put the idea into execution. The thing that we really see is all of these finalists have a product that they have actually tested. And I don’t mean just from a theoretical perspective but Diane who won with her technology, her sister had cancer and is still going through that process, and she used this technology to alleviate some of her pain and her stress, and she has tested it with different doctors and has six doctors and institutions using this today, so it’s not a fluffy theory kind of thing. People still want results. Even though it is cancer care and it helps people, we all want results.
MedTech Boston: What I think is amazing about Diane is that she is a devotee of Jon Kabat-Zinn who is all about mindfulness, and she was able to successfully commercialize a technology that uses mindfulness.
RH: It’s really incredible because, you’re right, she’s using technology and a lot of theory that has been around for a very long time but applying it in the most cutting edge way you can possibly do so, with a VR headset. It’s really the marrying of old and accepted theories with the newest technologies.
MedTech Boston: As you pointed out the Litebook Company could potentially help us Bostonians to become nicer people if we get more sunlight. I think what you were trying to say…
RH: It’s like I always say to people because I live in LA half my time now, and people say why do you live in LA? And I’m like “really? There is a question for that?” It’s the sunshine. It’s so beautiful there. It’s hard not to feel great when you have a lot of sunshine.
MedTech Boston: Robert, I appreciate your time today. Do you have any last words you want to say on the future of cancer care technology?
RH: I appreciate you taking the time to write about this. I think it’s great that we are seeing technology catch up to the needs of cancer care, oncology, and making the lives of patients better.