We spoke to Nirmesh Patel, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of oncology startup Cambridge Cancer Genomics (subsequently acquired by Dante Labs) and an entrepreneur in residence with the Cancer Tech Accelerator.
CE: Tell us about your background and how you came to do a PhD in Oncology and Cancer Biology.
NP: My biggest fear is mediocrity and I wanted to work on something challenging with a positive and lasting impact. Add to that a strong dose of arrogance and naivety from a young me and you get all the ingredients.
As I was doing my undergrad in biomedical sciences, I finally got the confidence to say to myself that I’m one of the smartest people around and so I should go into a field that requires the smartest brains. During my final year, I really dove deep into studying cancer and was amazed by how incredibly complex and tangled it was. It was almost like the more we knew, the harder it was to piece the puzzle together.
For me, it was a no-brainer that this was the thing I was searching for, at the intersection of challenging and having a lasting impact. I went to do a master’s in translational cancer medicine and then continued my research into a PhD.
CE: How did you come to co-found Cambridge Cancer Genomics (acquired by Dante Labs in 2021)?
NP: My PhD was focused on searching for new drug targets in a type of breast cancer that only had chemotherapy as an option. That type of cancer also overwhelmingly affected younger women and women of African descent and was particularly aggressive.
My PhD, like any other, had so many highs and lows, and the lows were really low and sometimes lasted what felt like forever (fortunately, my PhD adviser was an amazing oncologist). When I hit those lows, I went down to the clinic to see some of the women with this particularly aggressive type of cancer. It was really motivating to see how well they were handling their situation but also pretty frustrating because these women deserved better and, just two floors up in the lab, we had access to the best resources which could have helped them.
I came to the realisation that as an industry, we’re pretty good at making new drugs but not very good at getting them into the right patients. Even when you did, they would inevitably gain resistance.
I came up with an idea of how to solve the problem and then met my co-founders at Cambridge who had come up with a similar idea but from a very different angle. After several pub visits, we had fleshed it out and that is where Cambridge Cancer Genomics was born.
CE: What was the experience like as a first-time founder?
NP: Incredibly difficult. You need to figure out so many things and they all need to be solved yesterday. It also didn’t help that as a young PhD student, people just don’t take you very seriously, especially here in the UK. We were fortunate to get into Y Combinator and experience the West Coast culture where anyone can make anything happen. You didn’t need to be a professor to have ideas and form companies. In fact, it was seen as a positive that you were younger and had more drive and hunger.
Thankfully, the culture in the UK has shifted in recent years and will continue to shift. That’s something I’m really focused on, empowering founders to take their incredible research and run with it.
CE: You’re an entrepreneur in residence with Capital Enterprise’s Cancer Tech Accelerator. What are the highlights of working with these companies?
NP: For me, it’s immensely satisfying to help these incredibly smart and driven founders go and start something and create a big disruptive change. I really enjoy the openness and transparency that we foster in our programs. I tried to set an example of talking about things that we needed help with or mistakes we had previously made. Not everyone can be crushing it all the time and having a safe forum to ask for help is critical to success. I’m glad that I’ve developed the relationships where I’m often the first phone call a lot of these founders make when something comes up.
CE: You’re also working with The Venture Collective, an early stage fund. What do you look for in a startup, and what are your top tips for companies pitching you?
NP: Founders usually make the mistake of spending too much time talking about how cool their technology is. Instead, they need to flip it all on its head and tell me how important their problem is and who cares enough to pay for it. Tell me what others are doing to solve that problem right now and why it’s not good enough.
Once I see the opportunity, then start telling me about your solution, being specific about how that solution is perfectly placed to solve every single one of the market needs that you’ve just told me exist.
CE: Final question, what’s the one piece of advice you would give your younger self if you could?
NP: Buy Bitcoin back when it was worth pennies.
Thanks to Nirmesh for taking time to speak with us and you can follow him on LinkedIn.