When a few members of Sami Shalabi’s family were diagnosed with cancer, he found himself spending a lot of time on Google.
For Shalabi’s relatives, who live outside the U.S., cancer was frightening and confusing. They had many questions about the treatment options, testing, and what is and isn’t recommended according to the latest guidelines—more questions than any doctor could reasonably answer during a visit. Shalabi, a former Google executive who led Google News, spent untold hours trying to gather the most up-to-date information.
“I ended up being kind of the go-between, trying to get them the information they needed to help them understand their diagnosis,” Shalabi says. “They had a lot of nuanced questions beyond the emotional needs.”
As he tried to keep up with his relatives’ many questions and concerns, Shalabi wondered, what if computers could do all that research for him? After all, big data algorithms can figure out the exact brand of cat food you might be interested in and what color car you’re most likely to drive. Why not leverage that same technology to discover exactly what treatment and tests could work best for cancer patients?
We want to empower patients and ultimately democratize healthcare.Sami Shalabi, COO of Outcomes4Me
That question led him to join Outcomes4Me, an AI-driven patient-empowerment platform that combs through vast amounts of information to help give cancer patients the information they need to understand their own disease. Outcomes4Me cross-references patients’ medical history with news and journal articles, clinical oncology guidelines, clinical trials, and countless other sources to produce personalized, evidence-based guidance. The result: relevant, curated information tailored to each cancer patient’s unique situation.
“It’s about helping cancer patients get access to the right information to navigate their care,” says Shalabi, who serves as the company’s COO. “We want to empower patients and ultimately democratize healthcare.”
The platform, which is for now limited to breast cancer, isn’t meant to replace human doctors. Rather, it is intended to help ordinary people navigate a complex and frightening world and cut down on the miscommunication and guesswork between patients and their oncologists.
This guesswork goes both ways. Studies show that doctors often misunderstand their patients, who often have trouble knowing what to tell their doctors or how to say it. A CancerCare Patient Access and Engagement Report showed that 40 percent of patients don’t reveal important side effects to their oncologists. “What we’ve found is that people don’t know what they’re looking for,” Shalabi says.
The study also showed that around 80 percent of cancer patients are not informed about clinical trials—a potentially lifesaving gap in information. Shalabi recalls one Outcomes4Me user, a breast cancer patient from California named Suzanne, who used the platform to find a clinical trial that seemed like it could be a good fit. But when Suzanne asked her doctor about it, she was told she didn’t qualify, Shalabi says.
“Suzanne actually took our app to her oncologist, put it in their hands and said, ‘This app says I’m eligible.’ And she ultimately got on the trial,” Shalabi says. Suzanne now works for Outcomes4Me as director of patient engagement.
A base of operations with security—and energy
Operationally, Outcomes4Me functions like both a traditional healthcare company and a Silicon Valley tech startup. CEO Dr. Maya R. Said, one of the company’s founders, spent most of her career in the pharmaceutical industry, most recently as an SVP at Novartis. Another founder, Osama Rahma, is an oncologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. Shalabi himself spent 12 years working for Google and had started two other tech companies.
“I kind of came from this world where it’s Disneyland for engineers,” he explains of the Google office where he worked. ”When we were looking for a space [for Outcomes4Me], we were looking for something similar to that.”
The company’s 41 employees—a combination of medical professionals and software engineers—work out of a private office at WeWork One Beacon Street in Boston, but they often work off-site in other locations around the city. Shalabi appreciates that WeWork offers industry-standard professional amenities scaled to a budget that fits their size. Features like videoconference technology, meeting spaces, and seltzer machines are very useful, he says, but the most important feature is security.
“Not having to build out a security infrastructure is a huge deal if you have medical records you need to protect,” Shalabi says. “It’s a two-stage system where you have to register people before they come in, and it’s all logged if we need it. It all just works.”
Shalabi’s favorite aspect of the workspace is how it provides the opportunity to meet other innovative thinkers. Shalabi says getting to know, and even brainstorming with, other tech startups that share the space gives the office the same sense of energy and shared passion he felt in his days at Google. “That similar vibe and energy is what attracted us to the workspace,” he says.
Outcomes4Me has been growing fast and expects to soon fill all 60 of its WeWork seats. The company is on track to expand its platform to begin serving lung cancer patients, and it has plans to support patients outside the U.S. It’s all part of Shalabi’s goal to make the world of cancer a little less complex, and a little less frightening for everyone.
Jared Downing is a writer, journalist, and podcast producer based in New York City.