My ambition is to usher in a paradigm shift in disease prevention and treatment. As we do today thinking of past generations being at the mercy of infectious diseases, I want future generations to wonder incredulously at how human beings used to succumb to cancer or Alzheimer’s and lose their strength and wrinkle up as they age. My unique set of experiences in life, business and technology put me in a privileged position to achieve this vision. Read below for more.
Paint me as I am, warts and all
Porto-Novo (Benin), beginnings
I was born in Benin, a country to the west of Nigeria. I spent about 10 years of my youth there, including pre- and early teenhood. Growing up there, I didn’t fully appreciate the positives of my situation. I dwelled more on the negatives, the family drama (my parents were bitterly divorced and my father had other wives) and the impossibility to escape the prominent family name. Beside what every teenage boy wants, the most salient things I wanted at that time were: total independence, adventure, achieving something great of my own, and living in a great place surrounded by enlightened people.
All of these I thought I could find in America. It was on the other side of the globe, very far from all I knew. Its language was unknown to me and one I always wanted to learn, long frustrated with having to wait for French translations of the books that I loved to read. And its well-heralded American Dream buoyed my wild hopes, which included not only my personal aspirations for achievement but also a naively idealistic conviction that I could fix all the problems in my native country by learning the secrets of what made America great and returning to apply it.
Upon earning my Baccalauréat, I spurned the scholarship I had won and begged my parents to cover my flight to America. I argued that it would be the last time they would have to support me financially.
Maryland, construction work, college
My time in the US began in Maryland. I was giddy when I arrived, but my excitement was soon tempered by the realization that I was in over my head and had started completely on the wrong foot. I had a B2 (visitor) visa but needed F1 (student) for school. To attend university, I had to pass certain tests (which were perfectly foreign to me along with the language), apply within a certain time window (which I had already missed), and pay a shocking sum of money (which I didn’t have). To make matters worse, the border agent at the airport had only given a month stay, which I realized by chance while leafing through an immigration book a few days before the deadline. Maybe I could’ve received better information from the family friend that hosted me, but the onus was really mine. I should’ve done my homework before traveling over. Not long after, there was a dispute over the direction that my life should take, with my insisting to find a way to still attend college in the US over going undocumented or going back to Benin.
I was truly on my own now with forty-five dollars in my pocket. I embarked on a journey that saw me walk, then bike the long empty roads of southern Maryland. There was teaching myself English, incessant haggling with USCIS (INS at the time) to maintain legal status, working all kinds of jobs before settling in construction, making do with at best four hours of sleep a night, struggling to reach far away agencies to obtain documents needed to function in the new society, and meeting and dealing with all types of people good and bad. There also was a vast loneliness, just you and your own thoughts. If something happened, sickness, injury or worse, the closest person who cared was 6,000 miles away.
It was a block of time that didn’t seem real. It was as if an alternate reality. All the rules I was accustomed to had utterly changed, like gravity itself had a different feel, pulled much more heavily. The rarity of formerly simple things—like a living space, privacy, time and means for leisure, a sense of belonging, trusted friends—highlighted how much I had taken for granted. I had gotten everything I thought I wanted and more. From popular to invisible, connected to lost, affluent to impoverished, standard to unusual, fun to overworked, disdain for my previous situation turned to appreciation, even remorse.
Some nights, especially that when I noticed my first strands of facial hair, I debated whether to not finally come to reason, promising myself that in the morning I would collect the little I had for a return ticket home. But in the morning, all doubts would vanish, and my resolve would redouble.
I eventually made it to college. The day I moved on to campus at St. Mary’s was the happiest day of my life. One of the things that struck me the most as I reconnected with people my own age and which I would’ve likely never considered without my new situation at the time, was how young people talked of the future with anticipation and verve. I felt amidst happiness, and I was so grateful for it. But I avoided sharing what I had been through or was going through, and I continued to work construction jobs off campus. Academically, I pursued mathematics, chemistry and biology along with a host of humanities classes in a gluttonous attempt to fully take advantage of the long-sought-after opportunity. Not unlike what someone long lost in the desert might do when at last encountering water.
New York, Columbia, PhD, McKinsey
I retired from construction when I moved to New York for graduate school at Columbia University. There, I pursued a PhD in both chemistry and bioengineering for two main reasons. One, I needed to achieve something of great and measurable significance that I could use to self-petition for a green card as I was still on a student visa. Two, I still held the notion that I would return to Benin to help solve its problems, and I had noticed that the top economies in the world also had the best chemical and biotechnology industries. I thought the best way to quickly help my native country would be by establishing such an industry there. Another discipline whose unavoidable importance I also realized was computational science. So I also self-taught code.
When I completed my doctorate, I went to work for McKinsey & Company in the New York office so I could acquire branded business experience to supplement the informal entrepreneurial pursuits I'd had. Some of the things I had accomplished by now included a scientific problem that some had deemed impossible. But I had also come to realize from countless experience that people were essentially the same everywhere, in mud-splattered shacks and storied marble halls alike. Inertia and self-interest were powerful forces that often make wrong unassailable by right. No place is altogether glorious. Enlightened people are few.
Any of my idealistic élan that hadn’t waned by now, I was actively tempering with my newfound cynicism. I was no longer interested in getting involved with anything that might require changing people. I just wanted to enjoy my own life at last. I had spent the decade since turning eighteen doing little else but working and watching out. I had some success now. Why mire myself in more thorny issues where the dominant social convention would likely win? I just wanted peace for me and those immediately close to me.
I was very happy with my life. I was making good money, living in a great apartment in a hip neighborhood, successfully self-petitioned for a green card, had a prestigious job, amazing girlfriend, and great friends. I had come from nothing (in the US at least) and could reasonably say that I pulled myself up by the proverbial bootstraps. I felt very fortunate and knew that it would only get better from where I was. Why wouldn't it? I had faced much tougher challenges alone in the past with tenuous immigration status. But now I had permanent residency, a PhD, a network, and prestigious work history. Life was good. I didn't need more than that.
Then the news came at 2 AM on a Monday in December 2015. My father’s voice on the phone. My sister had just passed away. It felt as if someone had turned off the light in the world. I sat up on the edge of the bed, my head between my hands, unbelieving of the news. Those words couldn’t possibly have been about my sister. I called my father back, to ensure I understood correctly. I called my mother. She was grief stricken, unable to talk.
Guilt. I hadn’t seen my sister in the 12 years since leaving Benin to pursue my dreams in America. Did I speak with her enough or did I selfishly spend my time preoccupied by my own pursuits and aspirations? I was aware that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but I didn’t realize how advanced it was. I should’ve known better. I should’ve been stricter in my opposition to the course of alternative treatment she had chosen, known earlier and been more involved. I had the scientific knowledge and failed to put it to her use. I did not even get to say goodbye, share what I’ve experienced, see the new her and for her to see the new me. I did not get to tell her how much she meant for me.
I was still on the bed’s edge when the alarm warned at 5:30 AM that it was time to head to the airport and fly to my consulting client. The flight, the cab rides, the interactions with the team and client, all occurred as if in a daze. I tried to hold it all together, but all I could think about was my sister. In the night, back at the hotel, I ran for what felt like hours on the treadmill to drown out my sorrow.
In a few more days, denial. Somewhere deep in my mind resided this senseless hope, belief that somehow, I would return home after 12 years and everything, everyone would be exactly as they were when I left, including my sister. I’d had vivid dreams before about home only to wake up to find that it was all a dream. Maybe this was an extended version of one of those dreams. Full acceptance only came when I flew back and saw the grave, with my sister’s name and picture on the headstone.
Seven months later, it happened again. A second sister, taken by the same scourge. This time was a little different as I had a chance to visit (and experience the severity of the disease that she too had also shrouded in secrecy), help (and feel so utterly powerless in the face of the disease’s sheer implacability) and say goodbye.
It’s hard to describe what effect these two events had on me. The excitement I had for my consulting work evaporated. I began to lose the sense of importance of any work that was not directly about solving disease and curing people. While I was gaining valuable management and financial insights even directly into the pharma space, I felt guilty keeping my technical and scientific creativity on ice. I tried to push for projects that could bring me closer to research, but being the advisor was a far cry from what I sought, especially when you want to go about it in an unconventional way. I could not quench what was burning inside of me—a feeling that I had to do something about the seemingly unavoidable reality that a loved one could be taken from you and there was nothing you could do. I wanted to change it.
There was a difference from all other times where I set myself onto achieving something. It was the same optimism, the same drive, the same indifference to being underestimated, but there was a far greater sense of urgency this time that there was little time to accomplish this goal. Whereas before I felt I had enough time, now I felt I was running out of it. I would have no other chance to do it or would lose more loved ones if I delayed any further.
Another point of difference was the sheer clarity. Before, I strived to achieve an ill-defined something great with idealistic notions about helping an ill-defined world. But now, I knew exactly what to achieve and was comfortable admitting to the fact that I would be doing it primarily for myself and those I care about. Of course, many others would benefit too and I looked forward to that, but I wouldn’t be doing it to save the (complicated and indifferent) world. Rather, I would be doing it first and foremost to ensure that I don’t ever feel that powerlessness, that utter despair knowing that there’s nothing in the world that can stop a disease from taking away someone I love as had been the case with my two sisters. I imagined that in centuries past, faced with tuberculosis, flu, or gangrene, people must have felt as we do today in the face of cancer or neurodegeneration. With the benefit of living in their future, we have remedies they did not have for their devastating diseases. Likewise, people of the future will have remedies for the devastating diseases of our current times. I burnt to make that future now.
Still, it was not an easy decision. For the first time, the gravity of my decision to pursue something would not affect just me but also my girlfriend as we were seriously considering starting a family. There was safety in staying with the sure job I had, great health insurance for a pregnant co-parent, kid. The long slog of a journey that followed my moving to the US, the many close calls, and the disillusions all stood as caution, but they also gave strength. There was little we could face now that would be as risky or difficult as the path I’d already traveled to that point, and the reward in the event of success would be outsized.
By the time my beautiful son came into the world, the most wondrous experience of my life, I was already executing on my plan to make disease a thing of the past.
Thus was born Genetic Intelligence. I knew that to really cure disease beyond treating symptoms, we must find the truly causal target at the basis of it. This is not how drug discovery is done today. Rather, drugs are discovered in a black box process where compound library screening and reliance on certain common targets remain the standard, and effectiveness is based on conservative expectations and statistical chance. There are a lot of issues with that approach, which the Genetic Intelligence approach was specifically designed to overcome by drawing from the bleeding edge of several different but relevant fields. I won’t repeat the technical underpinnings here as they are explained elsewhere. Instead, I will share a few aspects of our guiding philosophy:
We are not aiming for the predictable biotech play or to improve on a known treatment approach by 5%. We are after the great leap to actually cure complex disease (and, in time, double youth-span). We are fully after what many in this industry would prefer for things to be but think impossible for various reasons.
We accept that the journey will be hard. It is supposed to be hard. Greatness is hard. Doing something that hasn’t been done before is hard. We see difficulty as an opportunity and welcome it with open arms.
We like scrutiny. When faced with doubters, we truly consider the reasons behind their doubt and instead of letting it stop us, we use it (if legitimate) to further refine our approach to succeed where they thought otherwise.
We lead. We don’t work for the approval of the zeitgeist. We strive to make the correct strategic and technological decision to achieve our mission without regard to the hot topic of the moment or other short-term optimizations. We understand and accept that, sometimes, to do truly groundbreaking work, you have to go in a different direction to the crowd even if it means short term pain.
We prioritize values that allow our colleagues to contribute meaningfully to our mission, including honesty, innovation, flexibility, unselfishness, freedom, and responsibility.
I appreciate that our mission to truly cure complex disease might sound like science fiction to some, but I’d counter with two premises:
- Consider that just 200, even 100 years ago, people were powerless faced with simple microbes that caused infectious diseases and wiped out millions of people. They too would have considered it science fiction that these infectious diseases could be stopped, as we know today. Their doubt came from their thinking about the problem with their current understanding of what’s possible as well as their lack of understanding of the next premise.
- Everything in nature is a puzzle that can be put together based on simple rules. These basic rules add up to complex systems. The ability to break a problem down into these simple components, pulling from disparate disciplines if necessary, and adapting and forging ahead in the face of failure or difficulty is how to overcome what at first appears complex. The devastating diseases of our times are just a type of such complex systems.
They say the truth will set you free. This is my truth. I’m no longer so guarded about my past, imperfections or desires. I feel fortunate that the wild risk I took as a teen paid off, and I am where I am today. I still get an incomparable feeling coming back to New York, seeing the skyline grow bigger on the horizon, and knowing that I’m returning home. All that came before help ground me to get neither too low nor too high on the path to achieve the next thing. My ambition is to usher in a paradigm shift in disease prevention and treatment (and in time, youth-span). I want people a few decades from now to wonder incredulously at how people used to succumb to diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease as we currently do thinking of a world without planes, internet, or antibiotics. I want future generations to marvel at how human beings used to lose their strength and wrinkle up as they age. I want them to know that the ones who helped bring about their modern age were imperfect people who dared to think differently and never gave up in the face of adversity. Most of all, with all their newfound health and time, I want them to be inspired to go on and further advance the human race in their own way for a continued society that is free, vibrant, and fulfilled.