Fay Arjomandi: Consumerization of Healthcare

Credit: Alamy

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the West Asia Council has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Fay Arjomandi.

Fay Arjomandi joined NantWorks in August 2014. She is an entrepreneur and currently serves as the CEO of NantMobile, a leader at the intersection of mobile technology and digital health. She creates platforms and solutions to empower patients and their families to adopt more active lifestyles and become more knowledgeable about and involved in day-to-day disease management.

Prior to joining NantWorks, Fay was the CEO of Vodafone xone where she brought an extensive wealth of expertise as an entrepreneur to Vodafone's quest for innovation. Fay successfully launched Vodafone xone in Silicon Valley in September 2011 and established a global incubation center for Vodafone Group and the beta brand for Vodafone consumer in the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and Egypt. Prior to Vodafone, Fay was the co-founder and CEO of three start-up companies: L3 Technology, Mobidia, and Disternet (now mimik).

In 2006, she received the distinguished Business in Vancouver's "Top 40 under 40" award presented to outstanding leaders in their chosen fields. In 2007 she was the Canadian technology and innovation representative to the White House. In 2013, she was named as one of the most influential women business leaders in Silicon Valley by San Francisco Business Week. For more details, please click (here).

Where were you born and raised? Can you walk us through your background?

I was born in Shiraz and graduated from Reza Shah High School. I was in grade six when the revolution happened, grade seven when the war between Iran and Iraq broke out, and left the country when I was 17, right after high school. I lived in a few countries before finally migrating to Canada where I enrolled in Concordia University in Montreal and completed my electrical engineering degree. I moved to Vancouver and worked for a company called MDSI and, after a year, started my first company called L3 Technology in 1998. I then founded Mobidia, which was recently acquired by Appannie and, finally, created Disternet, which is now rebranded as mimik. I joined Vodafone in 2011 and l'm currently the CEO of NantMobile.

Has there been a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

I'm a child of revolution, war, and migration. I guess you can say that the Iranian Revolution impacted me, and others in my generation, more than anything. It is difficult to point to one specific person or place as the most influential, but my life experiences as a young and independent Iranian woman looking for freedom and opportunity have shaped who I am today. However, the process is still ongoing.

Who has been your greatest mentor and why?

I admire traits and not individuals. Some examples include my admiration for Mahatma Gandhi for his passionfor humankind, humility, and dedication; Steve Jobs for his obsession with user-centric design, and Albert Einstein for his intellect and analytical skills. Additionally, I am inspired by Simone De Beauvoir for her refusal to accept women as the second sex.

NantMobile is committed to bringing consumer solutions to the health and wellness marketplace by empowering patients to take a more active role in their approach to their day-to-day health, wellness, and disease management. Can you tell us three important projects that the company has worked on so far?

NantMobile is part of NantWorks' ecosystem of companies. Started by the visionary scientist and successful entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, its main goal has been personalizing the treatment for cancer and infectious diseases. We recently announced the Cancer Moonshot 2020 program . Our goal is to achieve new treatments that are more individually tailored and less toxic to cancer patients. I started as the CEO of NantMobile in February 2015 after I left Vodafone xone with the vision of "consumerizing" healthcare, which means empowering the end users. We empower consumers or patients to take a more active role in their health and wellness on a daily basis, whether it is general wellness, lifestyle decisions, or disease management.

Today healthcare is a black box to average people. We don't know what questions to ask of our physicians and specialists. Our health records are fragmented and spread across multiple health care providers, locked in country-specific systems and regulations. As an example, I have moved many times so I have lost a big piece of historical information that could be vital to my survival, especially when it comes to fighting nasty diseases like cancer.

What are the most important benefits that your technologies bring to patients?

Today, we are required to answer physicians' questions about our health history, our wellness, our test results or procedures, and our family history. We tend to do this mostly from memory and do not have the tools to access accurate and detailed information. We often lack the information to ask relevant questions from our health care providers. We don't have the ability to request a second opinion or to know what other options are available to us. This prevents us from making an informed decision based on a comparison of options. What we have today as patients is our sketchy memories of events, perhaps copies of our latest test results if we kept them, and what we communicated with our physicians in our visits or through email. There are provider portals that some of us use on certain occasions depending on our provider but that information is often not available when we change providers or relocate. Furthermore, there are countries that allow digital communication with care providers and countries that don't, so if we move internationally we are at the mercy of local policies.

While none of this may matter when we are healthy, it can mean life or death when the surprisingly common occurrence of cancer or other serious diseases knock on our door. Cancer is an unfortunate fact of life. I have experienced this with my close relatives three times and too often I hear the news of a relative or close friends having been diagnosed with cancer. The news is frightening and to most of us it feels like a death sentence. According to National Cancer Institute, in 2016, roughly 1.7 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States alone, and 600 thousand people will die from the disease. According to American Cancer Society, by 2030, the global cancer burden is expected to nearly double, growing to 21.4 million cases and 13.2 million deaths. Nobody is immune to this. Every one of us is prone and these numbers could include us, our family members, friends, and colleagues.

At NantWorks, we use the latest technologies, solutions and platforms to detect diseases early in their cycle and use evidence based personalized procedure for more effective treatment of diseases. My job as the CEO of NantMobile is to develop and roll out the right tools to arm patients with information and to help them win their battle with cancer. Patients need information in order to ask the right questions and demand the right treatment. We are using our knowledge and expertise in scalable software systems and telecommunications to connect patients with curated, personalized and validated knowledge, to latest available clinical trials and treatments, to their family members and supporters during the journey of treatment, to the other patients with similar disease and to care providers. These tools will give them hope, help with proper diagnosis, and significantly improve their course of treatment. I should point out that we have opened up the platform to third party developers through APIs so that anyone with a passion for treating cancer and infectious diseases can use the platform. Our only competitors are diseases, not other companies.

How can we better fight cancer if you look to the future?

As Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong always says, cancer treatment should be re-evaluated from today's high dose chemotherapy. We need to arm the patients' immune systems with knowledge to target the cancer cell and effectively kill it (check here)‎. We used to wrongly believe that cancer is a single clonal disease (like a homogenous network) so two patients with breast cancer effectively have the same cancer and should use the same treatment. It's now proven that cancer is a multi-colonial disease (like a heterogeneous network). As a result of genetic mutation, every single tumor is formed of thousands of sub-tumors with different characteristics, some active and some dormant. Therefore, two tumors can contain completely different sub-tumors in a single patient's body. In other words, two patients with the same stage of breast cancer don't necessary have the same cancer. Therefore, every single cancer is unique and rare disease in its own right. With traditional chemotherapy, we take the one-size-fits-all approach that works like bleach and targets and kills all good and bad cells together. At times, traditional treatments activate some of the sub-tumors that were dormant, making them even more resistant to drugs and even worse. By bleaching the body, we weaken the immune system and the natural killer cells that could have fought the disease.

Ideally, we should treat every case of cancer as a special case and provide treatments that are personalized and orchestrated through time and space throughout a patient's life. To do this, we need to utilize technology to interrogate cancer from genomic, proteomic, immunologic and metabolic level, starting with whole genome sequencing versus partial markers. We need to identify the proteomic profile and its unique protein ID to identify the best drugs and treatment (check here) that will be delivered via a patient's own natural killer cells. We need to ensure that patients are aware of these options, including targeted "combinational immunotherapy." For example, when a patient receives a blood transfusion they receive the information and can track their progress along with their family and friends throughout the process. Besides the latest diagnosis tools, pharmaceuticals, drug delivery systems, surgical and non-surgical procedures, and treatments, we need timely, constant, and real-time flow of information between patients, their families and care providers. This requires sophisticated communication solutions, platforms, and applications.

You enabled start-up companies to develop, test, and prepare for commercial deployment in global markets. Can you elaborate on Vodafone xone's motto of "build it, beta it, scale it"?

I started the incubation for Vodafone where later we branded at Vodafone xone. The "x" in xone stands for embracing the unknown and exploring new opportunities. Vodafone xone is where venture, incubation, and disruptive product delivery merge to provide an end-to-end system. We found companies, fund them via venture capital, and deliver them to market. Vodafone xone is a brand for start-ups and a beta brand for consumers in Italy, Spain, Germany and Egypt.

I was responsible for the end-to-end process. This included Vodafone Ventures the strategic corporate venture capital arm of Vodafone Group. I also led the Vodafone Americas Foundation, which is bringing mobile telephony to new regions of the world through funding innovative concepts and products that spur social change and contribute to the common good. For example, Vodafone and its partners are improving the lives of women and children in remote villages of Africa by things as simple as empowering them to ask for medication via a text message.

Mobile technology's advances are part of what you called an "ecosystem tsunami" of change that has helped transform the world. Can you tell us how far the mobile communication industry will further transform our future?

Mobile communication has already transformed our lives. We feel paralyzed without our mobile phones and we will become even more dependent on them. We will witness them become more useful tools as time goes by. They will replace many physical objects such as plastic credit and loyalty cards or home and car keys. They will have many more sensors and will understand our context, provide services that we need, and will become our personal networks operation center from where we can get access and control every piece of information that we own. We are really at the very early stages of a mobile communications revolution and huge transformational changes are under way.

As an Iranian-Canadian and Iranian-American entrepreneur who has been successful in Silicon Valley, the most important tech hub in the world, how can you give back to your homeland of Iran?

My homeland is where I live, which today is Los Angeles, California. I wish to see a world that has no geographic boundaries. We are global citizens whether we know it or not. Many of my generation that migrated overseas understand this. I left Iran when I was a teenager and lived, studied and worked in the UAE, Sweden, Turkey, Canada, US and UK and have had projects in China, Germany, Spain and others. I have lived in dozens of cities across the globe. I have witnessed that humans have very common traits, regardless of their race and origins, and have been artificially divided. Their potential flourishes when they are given opportunity and hope. They also need access to information and freedom to participate on an equal basis. Iran has a very educated young population and can play a big role in impacting the global technology landscape. As a woman and a global citizen of Iranian heritage, I would like to see the people in Iran free, empowered, and hopeful to use their education and potential. I flourished in Canada thanks to the opportunities that the Canadian society provided me. The best I can do is to be a role model by always doing the right thing and showing to the deprived half of the Iranian population, my fellow Iranian women, that they are equals who should fight for and gain at least the same rights, if not more rights, than what women in western countries have achieved and are fighting everyday to improve.