- Bulletin Features
Dr. Will Polkinghorn '95 is empowering patients to gain access to the best treatments
Photography by Gary Fong/Genesis Photos
We use them to hail rides and order coffee on the go. They can route us around traffic jams. But what if there was an app that could truly save your life?
It's not hyperbole. The company's name is Driver.
Will Polkinghorn '95 is the cofounder and CEO of the San Francisco-based treatment access platform, which has the technology world buzzing. The Driver app enables cancer patients to securely upload their medical records and tissue sample information, and most importantly, gain access to the best treatments across a network of more than 30 cancer centers.
A consumer platform that connects cancer patients to the world's largest inventory of treatments was the vision of Polkinghorn and Petros Giannikopoulos, who met on their first day at Harvard Medical School.
"What if we built a consumer platform that enabled cancer patients to access treatments in the same way that Amazon transformed how we buy a book?" Polkinghorn says. "Give the patient access to everything. That was the idea—to empower the patient to be the driver." It almost didn't happen.
In 2014, Polkinghorn left his job as a radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to embark on the transcendent project.
Something dawned on the Rhodes Scholar during his tenure at MSKCC, where he spent four days a week in its research building and one day taking care of patients in the hospital across the street. There was a glaring disconnect.
"It was in crossing that street and entering the hospital where I felt as if I was going back in time," said Polkinghorn, who specialized in prostate cancer.
Peer-reviewed studies have shown that up to 80 percent of cancer patients want to participate in clinical trials. Yet only 3 percent of patients participate in clinical trials, and 60 percent of trials get shut down because there's a shortage of patients participating in them. Today, patients simply don't know what is available to them.
"The realization was, wow, the model of the existing retail space—the hospital—hasn't fundamentally changed in over 150 years," Polkinghorn says. "In order to access a treatment, a patient has to enter a physical space and interact with a human clerk, the doctor. And that one doctor processes your information, in a very short period of time, in order to show you the treatment options the individual doctor is aware of. In a world of Uber and Airbnb, cancer patients just don't have the access they deserve."
And so Driver was conceived. Now came the hard part—raising money.
The startup didn't want to be obligated to Big Pharma or the insurance industry to help it get off the ground. Driver's first investor was the well-known former Goldman Sachs executive, George Wellde Jr.
"We were literally done," Polkinghorn says. "I was in Hong Kong fundraising and when I came back to San Francisco, we were going to be out of dough."
Driver needed a breakthrough. And it would come from Li Ka-shing, one of China's most influential businessmen. While in Hong Kong, Polkinghorn emailed Solina Chau, Li's life partner, and after a short meeting, Chau decided to invest $10 million.
The infusion of cash enabled Polkinghorn and Giannikopoulos to begin building the world's first treatment access platform. Today, Driver employs over 100 software engineers, product managers, laboratory scientists, and other entrepreneurs. Among them is Toni Pryor Leavitt '07, an oncology nurse practitioner. Driver has offices in San Francisco, New York, and Shanghai and Shantou, China.
Polkinghorn now travels the globe to forge partnerships with the world's best cancer centers. But long before he was an internationally respected physician, he came to Taft as a postgraduate from a Jesuit high school in his native Los Angeles.
He credits Headmaster Willy MacMullen '78, his advisor, for helping mold him into a gifted student, as well as longtime chemistry teacher David Hostage and retired English teacher Bill Nicholson.
"Taft was the most important year of my life," Polkinghorn says. "If it were not for Taft, I would never have succeeded in college the way I did. I never would have won a Rhodes Scholarship. I never would have gone to Harvard Medical School. I certainly never would have started Driver."
Another major influence was Larry Stone, the legendary Taft baseball coach who passed away last year. Polkinghorn pitched and played first base on the varsity team for Stone.
"At Taft I learned discipline," Polkinghorn says. "I owe everything to Taft."
Polkinghorn and his colleagues have gone to painstaking lengths to validate its core treatment, matching technology with the National Cancer Institute, Driver's flagship partner.
Driver has also assembled a powerful board, including both Jennifer Doudna, the coinventor of the groundbreaking genomic editing technology known as CRISPR, and American fashion designer Tory Burch.
During the past 10 years, biology and medical science have undergone what Polkinghorn characterizes as an exponential explosion of knowledge and discoveries—passing a true tipping point that has been made possible by new technologies like genomics and gene editing.
"We are uncovering more and more information about what causes disease," he says. "It's exponential. It's literally exponential. But there is now a huge gap between the potential of this science and that which is reaching the patient.
When you look at the delta between what's happening in the laboratory and what's happening with the patient, it doesn't take a domain expert to realize these are two different movies.
"When you look at the delta between what's happening in the laboratory and what's happening with the patient, it doesn't take a domain expert to realize these are two different movies," Polkinghorn says. "And there I was, a physician scientist straddling these two universes—struggling to reconcile the two. The why of Driver is pretty simple."
Polkinghorn is a man in motion, bouncing back and forth from San Francisco and New York to Europe and China. Hopping into an Uber. Grabbing coffee with investors. Meeting researchers. Hiring a public relations firm to handle the growing number of media inquiries. His laptop is running out of juice as we speak. So is his cell phone. He hands them both to a restaurant waiter to charge.
"Our message is really driven not toward a hot shot Silicon Valley crowd but instead toward our customer, the cancer patient," Polkinghorn says. "And to serve this customer we are building the most powerful marketplace in the world."