She's been working as a doctor in theatre, is a former Investment Manager, and most recently pitched at Prince Andrew's Pitch@Palace event in London in her role as CEO and MD for OncoRes Medical. And won the prestigious award. We talked to the woman who showed the world that WA is a place where revolutionary med tech is born.
Diagnosing breast cancer early is progressing in Australia, with around 65 per cent of women only needing to have the lump removed as opposed to the whole breast due to the early detection. However, a significant problem in breast cancer treatment is the need for repeat surgeries due to the difficulty in identifying all cancerous tissues, resulting in some tumour being left behind. This currently happens in around one in four women undergoing breast conservation surgery (or lumpectomy).
We spoke to Dr Kath Giles, CEO and MD of OncoRes Medical, a Western Australia based company set out to address the issues of identifying all cancerous tissues.
Tell us about your technology
We have developed an imaging tool to improve the outcome of breast cancer surgery. It’s a hand-held imaging probe and console that provides real-time guidance to surgeons by identifying very small remnants of tumor that would have otherwise been missed. It effectively translates a surgeon’s sense of touch into a microscale image to assist the surgeon to identify cancerous tissue.
What inspired you to start this business?
The idea was brought to me as Investment Manager at Brandon Capital. The need for improved patient care is well recognized, with patients, surgeons and insurers all searching for a solution. Prof Christobel Saunders AO and Dr Brendan Kennedy from the University of Western Australia and the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research had been collaborating on this technology to solve this issue for over a decade. Together we established OncoRes Medical.
The technology resonated with me due to my experiences working as a doctor in theatre, as I’d seen doctors have to rely purely on their own judgement, including touch and feel, when removing tumours in theatre. As technologies continue to develop, there is a growing desire and expectation from surgeons to be able to access and operate imaging tools autonomously, without waiting on other specialists.
For patients, there is a lot of uncertainty after breast cancer treatment. We want to reduce anxiety regarding uncertainty of whether a tumour has been fully removed, as well as the emotional distress of additional surgeries. You can imagine the trauma of a woman being diagnosed, going through surgery and then being told their cancer hasn’t been fully removed. Aside from the cost on the healthcare system, the emotional trauma for the patients and their families is immense. If a patient requires additional surgery, this will delay their next treatment which has negative health implications, and the chances of needing the whole breast removed are higher at the second surgery.
You recently received an award from Prince Andrew at his London-held Pitch@Palace event– how was it pitching to the world?
It was beyond our wildest dreams to take a West Australian-developed technology and showcase it in a global setting at a leading start-up competition. The calibre of the competition was very high, so to be declared as joint-winner was recognition of the value our technology can bring to the world. The opportunities that have come from it and that will continue to arise are unparalleled.
As for the physical experience of pitching to a room full of strangers – that was a challenge! To communicate your technology to a diverse audience, without context, and impress them in two minutes, is easier said than done! It took a lot of perfecting the pitch and practice to establish a genuine link between the audience and our story.
Having worked as an investor over the last twelve years I have focussed primarily on the science and the clinical benefit that technologies will bring to patients. I had to turn everything on its head for this pitch as it was all about connecting with the audience. The pitch was very personal as breast cancer affects so many people. Almost everyone has someone in their life who has been affected, so it was about reminding them there is hope, and linking our tech and the hope that it can provide with their own experience.
Could you share a couple of highs and lows of your start-up journey?
This last six months have been a big high for OncoRes. The whole Pitch@Palace experience, and receiving a $3 million Cooperative Research Centres Projects Grant, has been huge in setting up 2019. Our first diagnostic study exceeded our expectations, with 95 per cent accuracy for our tool across 153 images. We have achieved the goals of our Series A investment round well under budget and ahead of time which has been a massive high for us and a win for all of our stakeholders.
As with many start ups, one of the key challenges for us has been the impact that an unclear longer-term financial picture can have on talent attraction and retention. We’ve been very lucky to have had such amazing members of our team make massive contributions to our success, however the inability to offer long-term job security obviously has its drawbacks. This is, however, part and parcel of the startup world unfortunately!
What is your view on future market opportunities for your company in Australia and internationally?
It's an exciting period for OncoRes, medical imaging is a hot space! Surgeons, insurers and patients all desire better health outcomes from cancer surgery, so being able to address that need is a massive opportunity for us. We’re hoping that our technology can be brought to market in the near future in order to provide benefit to individuals and healthcare systems across the world.
Two million women are diagnosed worldwide with breast cancer each year, so the international opportunities are huge. Presently around $2 billion is spent on additional breast cancer surgeries each year due to failure to fully remove the tumour during initial surgery. The numbers speak for themselves.
Fast forward five years in time: how would you describe OncoRes Medical?
Considering how much has happened in the last six months, five years seems like an age! In five years OncoRes would have a product on the market that’s actively improving health outcomes for women across the globe. Hopefully we will have also expanded the application of our technology into other areas outside of breast cancer where there’s also a significant need for high-quality micro-scale imaging such as in other cancers and keyhole and robotic surgery.