Pitch Teardown: The CancerVAX crowdfunding campaign on StartEngine

For this edition of Pitch Deck Teardown, I figured I’d try something new: We’re taking a close look at the CancerVAX campaign on the equity crowdfunding platform, StartEngine.

The team didn’t invite me to review the campaign or the pitch, I don’t know much about cancer treatment, and I don’t know and haven’t spoken to the team’s founders. Still, a universal treatment for all cancers? That’s got to be worth a second look. It’s also a great opportunity to walk you through the thought process of an investor.

Two green flags

First off, let’s take a look at what really works about the company’s pitch.

A complex topic made accessible

It’s clear the CancerVAX team has some serious storytelling chops. Here’s the main video pitch for this campaign in which the company’s CEO, Ryan Davies, explains what they’re working on:

A pitch for a cancer vaccine can very easily turn into a cavalcade of technical language and complex science. I commend the CancerVAX team for making a tremendously complex topic extremely accessible, even for people who don’t really know what cancer is or how it works.

It’s also worth noting that the company has an earlier version of this pitch on its YouTube channel. Suffice it to say, I’m happy CancerVAX hired someone with a decent camera because the video embedded above is significantly better.

Powerful, emotive storytelling

In the pitch video above, Davies plays one of the most powerful cards known to storytelling: Make a story hit close to home. It’s easier to encourage your audience to empathize with a single family who has lost their four-year-old son in a hail of bullets than it is to spur them to absorb the tragedy that 3,500 children have died in a conflict.

“I have six daughters, and two sons. Applying these same statistics to my family, one of my sons and two of my daughters will get some form of cancer in their lifetime. And another personal note, my father got cancer at the age of 47,” he says, drawing us into the narrative. “That was scary. My wife’s father got cancer in his early 70s. And my grandfather died from cancer. I’m guessing that you probably know someone that has cancer, too. This is a disease that truly affects all of us.”

I would argue that perhaps the company is laying it on a bit thick — there’s a thin line between rousing storytelling and emotional manipulation — but it’s refreshing to see someone who isn’t afraid to really go into the story. Very well done.

As a startup, you can use this lesson to think about how you can make your own story feel “real” and impactful.

Four red flags

CancerVAX has a lot of things going for it. From a journalist and investor perspective, though, the campaign raises some pretty serious questions. Specifically, there are three major issues that would dissuade me from investing in this campaign: the team, the technology, and the same red flag that the investment community saw with Theranos. . . .

Where are the life science investors?

Theranos raised a god-awful amount of money, but if you looked at its cap table, you’d see that one category of investors stayed far away from the company: health tech and life sciences investors. That should have been a pretty serious red flag for anyone else considering writing a check for the company: If the experts don’t see an investment opportunity, why would the generalist investors?

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that CancerVAX is in any way fraudulent or a scam. I am only pointing out that it’s really weird to see something as deep tech and specialized as a vaccine for cancer turn up on a crowdfunding site. The team doesn’t say why it chose to crowdfund the project, but from the venture capital perspective, choosing to raise money via crowdfunding is a pretty serious red flag: It’s generally the option you take when everything else has failed. It’s the route you go down when angels back away, the institutional investors won’t go near your company, and grant funding has failed to materialize.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many good crowdfunding campaigns out there, but most tend to be in fields that are more accessible to the general population. Cutting-edge cancer research isn’t that.

This red flag gets an additional shade of maroon when you look at Davies’ LinkedIn and his past companies in biotech and life sciences. He was the CEO of Curza for 7 years, and according to PitchBook, the company raised around $10 million, including investments and grants from the American Cancer Society, Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Carb-X, and Novo Holdings.

So, if Davies has raised from what appear to be the “right” sort of investors in the past, why didn’t any of these investors jump in this time around?

It’s all about the team

The StartEngine campaign states that Davies “co-founded several biotech companies/technologies, including a nitric oxide topical wound-care product, a medical device company (drug delivery system), and an antibiotic development company.” Curiously, two of these companies are not named, nor are they listed on his LinkedIn.

Since 1996, Davies doesn’t appear to have any gaps in his résumé when he might have started the wound-care company or the medical device company, which is a bit of a red flag all by itself. If I were doing due diligence for an investment in CancerVAX, I’d be curious what these companies were, when they were founded, who invested in them and what happened to them.

According to PitchBook, CancerVAX raised a $2 million round from undisclosed investors in March 2021. Curiously, the person at CancerVAX who was associated with the investment is Lindsay Mann. It turns out that Mann is the original founder of CancerVAX, but he officially resigned in early August 2021, according to SEC filings. Mann doesn’t list CancerVAX on his LinkedIn profile.

Of course, there could be many innocent reasons for why this is the case, but If I were doing due diligence on the investment, I’d have some questions about why someone founded a company and then left five months later.

I am an enthusiastic proponent of founders paying themselves if they’ve raised venture capital. Data from Kruze Consulting suggests that CEO wages in seed-stage biotech/pharma startups with $2 million in funding range from $110,000 to $197,000 a year, with the median salary being $153,000. If I were doing due diligence on an investment in CancerVAX, I’d be curious why it is paying its new CEO $277,000 per year — almost double the median salary at similar companies at this stage.

Why did nobody invest yet?

It’s not entirely clear when the StartEngine campaign was launched. The original pitch video was uploaded on YouTube on August 4, but it’s unlisted, so it’s possible that the campaign launched later.

Now, usually I’m not big on the whole “wisdom of the crowds” thing — I’m particularly irked by investors who otherwise lead rounds but say, “Come back when you have a lead investor.” Still, as I write this, CancerVAX has successfully raised just shy of $643,690 with a week left to go on the campaign. It appears to have raised an average of $1,324 from its 486 investors.

In other words, CancerVAX has only reached about 6% of its fundraising goal. Unless something dramatic happens over the next few days, that’s a huge risk to the company: If you need $10 million, half a million isn’t going to get you anywhere close to where you want to go.

Finally, let’s talk valuations. I don’t work with many biotech startups in my consulting practice, so I don’t have an intuitive sense of the valuations in biotech. But we do have PitchBook: I looked at investment data for biotech and pharma companies that raised between $8 million and $12 million in the past three years. For the 750 or so deals listed, the median valuation was $25 million.

I will leave it to you to figure out whether the $61 million valuation CancerVAX is using on its StartEngine campaign is reasonable.

What about the tech?

I’m not going to say a lot about the technology involved, because I’m utterly unqualified to. What I will say, however, is that throughout the campaign, the company says it is “partnering with experienced cancer research institutions, like UCLA,” but doesn’t name any of the researchers it is working with.

According to the SEC filing, the pre-clinical research for this project is “being done at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center through a sponsored research agreement,” and that CancerVAX is paying UCLA $575,000 to do the research. Fair enough, but it seems a little smoke and mirrors to me.

On the topic of technology, in the pitch video, Davies says, “We’ve now filed three patents. We’ll continue to file many more.” It turns out that those are provisional patents that haven’t been granted yet. The issue is that provisional patents aren’t public and it’s hard to ascertain how good or meaningful the patent portfolio is. Of course, provisional patents do have value, but I’m curious how many of StartEngine’s investors are fully aware of the difference between a provisional and a granted patent.

I do praise CancerVAX for its simplicity, but there is little specific information about the technology it is developing to figure out whether it’s viable at all.


It pains me to write this: The concept of a cancer “vaccine” (it isn’t a vaccine; it’s a treatment, not a preventative) is incredibly compelling. A number of people close to me are in cancer treatment. Some very close friends have succumbed to cancer. I want the disease to be wiped off the face of the earth and I so very desperately want to believe.


The red flags are waving brightly in the wind, and as an angel investor, I’d need to do some deep diligence to figure out whether there’s a good chance of success. The risks are stratospheric and many-layered: team, technology, business model, and market to begin with.

On the other hand, if the team pulls off the Holy Grail and somehow achieves what no one else has been able to do in the history of cancer research, CancerVAX will be an extraordinarily valuable company.

I’m all for diversity of research, and the company’s half-million-dollar research project with UCLA is undoubtedly interesting (even though Pfizer just dropped $43 billion on cancer research). From CancerVAX’s pitch, it’s hard to see what the company brings to the table that isn’t already being tried elsewhere.

The choice of crowdfunding over traditional life science investors, the vague details about the team’s past ventures, the departure of the original founder, and the CEO’s seemingly high salary are all concerning. What’s more, the company’s inability to reach even a tenth of its fundraising goal, compounded by the lack of clarity around its technology and partnerships, add to my reservations.

While the story is emotionally engaging and the pitch is well-presented, I’m confident these issues would raise too many questions for an investor to back this venture confidently.