Rick Pierce: Changing the Course of Colon Disease
Ladderworks is a publishing startup of diverse picture books with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews, by a character named Spiffy, with founders working on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our focus for April is on SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being. There is so much at stake, so let’s see what’s being done!
Hello! I’m Spiffy, you’re favorite Interplanetary Journalist. I’ve been speaking with innovators from around the world who are working to improve health and healthcare. One of those people is Rick Pierce, a co-founder and the CEO of SanaRx Biotherapeutics, Inc. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Rick. Can you explain to me what challenges you’re addressing through SanaRx?
Rick: It’s great to be here, Spiffy. SanaRx is genetically engineering probiotic gut bacteria to radically expand access to colorectal cancer screening. This helps to improve the diagnosis and staging of two rare diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and its imaging when a colonoscopy needs to be performed. Our technology is less expensive and less invasive. One of the rare diseases we are attacking with our technology affects children and young adults. This disease ultimately results in colectomy, which is devastating to young adults. We aim to change the course of this cancer-causing disease.
Spiffy: That would be amazing, Rick! What motivated you all to address these issues and seek solutions?
Rick: Our founders are veteran biotech executives, and cancer researchers from Harvard Medical School, MIT, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The idea for the company came out of an overlooked business plan from the Harvard Biotech Club. Our founders saw the potential for a nascent technology that was discarded and repurposed the technology for an entirely different patient population. Then they set out to build a team to raise the funding and invent the genetically engineered probiotic bacteria required to solve the problems. This was done with the early support of Harvard Business School's Pagliuca Life Lab, and later MIT's Koch Institute of Integrated Cancer Research. Potential applications of the technology continue to expand today.
Spiffy: How would you say that SanaRx is helping to create a more equitable world?
Rick: SanaRx's founders decided to provide all co-founders equal shares of the business so that each individual is equally accountable and recognized for their diverse skills. This is an unusual business model and diverges from the typical venture-backed companies where founders end up with less than 10% of a company's equity (including the option pool), and venture backers and investors have the lion’s share of ownership. We felt that if our mission was to democratize healthcare then we should incorporate that philosophy into our corporate and financial DNA. Our platform technology has the potential to radically change and expand access to non-invasive colorectal cancer screening and treatment.
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a recent milestone that you’ve achieved? What kind of impact do you think it will have?
Rick: SanaRx's scientists have made significant progress investing in genetically modified bacteria and turning them into living machines. By simply taking a pill, these living machines can deliver payloads of DNA, mRNA, and proteins to diseased or cancerous tissue. They have tested these living machines in animal models and have begun to demonstrate achievement of a variety of exciting functions from less invasively diagnosing cancer, improving cancer imaging and drug delivery. The result is an improvement in the quality of care and outcomes for patients with diseases of the GI tract, and reduced costs.
Spiffy: That’s great news, Rick! Can you tell me about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up? What did you learn from failure?
Rick: Well, Spiffy, when I was in high school, I was injured during a wrestling match and dislocated my shoulder. My coach and the referee told me it was ok to forfeit the match. I sat on the sidelines being treated and thought to myself, “You'll still have the same pain tomorrow if you quit now.” So, with mental toughness and grit, I went back onto the mat and won the match. I learned that success is often decided by determination, mental toughness, and giving up. If you do just 5%-10% more than your opponents, the result is more often successful. The scientist Louis Pasteur said, "Greater luck accrues to the prepared mind". I think all entrepreneurs need to be tough and prepared to face failure when it occurs, and learn how to quickly turn failure into a learning event.
Spiffy: What is something you've learned from someone recently?
Rick: I believe we can learn from everyone we meet, not just the people with fancy letters after their names—like Dr. or Ph.D. I've been forever changed witnessing the sacrifice of essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic—especially those who sacrificed their lives so that our lives were better for their efforts. We need to recognize people at all levels of society for their goodness and selflessness. We all need to do our part to make the world a better place.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Rick: I think it’s really important that people pursue occupations and careers they love—over the potential for material gain. If you follow what you love, you will be the best you can be. This is followed by deeper respect for yourself and greater potential for happiness and fulfillment in life. I think it’s the authentic entrepreneurs who achieve the greatest success. It’s a lot easier to get through a tough patch when you are doing something you are passionate about.
Spiffy: I agree with you 100%! Thanks for inspiring us to do just that! All the best in your work, it’s been an honor.
Rick Pierce Rick is a serial biotech entrepreneur who is passionate about helping create ethical drugs that can improve society. He is co-founder and CEO of SanaRx Biotherapeutics, Inc., a company that is using engineered probiotic bacteria to democratize access to colorectal screening, cancer diagnostics, and improved imaging of colon lesions and tumors in adults and children with Lynch Syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusettes with his wife, and their dog Pippa, and has two children. When he isn’t working on helping build new companies, Rick pursues his passions for sailing, skiing, tennis, and preparing great food for family and friends. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.