The Time Is Now To Go All In On ‘Moonshot’ Medicine

Editor’s note: Unity Stoakes is the co-founder and president of StartUp Health.

Precision medicine is becoming one of the hot-button health innovation topics of 2015. President Obama even introduced a new precision medicine initiative in his January State of the Union address, and scores of new startups are launching to help personalize every aspect of our health.

An editorial (depressingly titled “‘Moonshot’ Medicine Will Let Us Down”) ran in the NYT shortly after Obama’s announcement argued that precision medicine is unlikely to make most Americans healthy; therefore, money should be invested elsewhere.

As an entrepreneur and investor focused on digital health innovation, I was struck by the notion that if something is likely to fall short of expectations, it isn’t worth trying.

Precision medicine may still be early (think 1994 Internet), but we are no longer operating in a linear world. Conditions are different today instigating exponential innovation that wasn’t possible over the past 25 years, and a new ecosystem of entrepreneurs has emerged striving to more radically transform health and wellness.

Companies like Nanthealth are focusing on turning a cancer diagnosis from a death sentence into a life-with-chronic-disease diagnosis with the potential of saving and extending millions of lives.

With recent and rapid advancements in technology, genomics and biomedical informatics, cancer researchers are developing targeted therapies for individual patients. This more personalized approach to treating cancer or diabetes over “one-size-fits-all” methods is already showing promise. Precision medicine is about customizing and guiding treatment with genomic and other personalized data, and right now there are plenty of sick people who are benefiting from this. For that reason alone, it is worth the investment into this space.

With the help of Obama’s initiative, and an influx of new investment and support, imagine what can be accomplished in the next 10 years when an army of healthcare transformers is inspired to rethink what’s possible and set about building the world’s next generation of healthcare solutions. Most every other industry has been disrupted by technology and data over the past 25 years, and it’s happening now in healthcare.

A $215 million investment is a drop in the ocean if you conceptualize its impact. Or even consider it against the R&D spend of Roche, Novartis, J&J and Merck (all over $7.5 billion in 2013) or the broad government support of organizations like BIO. If anything, I say we should challenge the government to level up investment in this area and as quickly as possible. 

The White House’s interest and investment in the category will surely drive more interest in precision medicine, and as we’ve already seen from health reform and their open data initiatives, help to inspire a wave of innovation led by entrepreneurs rethinking what’s possible. If science has shown us anything, it’s that more energy, funding and support from the market often brings more energy, funding and support to the market, and ultimately results in discovery. We have certainly seen this over the last five years in digital health as this market has exploded with new solutions to the benefit of consumers and industry alike.

With that as the backdrop, I believe now is the time to go all in on moonshot medicine.

What if Thomas Edison had thought, after a few attempts at making the light bulb, that it just might not be possible? As legend has it, he failed 999 times before success.

Yes, it’s hard to develop a clear picture of who is really at risk for what, as Dr. Michael J. Joyner points out in his editorial. But has anything as entrenched as healthcare, or as complex as human biology, ever been easy to disrupt? Look at the struggles that the world’s biggest disruptors went through and you’ll know the answer.

We must look to newcomers and “exponential entrepreneurs” — as Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler term them in their new book Bold — who are not jaded by years of stagnation and are taking a fresh look to explore what’s possible. Entrepreneurs who think like this will lead in precision medicine.

The good news is that there are many advancements already happening in the field.

Take Tute Genomics, a platform that enables doctors and healthcare organizations to use human genome data for genetic diagnosis, personalized therapeutics and new discoveries. Tute is opening a new door for precision medicine by providing a scalable, clinical-grade solution based on a trusted heritage of discovery and an unprecedented database of genetic variant information making it easier for clinicians to practice precision medicine.

And Cue, a startup building a next-gen health tracker to go way beyond measuring weight and activity to understand your body at the molecular level and measure things like testosterone, fertility and inflammations to deliver personalized recommendations for your health.

So, let’s embrace moonshot thinking and triple-down on exponential thinking that may not work as planned. Now is the time to go all in and support the entrepreneurs and innovators reimagining every aspect of our health and wellness.