Anand Prakash is taking an unexpected path toward building GrailAI, a startup that he recently launched to fight cancer.
He’s setting up shop in Bellevue, Wash. instead of his hometown of Silicon Valley. He’s going to employ artificial intelligence (AI) to detect the disease using vast amounts of multi-sourced data — a strategy that deviates from the typical tools such as MRIs and CT scans. And rather than take outside funding and the time tables that come with it, Prakash is bootstrapping his venture.
“The amount of talent available in AI is comparable,” said Prakash, comparing Silicon Valley to the Seattle area.
“There is also a lot of pressure for immediate exit in Silicon Valley,” he said, “whereas I want to build GrailAI to solve a tough problem and am willing to commit 10-plus years to this company.”
Prakash wants to detect and prevent cancer by finding it as early as possible using a range of data sources. That includes information from wearable health tracking devices and other inputs that measure heart rate, weight, oxygen levels, sleep patterns and DNA sequencing. Prakash wants to tap health forums to find linkages with health parameters and cancer.
His hope is that harnessing AI will help detect cancer’s most subtle red flags.
“There is a limit to the number of factors that an average human can keep track of. There is also a big variability in the skills from one person to another, along with the training time and cost for training every new doctor,” Prakash said. “The big promise of AI is that given sufficient data, it can build models that have orders of magnitude more factors than humans can handle.”
GrailAI will first tackle visible cancers — skin and oral — then move to breast and prostate cancers and finally colon and lung.
Prakash has been part of large, successful ventures before, though none as bold as his vision for GrailAI. In the past, Prakash helped build the messaging system Gupshup and was a co-founder of Droptalk, a stealth startup that was acquired by Dropbox in 2014. He has held senior positions at LinkedIn and Verizon.
We caught up with Prakash for our Startup Spotlight feature. Here’s more from Prakash.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “GrailAI uses technology to compare patterns from people’s normal everyday habits, health metrics and DNA with symptoms that often lead to cancer to help diagnose it early and hopefully prevent it.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Cancer struck members of my family, including my uncle, who was diagnosed with the disease too late to stop it. I realized that finding cancer early is one of the most important ways to prevent it.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap. After selling Droptalk to Dropbox, I have put my own time and resources into funding this enterprise, and am dedicated to making a difference in the fight against cancer.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Technology and process that compares everyday health metrics, DNA sequencing and other data to symptoms that often lead to cancer to diagnose it early and prevent it whenever possible.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Not relying on lengthy and time-consuming partnerships. We found a way to execute on our product, without needing long business development and partnership cycles.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: None that I can think of.
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates. We are in this space because we want to make the world a better place. Monetary benefits are the least of our concern. Who better than Bill Gates, who is probably the greatest philanthropist ever.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “A desire to make the world a better place. I have been talking to quite a few people and we should have the core team within the first few months of next year.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Know your strengths and weaknesses. Figure out how they apply to your business. Ensure that you have a major advantage over your competition. Have a plan on how to overcome your disadvantages.”