NewCo Shift Forum
Jeff Huber’s Personal Journey to Finding A Cure
One of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever read came from Jeff Huber, CEO of Grail Bio (you can read it here). In it he talks about the loss of his wife to cancer, and his frantic search for a cure while she was still alive. Her legacy lives on through Huber’s work at Grail, where he and his team are working to scale a personalized approach to the diagnosis phase of cancer treatment. He returns to that story, and explains Grail’s approach, in this short video from the NewCo Shift Forum. Watch below, or read the text, edited for clarity.
Jeff Huber: Hi. I am Jeff Huber. I’m the founding CEO of Grail. Grail’s mission is to detect cancer early when it can be cured. We’ll talk a little bit more maybe of the background or the arc of how Grail got to today, and then where we’re going from here. My background is at Google, and that’s material to Grail’s mission.
I spent the last 12 years before Grail at Google where I built Google Ads, which is the economic engine behind Google, Google Apps — the communications collaboration products like Gmail, Calendar, Docs, etc. Then I was involved in the early days of Google Maps, and then I ran Google Maps for a couple of years.
Collectively, those applications were each used by a billion people, and were each multi-billion dollar businesses for Google. About three years ago, I moved into Google X to focus on new things.
As I was doing that transition, it was an opportunity to step back a little bit and think about what were the major trends that were occurring in the world, and what were the areas and opportunities for impact.
I’ve always believed that innovation happens at intersections. I was coming from a background in computer science, but as I looked at life sciences, it felt like there was an inflection opportunity there, with new technologies like genome sequencing, coming along. Remember the curve that has been shown a couple of times already.
There was a potential for just a tidal wave of data. At that intersection, and that data is effectively digitizing biology. It felt like if we could bring those two things together, computer science and life science, that we could lead to a new curve of insights around the underlying science and biology.
I started heading in that direction, joined Google X and helped ramp up Google Life Sciences, which has now ultimately become Verily, to explore that intersection. Apparently, great minds think alike. Serendipity happened just shortly after I made that directional decision.
I was approached by Illumina, who’s the leader in genome sequencing, who’s the company that’s really driving the performance of that curve. They were looking at this tidal wave of data that was coming.
They knew that there was much more information and insight that was possible, both for them, and they saw it as a limiting factor for their customers, so they wanted a big data guy.
I was the designated big data person that joined Illumina to help their board to help think through those issues. When I got to Illumina, one of the really exciting projects that I discovered was the technology and team that ultimately was spun out of Illumina to become Grail.
The background or genesis of it was that they had acquired a company called Verinata that was working on non-invasive prenatal testing, which was a blood test that took a blood draw from a pregnant mother and was able to detect fragmentary DNA in the mother’s blood that was a signal of fetal abnormalities, things like Down’s Syndrome.
After they had done a hundred thousand of those tests, they had about 20 tests that were anomalous, where they couldn’t explain the result. What they found from that when they dug in was that those were cases of actually very late stage cancer that hadn’t yet been diagnosed.
That little light bulb at Illumina that said, “OK, with this test that was developed for a completely different purpose, clearly there is signal there.”
We were able to detect it at, if you imagine, cancer kind of by stage increasing in complexity and in concentration in the blood of the fragmentary DNA and RNA that is there. They were able to detect it at very late stage and in high concentration. What would it take to slide down that curve to the very earliest stages?
That led to an A-plus team being formed within Illumina that got all of the resources they need and it led to a great collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering, which is probably one of the leading cancer hospitals in the country and research institutions in the country around this topic. That began what was Grail.
The discussions, as that was coming along, that we had at the board, were, “This is beyond a business opportunity. Yes, it can and should be a good business, but it’s really a whole another level of, this is a moral and ethical imperative, given the potential for impact.”
That was on the order of two and a half years ago. I was on the board of Illumina. I’m at Google X doing my night and weekend PhD in Biology, learning as fast as I can at the intersection of computer science and life science, when things took a more personal turn.
Specifically, my wife, Laura, who was 46 years old, healthy, fit, no family history of cancer whatsoever, started having some symptoms, and that led to a two month diagnostic quest that ultimately resulted in a diagnosis of late stage cancer, colon cancer specifically, stage four colon cancer.
That obviously was a shock for her, for me, with no symptoms, to then be diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread extensively to her liver through her lymph system. That began 18 months of treatment. I’m confident that she got the best treatment in the world, but while it was a noble battle, it was ultimately a losing fight because of where it started. Laura passed away in November of 2015.
I was approached by the Illumina board, knowing my passion for this area, the next month, in December, about becoming the founding CEO of Grail. Grail was announced in January of last year, January of 2016. My role was announced in February. We set up payroll and had our first employees, who were the handpicked team from Illumina R&D that were spun out.
We started on day one in March with 40 people, and it’s been a rocket ship ride ever since. Since then, we’ve grown from 40 people in March to almost 150 today.
That takes us back to Grail’s mission. Grail’s mission is to detect cancer early when it can be cured. The underlying premise of that is very simple. Cancer that’s discovered at an early stage, stage one or stage two, it depends a little bit on cancer type, but the outcomes are overwhelmingly positive — 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent rates of cure.
The cure today is simple. You cut it out before it spreads and becomes more complex. Cancer that’s discovered at late stage, in contrast, stage three, stage four, is roughly the inverse — 80 to 90 percent negative where people die.
At simplest, we’re trying to make that shift, instead of detecting it late stage where the odds are stacked against you, we want to shift it to early stage where the odds are with you.
The underlying technology behind that is what we call ultra-intense genome sequencing, where we’re sequencing, in order magnitude broader, two or three orders of magnitude deeper than anyone else is, generating on the order of a terabyte of data for every test that we do.
That data is then fed into leading technology, machine learning, deep learning systems that can ultimately make that diagnosis at its earlier stages.
Grail is a very mission-driven place. It’s obviously a deep and personal mission for me. The company and team is driven by the mission. I hope you’ll join us in that quest. Thank you.