October 25, 2019

Inside the Patient Entrepreneur’s Mind: Maria Zannes

Maria Zannes IPEM graphic

Managing a chronic illness is challenging, whether it is your own or a loved one’s. Starting and running a business also poses unique challenges. If you struggle with a chronic illness, have started a business, or want to start a business, this blog series can help guide you. “Inside the Patient Entrepreneur’s Mind” offers key insights into chronic disease and mission-driven entrepreneurship by some of the most innovative patient entrepreneurs in the world. 

Maria Zannes is the President and CEO of bioAffinity Technologies. She is also a finalist of the 2019 Lyfebulb-Helsinn Innovation Summit & Award in cancer.

As a patient entrepreneur, can you describe your personal connection to cancer and how this experience drove you to innovate the space?

When I gave my pitch at the Cancer Innovation Summit, I shared a very personal story about my father. He was a glider pilot in WWII during a time when everyone smoked, and lung cancer took his life in his 30s. Additionally, my mother suffered from breast cancer and my brother, Tom, had survived lymphoma but later succumbed to glioblastoma. Given my personal connection to cancer, when introduced to the tech that bioAffinity has now developed, I was particularly taken with the possibility and real breakthrough characteristics in finding cancer early. Because of my background as a businesswoman, we chose to look at lung cancer because it is the largest cancer killer and this technology will help combat the fact that it is mostly caught at a late stage. It also has a high false positive rate, thereby our test, which takes sputum, would be used in conjunction with screening to label the disease early.

What makes bioAffinity Technologies, Inc., namely your lung cancer early diagnostic, unique and how does it meet an unmet need of the cancer community?

We’re unique in the human sample that we use. We collect phlegm. Although sputum cytology (taking phlegm from the lung and looking at it under a microscope) has been collected for some time now, we take sputum and actually look at all 21 million cells in a sample as opposed to the 40-50 thousand that typically come on a slide. We’re unique in that we are using flow cytometry instead of blood in the diagnosis of lung cancer and sputum is 100s more times concentrated in cells than blood. We’re able to get an important profile of the lung with different cell types by taking this type of sample. We also have reimbursement codes and the cost of our test is less for the consumer/patient. Lastly, it is becoming a very highly accurate test that can be used at a very critical juncture in a patient’s path to determine if they have cancer or not. For context, it is recommended that heavy smokers participate in a screen using imaging that can find lung cancer early, but the screen has a high false positive to find a number of other conditions. Our test can be used to hone in on who actually has cancer warranting a biopsy. This helps to avoid putting patients through biopsy—saving unnecessary tests, surgeries, and the emotional effects on an already compromised population.

Are there any other unmet needs of the cancer community that you think take priority in working to address? How are patient entrepreneurs well-suited to meet these needs?

First, the test itself is applicable to, and we will be developing it for, other cancers using samples that can be collected noninvasively like colon and prostate. In lung cancer, we also see that this will become a form of screening because it is a simple test where people can collect their samples at home using a simple handheld device. I think innovation, creativity, applied experience, and collaboration equals innovation and breakthrough and that is what we are looking at within bioAffinity.

If you’re focused, innovative, experienced, and creative, I think any organization can achieve great things. Certainly, passion in any form can help when there is a need to push through obstacle. A personal passion does wonders—it can make quite a difference. The drawback is “founderitis”—you don’t want to have so much of a passion that it blinds you to problems or to difficulties. I think we do it well here.  If you’re pursuing science, then it should be at your core of what you do—that means there needs to be objectivity to all of your work by looking at results of an experiment or clinical trial. At the end, you need to recognize “this is going to be used by someone” so sometimes that means changing course or that what you hoped for doesn’t come about no matter how strong you feel. IF you have a personal connection, like I do going through cancer with many family members, the last thing you want to give is false hope. Avoiding false hope keeps us all very honest in my field. I think passion plays a big part, and whether it comes from a personal connection or your own world view of where you can do the most good, it is very, very important. You have to have some kind of a tug to get into this—cancer research is a very humbling profession because cancer is a very difficult and remarkable disease in how it changes you and your ability to survive.

Where do you draw your inspiration and motivation from to keep forging ahead as an entrepreneur in the healthcare industry?

Obviously, from the beginning, I have been inspired by my mother, my father and my brother and their experiences with cancer. However, my inspiration comes from how they lived—they were not defined by a cancer diagnosis in any shape or form. In addition, I am definitely motivated by the science and the people with whom I work. We have a very passionate, dedicated team, made up of remarkably intelligent and skilled individuals. Every day is a learning experience. You always have to keep in mind that every decision you make will ultimately affect the patients. More than providing inspiration, patients impact the decisions I make as to whether we should do that test one more time or wait for an answer to a question before moving to the next step.

Lastly, what do you do for fun to manage the stress of running a business as both a person with a personal connection to cancer and an entrepreneur? Do you have any similar advice on work-life-disease management balance to others out there thinking of starting a business to meet an unmet need of a chronic disease patient community?

Laugh a lot. Find reason to laugh. I have two sons who are absolute delights and they make me laugh all the time. It is also important to make those personal connections with people. There are so many different approaches to building a company, and many are personal. it isn’t so much about the number of hours you put in, but rather how you spend those hours. You need to figure out all that you need to know as well as what you don’t know. In the cancer/health-related field, you need to have a sense of humility and ask for help and collaboration. I’ve gained a sense of perspective in that I am working towards a goal of finding a truth as a result of my family’s experiences with cancer. That helps me manage the stress that comes with the job, because I am in the business of finding the truth instead of putting a round peg in a square hole.

Maria Laughing With Sons