How To Beat Cancer, with Feyi Ayodele

Feyi Ayodele is the CoFounder and CEO of CancerIQ, a startup that uses genetic information to predict, preempt and prevent cancer. Feyi started her career in finance but switched to healthcare to fulfill her desire to build a company that made a tangible difference in people’s lives. 

Here, Feyi talks about how to overcome barriers in starting a business, getting funded as a Black woman, how to access networks, and more.

[Edited for length and clarity]

Tell us a bit about CancerIQ and what the company does.

CancerIQ is a company whose mission is to end cancer as we know it, through early detection and prevention. We offer a platform that helps your provider stratify risk and identify patients who have a predisposition so that they can get ahead of cancer instead of having to respond to it.

Our secret sauce is using all available data possible, instead of just using age as something to understand people’s risk. We use genomic information, behavioral social information, and even adherence information to predict who might be at risk of getting a late-stage cancer.

You’re actually doing what every kid dreams of growing up. What gave you the idea for this business? 

The model we enable with CancerIQ has been tried and tested with thought leaders and academic centers. My mother is a wonderful medical oncologist, and geneticist, and she’s also a MacArthur Genius Award winner. And she’s been doing this for a very long time.

With CancerIQ, we want to democratize access to the kind of service she provides. Not all patients can be seen by my mom, not all patients can be seen in an academic center. We want to ensure that the everyday provider in front of you is as capable of offering precision prevention service as those in academia. So every provider has the clinical confidence and the workflow tools they need to make it easy,

You come from a heavy finance background. How did you make the switch to healthcare? 

I started my career off in investment banking, and then I moved on to private equity. When you’re trying to add value, when you’re actually investing in companies as a private equity investor, you realize that it helps to have industry expertise, or operating experience. So I transitioned from finance to management, consulting with McKinsey. And, lo and behold, at McKinsey, I found I still wasn’t getting that operating experience that I felt I needed.

I chose to take some time to explore different opportunities. I worked in healthcare with my mother at the University of Chicago. I felt more passionate about solving problems there than I felt about solving generic problems that are in the C suite of companies across the country.

You had an interest in healthcare, the expertise at your kitchen table, your experience at the U of C, and the idea. What happened next?

The advantage I had as a finance professional was understanding how investors think. As a founder of a company, you are its biggest investor. I took the same approach that an investor would in evaluating the opportunity.

There was a strong clinical need, and there was a potential solution. As a founder you need to figure out how you’ll make money doing what you’re doing.

Very early on, I figured out our business model, the return on investment that I was going to deliver to every customer that I tried to work with.

I knew that investors wanted to see this kind of commercial traction for them to make an investment decision. So I worked really hard on getting traction as early as possible.

In fact, too early.  My very first customers I had sold the software to, we got orders and signed contracts before we fully even built the software. It’s really on the back of those invoices and those contracts, that I could give investors confidence that we had a commercial opportunity. They gave me even more money because of those initial customers that paid early.

Did your finance background reduce the barrier that you had to overcome in establishing your credibility in the funding process? 

I had so many things against me when it came to credibility. I was first time in healthcare, I was really young, I was female, I was Black, there were just so many things that didn’t work out for me.

Because of that, I needed to make sure that the other areas that investors evaluate were really solid – product commercial strategy,  and showing product market fit through those early customer contracts was really important.

That’s how I overcame all the other reasons not to invest in me. I also tried to surround myself with people who were brilliant and had been around the block before. My mother’s a huge thought leader in the space. So there’s a lot of clinical credibility.

Early on, I also had people like Nancy Harvey, who was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Chicago. She’d been CEO of multiple technology and healthcare companies, and she was an advisor.

I had a technical adviser who was CTO of multiple healthcare technology companies, that I borrowed initially to build credibility. It’s really by being humble in the places where I wasn’t strong, and leaning on people who did have strengths in those areas, that I was able to be a more complete founder.

How did being part of the University of Chicago’s ecosystem help you gain credibility? How would someone who didn’t have that gain credibility, and get access to advisors?

I think it’s important to be part of some community, wherever that is, and there are multiple opportunities to become part of a community here in Chicago.

When I was starting my company, 1871 opened up, Matter opened up. I had an opportunity to be part of the Rock Health accelerator program. How things work in the early stage investing market is truly through those community connections.

So, if I were starting this company, again, I would, make sure that I was plugged into those ecosystems and communities.

Once you had your business model how did you bring your product to market? How did you get traction with customers? How did you evolve your business strategy?

Core to my commercial strategy was making sure I was delivering value to people and that I was quantifying that value.

Particularly in healthcare, the entire healthcare ecosystem is almost trained to read research papers that validate outcomes. I knew that for us to get the highest pricing and get people willing to pay for CancerIQ, I needed to deliver value.

I’m a financial analyst, I was really good at forecasting. Our strategy was about forecasting the value to my customers, and then hoping and praying that we deliver that value.

As we as evolved as a company, it’s not just a desktop exercise on what value we might be able to deliver to a health system. It’s about the real value that we’ve been able to track and quantify at a number of our early adopter health systems.

So our commercial strategy evolved from being an illustrative desktop exercise, to something that we’ve proven over and over and over again. We’re now at 170 different hospitals across the country.

So tracking expectations to reality with data is baked into the DNA of your business.

Our company is really driven by data. It’s in data we trust. I myself  come from financial services where data drives everything, like valuations of companies.

My cofounder was a professional data scientist, and his first job was at a quant hedge fund. Just in our culture, we believe in data, and I think those are smart decisions that we made from the start. We’re thinking ahead about what we want to measure, and as the data comes in we can share it with others.

Next to being entirely data-driven, what other guiding principles do you use when there’s a fork in the road?

Patients first.

We learned that what’s good for patients is good for everybody. It was really important that that be one of our core values.

In healthcare market in general, there are so many sexy things going on. Companies are using big data to treat late stage cancers, or help new and cutting edge therapies come to market. Those are great companies that need to exist.

But when I think about what’s actually best for patients, it’s not treating cancer when it’s late stage. It’s actually not treating cancer at all, in the first place.

While there’s probably more money flowing out there in the ecosystem trying to tackle the 1% of patients that fall into that unfortunate category where they need a life saving drug, I’ve always stuck to what is actually best for the patient. And prevention and early detection is really an area that is hot and sexy now, but it wasn’t when I initially started.

With the credibility your mother already brought, how did you go about acquiring customers? How did you approach them? What was that process like?

It was hard, it’s really hard.

In the beginning I had to focus on what the value was, and that was hard. We didn’t have any data to define that value.

Nor did I even have a product. I had wireframes and some articulation of value. And I said, if you pay me, I will build this thing that will do this for you.

In those early sales, you’ve got to be collaborative, and work with people who want to see that something exists. That goes even for investors –  the earliest angel investors are people that just want to see a problem being solved.

Those are the best kinds of early adopters to work with. Because they’ll be patient with you when you don’t deliver or when you’re iterating on your product, or you’re still trying to find your way.

They’re also the people that will be most likely to lead you to what the ultimate solution, because they urgently need the problems to be solved. So we learned in early commercialization stage that it was more about a partnership than a sale.

It was about finding people who are aligned and trying to solve the same problem as you and getting them to believe that you are smart enough and have the ability to solve that.

So your customers first funded your business? 

The amount my customers paid were not nearly as much as we invested in this. But it was it was really helpful in getting the investor fundraising traction that we needed.

So it’s more the evidence of market demand?

Yes, it’s to say they’re willing to write a check. And it was pretty big. It was five figures.

How did you think about pricing? 

There are multiple ways of pricing –  there’s cost-plus, alternative pricing, like what it would cost you if you didn’t have a solution. There’s ROI-based pricing.

A key thing I learned  at the University of Chicago, is that all the internal decisions made within health systems tend to be made at the financial level, thinking about the return on investment.

So our initial pricing was based on what I thought the return is. I chose a very high benchmark, like, a 10 times return on investment to set the price. Because that’s what I thought was fair. It’s what I thought would get approved through the health system channel that I was working with.

One of the key things I’m glad that I stuck to is, there’s a huge temptation in doing things for free in the beginning, offering stuff for free or saying it’s cheap, just for the experience. And just to get out there.

Pricing for me, was also a way to weed out the customers that didn’t value what we were doing. I wanted customers who were willing to pay because I knew they were going to try harder to work with me and solve the problem. It’s great for them. Sometimes people who get stuff for free don’t treat your solution or your service, as if it is of value.

That creates customer experiences that may not be as great. So my like cautionary tale to other vendors is never, never sell yourself short, don’t do stuff for free.

Don’t do stuff for free. You can do stuff, even the word “pilot” is a word too many founders get stuck in. I like to call it a phased implementation for the first phase where we’re still evaluating it. The second phase is where we’re looking at things at scale. Don’t do pilots; don’t do anything for free.

Did you ever feel qualms inside when you put a high price out there? Did you ever have to force yourself to get the number out? 

Have the conversation early. It became more more difficult because of the pandemic, because I used to see people in person, give them a number and be able to read their body language on how they felt about that number. If they nodded their head, you were okay. 

Then we’d tell them it’s a quarterly number. Or go the other way if not.

That’s how you do real price discovery. It’s better to put a number that’s too high and have someone laugh at you and tell you, because then you’re starting a conversation.

You can ask why. You can ask for feedback. You can ask, what would it take for us to be worth that amount, and they can give you the kind of product input that you need to make a scalable company

Did you think about customer acquisition cost? Or is that not relevant to what you’re doing?

Maybe in more of a consumer facing business. We’ve got long term enterprise agreements that are recurring. So yes, I do think that might have been a little bit of a factor.

We didn’t want something that was going to be $1,000, even though it takes 12 to 18 months to acquire a new customer that would cost us like $50,000 like that. Those economics didn’t work out. But I never got to a point where we were too close.

Switching gears slightly, as the CEO, and one with a finance background, how do you think about finances with our CEO hat? What are the things you look for and where do you focus?

I really needed to fire the finance side of my side of myself as fast as possible. Even though I can do it It’s not a good use of my time. 

I think CEOs need to understand that they’re the revenue generators responsible for that top line of the business. If you spend too much time managing finances or  accounting, even if you have those kinds of skills, you’re taking away time from that CEO role.

There are  people who can do all the finance stuff. I was an early adopter of a lot of SaaS technology companies like Zenefits for HR, and I outsourced all my accounting to another company very quickly. Even so, during my Series A round, I realized that I was still spending too much time on finance and operations. That was holding me back from the parts of the company that really needed me.

So, offload as soon as possible and pay whatever you would pay in salary.  I think about that all the time.  I could hire a finance person, or I could pay the service  X dollars a month to make this happen. 

The challenge some women founders face is a fear of dealing with finances. So if they do offload it, what do they need to keep an eye on?

I think it’s important. I know my numbers. As CEO, I need to know how much runway we have, how much revenue, and cash in the bank.

It’s not finance that I don’t want to be involved in, it’s the mechanics, like the location of the books or the creation of forecasts. There are two responsibilities as the CEO: Make sure you grow and don’t run out of money.

What holds many women entrepreneurs back is access to networks. As a woman entrepreneur, what has been your experience in getting access to networks? What has worked?

If you can’t do it as a woman, then find a man to do it for you. Period.

I find that sometimes you just go uphill for too much too long. If you’re not naturally someone who networks you naturally don’t have access to things. There’s a man that’s in your network that does. Use them and you get their network.

Here’s a prime example. I played golf but I played women’s golf.  I’m not out there with all the big wigs,  the male executives, but, I have investors who do that, and I ask them for help.

So, I feel like as a woman, if you don’t have access to a network, maybe you’re not trying hard enough to leverage the networks of other people in your life.  It could be someone you used to work with. People you meet in these communities. There are women and men in these communities. There’s always someone to get to.

Also, do you believe in what you’re doing? I’ll tell them, I genuinely believe that CancerIQ should be everywhere. And I genuinely believe that if it’s access, or if it’s me, trying to get to someone to tell them that is the only barrier, I’m willing to run through that barrier.

If you if you don’t believe in yourself as a woman, then nobody else will. So you have to have very strong conviction. And that confidence will come out. And people will latch on to that level of confidence.

Have there been moments where you’ve doubted yourself or your idea? What has helped you to overcome those?

When you’re starting a new company, and you’re innovating, sometimes nobody says no to what we’re trying to do. What they say is “Yes, but” and there’s always a “but” that you then have to overcome.

So I don’t think about the negative or the, you know, the downsides. They don’t really hold me back. It’s more about how do I overcome this, and really focus on that. 

From a strategy perspective, we’re a company that is constantly just overcoming the “buts”.

“Oh, that’s really great, but I don’t have enough time.”

Then we prove that this assessment can be done in less than five minutes in the waiting room where you won’t have to do anything

Then it’s “But you know, it’s not connected to our systems”.

So we get it into our  product strategy, to make sure it’s integrated into every system that exists.

So, take the challenge and objectify it outside of yourself for you to overcome? 

I think if you if you consider it a challenge or an objection you need to overcome, and you channel your time and trying to overcome that challenge. That’s what makes being an entrepreneur so exciting.

How has being a woman has shaped this journey for you?  The journey, the values, the strategy, any of it?

I think it’s made me work harder. It’s made me even more data driven.

It’s like you have a mark against you. But you know the scorecard that the VCs are going to use, and you have to try harder on every other part of the scorecard.

As a woman, I think I naturally attract a more diverse team of women that look up to me, and can see progress, their career progression, versus not being a female founder.

And I really do think were it not for my influence, and sometimes my intervention, I think our culture would be less diverse.

What advice would you give your younger self or other women who may want to follow in your footsteps? 

I think everyone needs sponsors and champions. You need one person to be a diehard fan of you and your company, really, really, really. A lot of it is happens in the beginning. It’s them saying, “I’m going to introduce one of the most fantastic, smartest, exceptional people that I’ve ever worked with” to an investor.

You really need that. And to do that, you need to get to know as many people as possible. That’s what I would tell people. You’ve got to get out. You’ve got to collect people. Like you would collect customers. Are there people around you, that you think the world of you?

You really need a reference, somebody who thinks you’re the greatest person ever. You just need one person to be willing to open their Rolodex and tell the whole world what a great person you are.

What’s your vision for CancerIQ? Specifically also, what do you aim for in regard to its acceptance outside the United States?

I want Cancer IQ to be everywhere. I want your everyday primary care physician to use it.

Internationally, there’s applicability, but there’s such a big problem here. We’ve got to address it here first. We’ve overcome infectious disease, a lot of chronic conditions, and eventually will overcome even heart disease if we start eating better.

That means as we start surviving those other diseases, it leaves one outstanding problem- cancer.

That’s where we are as a society in the United States. When the cancer becomes the biggest problem in other countries, hopefully they’ll look to what we’ve done in the United States as a model for them to adopt as well.

This was very helpful even for me, and I’m sure it will be for many more people. Thank you very much. 

Thank you. 

Feyi Ayodele is Cofounder and CEO of  CancerIQ.  CancerIQ’s “cancer risk clinic in a box” makes it faster and less expensive for physicians to identify high-risk patients and navigate them towards services that can pre-empt or prevent cancer. CancerIQ’s product suite contains predictive analytics and screening tools to identify at-risk patients; clinical guidance with proven outcomes; a digital genetic test ordering platform and patient management and education tools.