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Making the Impossible Possible: Professors’ Companies Fight Cancer, Tackle Big Data

Professors Vadim Backman and Larry Birnbaum speak about entrepreneurship at Farley Fellows Seminar

When you see your doctor for an annual physical, the routine is almost always the same: The doctor checks your blood pressure. Listens to your heart. Orders a few blood tests. 

But what if cancer screening became a part of that exam? And what if it were as simple as swiping the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab? 

A breakthrough technology developed by Vadim Backman, the Water Dill Scott Professor in Biomedical Engineering, may make this screening a reality as soon as 2016. On February 26, Backman talked about the technology to a packed room in the Ford Center as part of the Farley Fellow Seminar Series, a lecture series that features entrepreneurial-minded faculty who share lessons learned while bringing ideas to market.

Vadim BackmanNanocytology is “a combination of microscopy and spectroscopy, which is sensitive to cell morphology [at very low levels],” explained Backman, who co-founded Nanocytomics, the medical device company overseeing the nanocytology’s development and market launch. “It can see things that you otherwise couldn’t see under the microscope — things that are highly predictive of cancer.” Earlier cancer detection would mean earlier treatment — and, in the case of lung, colon or prostate cancer, could reduce mortality rates by approximately 50 percent. 

In the fight against cancer, Backman has made financial and personal sacrifices to get both of his biomedical device companies off the ground. (Along with Nanocytomics, he is co-founder of AmeriOptics, which develops fiber-optic technology to identify patients at high risk for colorectal cancer.) But that drive, he says, is one of the central reasons why his entrepreneurial ventures have been a success: “If you want to create a biotech business that tries to solve a cancer problem, the last thing you want to think about is money,” he said. “I would argue that it should be about passion. If you’re passionate about it, it’s all going to work out.” 

The event also featured remarks from Larry Birnbaum, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science who co-founded Narrative Science, a company that extracts insights from pools of data and turns them into stories. 

Larry BirnbaumMarrying the worlds of editorial and artificial intelligence, Narrative Science scans collections of data — everything from hockey game stats to a company’s revenue history — pulls out critical information and then presents it in a clear, easy-to-understand narrative. “Stories make data meaningful,” Birnbaum said.

While some of Narrative Science’s stories have been published in media outlets such as ProPublica, the company’s objective is not to serve as a source of journalism. Rather, it wants to help people make better use of big data. “In order for people to take action on the basis of data, they’re going to have to understand it,” he said. “We want to get insights into the hands of people who can take action on it.”

Birnbaum has a similar philosophy about the development of technology in general. Taking inspiration from Apple’s Siri and Google’s driverless car, the professor says he wants to get more technology out of the lab and into everyday life. 

So far, Narrative Science is on the right track: In 2011, the company wrote 370,000 stories; by 2012, that number skyrocketed to 2 million. 

“Most of those stories were read by one, five or 10 people,” Birnbaum said. “But that’s ok; this is about scale. We took what was impossible and made it possible.”