“I never intended on even giving a crap about cancer. It just happened,” said John Butler. “This isn’t a matter of me wanting to build a business, it’s a matter of wanting to help my wife.”
John quit his job to pursue a better cancer outcome and become co-founder and CEO of Quantumcyte. Together with Quantumcyte’s co-founder and CTO, Dr. Bidhan Chaudhuri, the company aims to look a patient’s cancer at a cellular level in order to match them with the best drugs for their recovery. The two founders explained more:
What’s your company’s background, and what do you do at Quantumcyte?
JB: Bidhan and I are developing a platform technology for doing cancer research. What makes us different from the rest of the world is we are really able to understand an individual’s cancer in order to find them the best drugs to cure it. Our platform is really designed around enabling researchers to better understand a patient’s cancer on an individual level.
So your platform figures out which cancer drugs are best for the individual, since cancer varies so much from person to person. How does it work?
JB: Yes, that’s the goal. To go into scientific detail about what we do that nobody else does…is we take a tumor, and we slice it up and take a microtome section. We put that section onto a slide, and look at it with a microscope and say, “Ok, that’s a T cell, that’s a cancer cell, that’s a stromal cell.” Then we can build a 3-dimensional model of the cells, and also extract the genetic information, the RNA, out of those cells and sequence them. With the 3-dimensional model, we can understand what cells are where in the tumor, and what cells they’re next to. If you can do that, you can really understand what’s going on inside that tumor. If you understand that on a patient level, now you can start looking at the right drugs to shrink that tumor and get rid of it. The way I describe it to people is, we’re really looking at cancer on a personalized level, and we’re trying to find best drugs for the individual.
And will these drugs be developed by someone else?
JB: Yes. So you know the situation with my wife, she was diagnosed with cancer, but now she’s actually doing quite well. The idea we came up with is, we’re going to grab her cancer cells alive, and throw some existing drugs at them and see which ones will work. When you look at the body of literature about cancer, I think there are enough drugs out there that can potentially help any cancer. We could easily partner with other companies who are doing drug discovery, including companies at IndieBio.
Where did you two get together to start working on this?
JB: Prior to Quantumcyte, I worked at a company called Pacific Bioscience, and that’s where we met. I was hired as the manager of manufacturing, and Bidhan was the manager of engineering. We were responsible for taking products from research and moving them through development into manufacturing.
I’m not an oncologist, and Bidhan’s not an oncologist, but we work with them. When we started working on this we said, “We’re not going to learn cancer biology, we’re going to go find the best in the world and work with them.” And that’s what we’re doing.
Since you started at IndieBio, was it challenging transitioning from science to entrepreneurship?
JB: Yeah, just a little. I think Bidhan and I have always been very aggressive in pursuing our efforts. Really understanding how to focus and defocus constantly is something that is required as an entrepreneur. I think something that I’m getting better at understanding is what it means to be in the C-suite: How to be a CEO, how to communicate less like a scientist and more like a non-scientist.
What’s the most challenging thing about building a business?
BC: It’s building a business, that’s the most challenging thing! I come from a big technology background. I can build machines. John is pretty good at the biology side of things. We put it together and say, this is technologically cool. That’s why we started this, because we thought we could solve a problem. But actually going out there and figuring out if there’s a market for it, and figuring out how to translate our vision to other people—people who will be using our tool or even investors—that’s challenging.
We have to tell people about what we believe is happening. We’re at the leading edge of a cancer technology that’s only now starting to come alive, and John has had the difficult task of gathering opinions of key people about it. John has done a fantastic job, but we did spend most of the past couple of years trying to convince people that this is worth something. And that was hard. For us, once we built the technology, we thought, “We’re there.” But really, we had to learn to convince people to believe in our technology as well.
JB: I think the most important thing is establishing relationships. It’s all about relationships, including relationships with investors. Understanding that you need to do that is something that was difficult for us. It took us a while to realize it’s more about building relationships and establishing trust than building a business.
Prior to this, Bidhan comes from the semiconductor industry, and there was an 18-month lead time to build a chip to get into manufacturing. It was pretty straightforward. When you’re talking about what we’re trying to do, at first we didn’t even know we were on the bleeding edge. We just said logically this makes sense. Later on we found out we were one of the very few people in the world thinking about this problem in this way. We let it sit and incubate for a while, and next thing you know we’re having discussions with Ryan Bethencourt about how to sell something we don’t even have, and then actually selling it. The hardest part is realizing it’s about relationships, and it takes a long freaking time.
How do you think your success as a company would change the cancer industry?
BC: As a person who’s outside of the cancer research field, here’s the way I look at it: Cancer started out as a disease that required a person to have surgeries. From there the treatment included chemotherapy. Now cancer therapy has reached a point where people are beginning to understand cancer at a patient level, a cellular level, but still they do not have the tools at hand to do much good about it. What our technology does is it brings all that capability to be very accessible to researchers. And I think this will allow for progress beyond what’s currently achievable today, at a level where it needs to be, a patient level.
JB: One way to think about it is drugs for all cancer patients.
What are the milestones that you’re looking to hit in the near future?
JB: Scientifically, we need to demonstrate that we can use our tool for what it’s designed to do. We need to show that we can take patient cells and look at the cell type, the phenotype, extract the genetic information, and then correlate that genetic information to that phenotype. On the business side, the milestones are to engage with some more thought leaders in the space, and to fund our efforts so that we can really pursue what we want to do with the company. Once we demonstrate that our tool can do what it’s designed to do, everything will fall in line.