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cancer scare led to health tech biotech investments

On one cross-country flight, Zachary ended up seated next to a seasoned biopharma venture capitalist, who was looking into a health-tech company that Zachary was also pursuing. (Zachary declined to name the investor to avoid jeopardizing their relationship.)

As they were talking, the investor asked, “What did you do your PhD in to think you can invest in this area?” Zachary recalled.

Zachary responded that he didn’t have a PhD. And neither, he added, did his friend Elon Musk, who’s now developing autonomous cars and supersonic rockets.

“I would say every minute I am learning about this space,” Zachary said. “It’s very different than investing in tech.”

His first deal was a start-up called Freenome. To make the case to his partners, Zachary wrote a 16-page memo. He spent six weeks doing his homework, which he said is more than the “sum amount of diligence” he did in the past 10 years of his venture career.

Freenome aims to use machine learning to detect early signs of cancer in the blood. To succeed, it will need to demonstrate the efficacy and accuracy of its test in a series of costly clinical trials, and then win over clinicians.

“He seemed really committed and read all the scientific papers that our technology was based on,” said Gabriel Otte, a co-founder of Freenome. “We were very selective of our tech investors and wanted to make sure they had either knowledge or experience in our space.”

Zachary isn’t interested in trivial advances. He wants to invest only in companies that are chasing “big enough breakthroughs” to save lives and prevent their families from experiencing unnecessary misery.

He remembers what it was like being in a hospital bed, surrounded by other patients.

“I saw people with cancer waiting to hopefully live to return to their families and $15-an-hour jobs,” said Zachary. “All I know is that I wanted to stay alive to take care of my wife and kids.”

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