Rayos Contra Cancer | TFC Summer Fellow Reflection – Ben Li

Rayos: Contra Cancer: The Journey Started Here

Rayos Contra Cancer has been an amazing journey. Inspired after my experience with Project Pyramid in 2017 and learning how the principles of social entrepreneurship could be applied to help developing settings, I formed the idea of a global telehealth ecosystem. Actually, the starting idea was much simpler than it sounds: Can we start to share our network and expertise in the U.S. to help countries provide cancer care where demand exceeds capacity?

Since our beginning pitch at the inaugural 2017 RadX Innovation Challenge, our idea has grown, matured, and – with the help and input of numerous friends, mentors, and (new) colleagues –  gained fundamental traction. I am reminded of a lesson from my Intro to Ventures class: An idea, at most, is worth about $20. It’s the implementation, drive, and commitment behind it that really make it valuable. Those are hard to take from someone. People invent smart, creative ideas every day. I was fortunate to find an equally ambitious team that was willing to dive with me into this idea and see where it would take us.

There are three ways to be an entrepreneur:

  1. Bring a new invention
  2. Bring a new idea
  3. Bring passion

Often times, a blend of these are present, but even with one, it is sufficient to begin! At the start of the path towards innovation, It is hard to know if you are the first one to embark or if you are far behind groups of others – however you can’t let the fear of unknown hold you back from exploring. If you see a problem in the real world that hasn’t been addressed, then the right solution hasn’t been developed yet. With what you bring, you could be the one to introduce not just asolution, but the best solution. Surround yourselves with others who believe in you, and you in them. That’s what the Turner Family Center (TFC) for Social Ventures is all about.

Rayos and Project Pyramid 2018

When I thought, “Hey, maybe Rayos Contra Cancer could be a good project for students interested in building real-world experience with social ventures?” the TFC was supportive. Having participated in Project Pyramid, I knew what it was like from the students’ perspective, and with my background in both MD and MBA studies, I thought it could be a great opportunity to boost interprofessional learning – an experience I highly recommend for any student at Vandy. Although Radiation Oncology isn’t necessarily everyone’s conversation starter, I felt that a motivated team could learn the foundational principles in order to start exploring applications and impact arenas for growth.

Leading the team “from the outside” was an important challenge I wanted to succeed in, not just for our organization, but for the growth of all students involved. As director of a new organization, rather than member of a student consulting team, I identified diverse aspects of our project with Guatemala’s National Cancer Center, INCAN, and mapped them into a mental curriculum for the student team. I sought to expose how Operations, Marketing, Strategy, and Finance all played real-world roles in our social enterprise. Conversely, as I shared my goals and vision with the team, and they would draw upon class resources, discussions, and independent research to provide me with feedback and direction. Together, we also built upon connections with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Radiation Oncology department, positive organizations in our community like Radiation Business Solutions, and on-the-ground partners in Guatemala City.

As the Project Pyramid team planned for a spring break visit to Guatemala to perform clinical site analyses and gather market research (i.e. Getting to know “the customer” that your organization is trying to serve), I found myself immersed in enlightening classes about Entrepreneurship at Owen taught by Germain Boer (MGT-6556) and Michael Burcham (MGT-6559). In real time, I shared concepts learned in these classes with the Project Pyramid team, and I applied them in my own work…

TFC Fellowship: Planning for Success

As Project Pyramid was starting, I also had communicated with the TFC about the potential for Rayos Contra Cancer (now affectionately referred to as “Rayos” or “RCC”) to quickly spread multinational. In anticipation of the new horizons to explore by summer, I submitted a proposal for a TFC Fellow, be it me or someone else, to continue extending our momentum.

“While there certainly wasn’t guaranteed success with the venture, if you visualize success, then I believe you also should plan for it.” – Me

When I was ultimately chosen as a TFC Fellow, I was grateful for the opportunity and resolute to forge new directions forward for RCC. I saw a chance to make significant progress in my last semester at Owen.

In MGT-6556, an (unsuspecting) team was assigned to my “global radiation oncology remote treatment planning” project. Joining an obscure project with an estimated total available market of $4.9 billion and the promise to improve cancer treatment around the globe… takes stepping outside of one’s comfort zone for an MBA student, and I want to thank them for their enthusiastic support. Working together, we were able to establish connections with rare individuals (like Shaurya Bajpai, Owen MBA ’20) and many more clinics around the globe, including new connections in Bermuda, Ghana, India, and Colombia. From this, the opportunity to visit two clinics in Colombia surfaced, and I set my compass to Medellin and Barranquilla.

My voyage in Colombia as a TFC Fellow was one that I will never forget. Few times in my life have I felt such incredible, innate energy around a mission – where every minute awake is exciting, such that it wakes you early and keeps you as late as you can have it! The trip was filled with numerous rich, new connections that inspired me. They ranged from sharing each other’s ideas, perspectives, and cultural traditions (food, philosophy, and healthcare) to playing basketball, taking photos, and building friendships. Hearing about my journey, vision, and mission, I was welcomed to four clinics during a whirlwind stay in Medellin, then invited to a special meeting with the Executive Director of Colombia’s National Cancer Institute, INC, in Bogotá, before flying up to Barranquilla where I met my Colombian counter-part radiotherapy visionary, and now my close teammate for Rayos Contra Cancer. Half of these were not part of my original itinerary, but I had pre-scheduled “flexible time” to allow for unforetold opportunities that could spring from successful connections. It was just my job to make the connections successful.

While in Bogotá, I bumped into the Executive Director of PERU’s National Cancer Institute, INEN, purely by chance. A sign of when you have developed a good solutionis when you show it to someone and you no longer need to try to sell it. Instead, theyask you for it. This is exactly what happened. Peru was the country with the fastest growing oncology interest, but the greatest gaps in accessibility, capacity, and workforce training. It was clear there would be great opportunities for partnership. Within two weeks and a follow up call later, I had my flights booked for Peru after graduation, and just before my residency would start.

 

Graduation: Preparing for a New Beginning

After my trip, I matched for my out-of-state residency in Preliminary Medicine and in Radiation Oncology, and I knew two things: 1) Rayos Contra Cancer had a true shot at long-term success and 2) I needed to make Rayos much more than just me before I graduated for it to continue at Vanderbilt. Accordingly, I executed the final plans that would create our roadwork for the future.

#1 Project Manager

Keeping in theme about preparing for success, I had arranged interviews with 16 graduating Vanderbilt seniors in February. They were all interested in global health, applying to medical school, and searching for a gap-year opportunity. At the time, I didn’t know with certainty whether I would have a position to offer them at the end of spring. However, knowing it was the time of year when they were finalizing their gap-year opportunity search, I wanted to put it on their radar. I would let them know after the spring break Project Pyramid and TFC Fellowship trips whether or not there was a meaningful position in store. Yes, there was, and I invited them back to interview in April for the second round for an official Project Manager position. The selection process was another experience that not only motivated me, sharing discussions with such passionate individuals, but also accelerated my growth as a leader – having to choose the right fit for the foundations of a new organization. I included three others in the decision to choose our final candidate, Jackie Hao. And, the three that I worked with on this choice were leaders of our new RCC Medical Student Organization.

#2 Medical Student Organization

As an MD/MBA student, Vanderbilt Medical School had become like a second home for me. I saw what I had been able to accomplish as just one medical student. I truly believed in the special environment here and the potential of our medical students to achieve amazing things if they set their minds to it. And, holding immense respect for my peers, I imagined what a team of medical students dedicated to this mission could accomplish. Working with three Co-Director medical students, Alex Sherry, Josh Anderson, and Sam Trump, we introduced RCC to the medical school and founded the RCC Medical Student Organization with 20 new members involved in different positions. As RCC evolves, I believe these students will find themselves in increasing roles of impact and leadership. I know that the best is yet to come for this group.

#3 Raising Seed Money

A little money can go a long way, if you are disciplined, smart, and resourceful. I was able to maximize the worth of my dollar by traveling modestly and being intentional. People will recognize why you are there, and your desire to engage with them, not their luxurious attractions, will distinguish you. For most of my travels, I found myself taken in by the generous hospitality of new friends and supporters for our mission. There is no better way to truly understand the needs of a setting than by spending time with the people who you want to serve. When it came time to pitching Rayos Contra Cancer for our first seed money competitions, the insight we had captured about the problem on the ground helped us to design our product offering and be as successful as we were. Participating in the Sohr Grant Competition as a finalist was a special honor and highlight of my business school experience.

#4 Project ECHO License

Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) is a practice model that, through a hub-and-spoke model, enhances medical education and exponentially increases workforce capacity to provide best-practice specialty care and reduce health disparities. The model sounded ideal for the hub-and-spoke model of support we envisioned for RCC, and after attending a few virtual Project ECHO sessions for gynecologic cancer in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America run by the International Gynecologic Cancer Society and superhub institutions like MD Anderson, I requested if Rayos Contra Cancer could become licensed. The TFC supported my interest, and in the final weeks before graduation, I was in the grand halls of MD Anderson Cancer Center attending a multi-day orientation for Project ECHO. In the process, I connected with the U.S. National Cancer Institute and their Global Cancer Control team, along with equally passionate new friends and mentors for our mission.

 

Conclusion: Social Enterprise is Always a Work in Progress

As our team incorporated feedback, insights, and suggestions, we constantly modified, redesigned, and reframed our product offering. Starting with Guatemala (December 2017), I shared a prototype of our idea, and nervously hoped that they would be interested. I quickly got some feedback about the appropriate customers to target and cultural considerations that challenged our paradigm, but there was good interest in our overall vision. Next in Colombia (March 2018), I shared our second draft, now much improved. It was less of me trying to sell the idea and more of me trying to get input and feedback for how the idea could be made even better to help them more, and me learning the incentives of different stakeholders involved (patients, providers, payers, and researchers). Lastly in Peru (May 2018), I continued to learn and build ideas for our product, and I also felt a fundamental shift. Instead of me trying to scout interest in our offering, others were tracking me down to ask if they could participate in our program. The tables had turned. Mentally, my new responsibility became to share this message in the U.S. and redouble our team’s efforts to meet the compelling market demand.

Maybe one of the biggest lessons I learned was in my final days in Peru. I was sitting with Dr. Gustavo Sarria, Director at INEN, driving home after one of his 16 hour workdays. I asked how he did it, and he said for the same reason you are doing your work. You see it as a mission far greater than yourself. It is something for his country, and the commitment and people he meets in his work fuels him with daily energy. Below are some takeaways from the mentors I came across, the leaders I met, and my personal experiences.

 

  • You will earn the respect of experienced leaders if you recognize the importance of economics, different stakeholders, and have the knowledge to draw upon business frameworks to drive forward real-world, sustainable solutions.
  • It is good to share long-term goals to build traction. But remember to identify simple short-term goals and achieve them. Make that your #1 priority. Else, you won’t gain credibility, it will be hard to build support, and you’ll never get to your bigger goals
  • If you visualize success, then you should also plan for it. Keep in mind the next step, the next-next step, and even the next-next-next step. That is the difference between taking 1 year vs. 3 years to accomplish something
  • As an organization with many attractive avenues for growth, choose a focus, and then focus on it! Otherwise, if you try to do everything well all at the same time, you will be running from one project to another, trying to keep all the plates spinning, and essentially treading water without making significant forward progress. Eventually someone who does have focus will swim by you in the lane you had open the whole time but never took the opportunity to follow full-heartedly, and you will kick yourself for it. This advice comes from a new Angel Investor friend of mine in San Francisco.
  • NEVER say the “odds are stacked against you.” This was the message an Uber driver nearly screamed to me as I was going to an airport. You have to follow your passion, you have to expand the pros, you have to conquer criticism. Life is full of criticism, and it is up to you to defeat it.

You can follow Rayos Contra Cancer now on our website, www.rayoscontracancer.org.

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