Blog: Priya Gogoi

It's a feel-good storyline: Start-up founders lacking moola to enter business plan competition volunteer instead, return next year to win Best New Business Idea award at the GLEQ contest. Priya Gogoi, co-founder of DeNovo Sciences, covers the partners' de novo strategies for business launching and development of a cancer cell detection tool.

Post 2: How cancer led to innovation

The word cancer never used to bother me, let alone scare me. It was a disease that affected others, never anyone who mattered to me. Or so I thought. Whenever I heard about a dying cancer patient and his or her last wish, I used to feel bad but it did not engage me at a personal level. Compared to cancer, I felt more emotionally connected to heart disease because my dad is a heart patient. Each day my father's happy voice on the phone from thousands of miles away is a great reassurance to a concerned daughter's ears.

During the conceptual phase of my start up, DeNovo Sciences, when the team was going through the idea screening process, cancer would always crop up as an area where the team had expertise, passion and the best market opportunity. But I had felt shallow. I was a little hesitant about the tall challenges of the field and was not as personally connected to it as my two other partners, both of whom have encountered cancer in close quarters. Little did I know, I was embodying the man who was blissfully oblivious of the fires in his neighborhood until his own house was on fire. However, everything changed on one New Year's Eve when I was eight months pregnant.

New Year's Eve is a happy occasion and it has a special meaning to me because it is also my husband's birthday. What other way to celebrate it than with your loved ones? So off we
went to Momi and Daboo's place in Chicago at a time when travel was not advised because of me being in my last trimester. The other reason for our visit was that we wanted to cheer them up as Daboo was not feeling well for a while. When we reached their house, there was tension in the air but we put it aside as just momentary travel weariness on our part. It was just the beginning of a very harrowing journey that will leave an indelible mark on each of us.

To keep things simple and give you all a sense of the overwhelming feeling of sadness that was all-pervasive around us, I will lay out the events as it happened over the course of five excruciatingly long days in the dead of December.

First day: It started out with Daboo complaining about his stomach problems and mentioning his dad in India, who was recently admitted to a hospital after experiencing similar symptoms. My response and feelings: Slight worry, but really it is just tummy trouble, right? I have been a lifelong sufferer of heartburn and indigestion, so I actually felt kinship.

Second day: Daboo's dad feeling a lot worse. Doctors found pancreatic cysts. I secretly called my sister, who is a doctor back in India, to ask about pancreatic cysts and was told that they shouldn't be too dangerous if benign. A little tiny tingling in my heart was saying, God please make it benign. There were three other people in the room with me and all of us were on the internet reading about pancreatic cysts.  

Third day: Daboo's dad went into surgery. Pancreatic cancer was confirmed, which had spread to multiple organs. Meanwhile, Daboo went in for a colonoscopy and the doctors found an obstruction in his gastro-intestinal tract. A CT scan was prescribed. Momi was inconsolable. The tiny two-bedroom apartment was becoming too confined for four scared adults and an unborn child. Each of us was trying to pretend that everything was going to be okay soon. We were in denial. None of us were hungry for dinner that night.

Fourth day: Daboo's dad being told there is no hope and given a few days to live. That's when it happened. I lied. For the first time in my life I lied to someone looking straight into their eyes. Momi was sitting in the bathroom crying in secret so as not to upset her guests. She asked me, "With all your knowledge of biology can you tell if there is hope?"  "Yes", said I, staring at her teary eyes. "There is always hope. Even in last stage metastatic cancer." I was talking about her father-in-law but worrying like crazy for Daboo because he had the same symptoms. If you think pancreatic cancer is unfair to a person who is 54 years old, then it is downright criminal at 29 years of age. My feelings at the end of the never-ending day? Blank.

Fifth day: We were helping our hosts pack their stuff for India. Doctors gave Daboo's dad only a few days to live. The atmosphere around us? Heavy and claustrophobic, like being inside a box with water slowly pouring in and no way of escape. It was also the 31st of December, New Year's Eve, and my husband's birthday. Nothing was happy about it though. The sinking feeling in my heart? God I know in my heart of hearts there is no hope for Daboo's dad, but please spare Daboo.

When we returned to Ann Arbor, I felt like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings; my husband and I had just gone through a life altering experience and no matter what we did or said, we could never turn back time to change the past. But we did decide something. We decided to become proactive. Proactive about hope. Not just with words alone but with positive action. And that's when DeNovo's direction was made certain. Cancer research it shall be. And so was born the core technology of DeNovo Sciences--a microfluidic device to detect and capture rare circulating tumor cells, the seeds that are responsible for the further spread of cancer.

Daboo's dad is no longer with us. But his suffering will not go in vain. Daboo's condition was never diagnosed. Pain and discomfort are his constant companions nowadays, but as long as it is not cancer, we can still breathe easy. One day if, God forbid, I have to face a loved one who looks up to me for hope, I will look straight into their eyes and say with conviction, "Yes, there is hope. Even for metastatic cancer. There is DeNovo."