Sungwon Lim is the CEO and Co-Founder of ImpriMed, Inc., which uses artificial intelligence on live cancer cell analytics to predict how a patient will respond to cancer therapy drugs before taking them. Sungwon received his PhD degree in Bioengineering from Stanford University and a master’s degree in Translational Medicine from the UC Berkeley–UCSF Joint Bioengineering Program. He is a bioengineer and entrepreneur with 20 years of collective experiences in academia and biotech companies, especially focusing on the development of novel cancer therapies. He is a strong advocate of functional precision medicine – personalizing a cancer treatment regimen based on each patient’s cancer cells’ functional responses to anti-cancer drugs, beyond cancer genetics.
Where did the idea for ImpriMed come from?
I have a great passion for curing cancer. When I was a freshman in college, I set the values that I wanted to keep and improve throughout my life: to help as many people as possible, and to develop a core technology capable of helping even more people. Saving patients from life-threatening diseases using science and technology was a perfect fit for these goals. Before founding ImpriMed, I spent over a decade in industry and academia working to develop new cancer therapeutics. Originally, I did what everyone in my field focuses on when it comes to curing cancer: drug development. However, the deeper I went into this field, the more I found myself coming up with the same question: Are we efficiently utilizing all the tools we currently have in our medical toolbox? If we look around, there are so many people who are suffering from cancer who desperately need treatment right now. They don’t have time to wait ten years for a new drug. Of course, it is essential to continue searching for new, better therapeutic options, but new drug development should not be the only way to improve cancer care. Now is the time to think about how to best use our existing drugs by personalizing cancer treatment regimens for individual patients. To achieve this goal, ImpriMed develops an AI-driven personalized drug response prediction service to help oncologists identify effective anti-cancer drugs that are highly likely to work for a specific patient, before the doctor makes a final decision on which drugs to inject into the patient’s body. Right now, our company concentrates on improving cancer care for dogs and cats with cancer, where we can move significantly faster, with a larger dataset, to develop accurate precision medicine technologies.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I always start my morning with the headline news from the US and Asia (we have our branches in South Korea and Japan). Once I come to work, every day is different. I typically receive about a hundred emails every day from my team members, ongoing and potential collaborators, customers, vendors, legal counsels, friend founders, and investors, which I appropriately respond to by setting priorities. Every day of the week, I have an internal meeting with its own purpose: Monday I meet with our managers, Tuesday with the entire company, Wednesday with the Commercial Operations team, and Thursday and Friday with the Data Science team and Bioscience team on demand. Since we recently launched our service in the market, I spend many hours a day working with our Commercial Operations team and participating in one-on-one meetings with our customers, i.e., veterinary oncologists. Also, as we are actively expanding our team, I am interviewing many candidates for various positions. Around 5 or 6 pm Pacific time, I start to receive emails and calls from South Korea for our businesses in Asia. My work usually ends around 8 or 9 pm. As my every day is filled up with so many different things, which are either planned or spontaneous, as well as long-term or short-term tasks, setting up an accurate and proper priority for each item is essential when it comes to making my day productive and fruitful without missing anything important.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Thanks to the versatility of our technology, we have a wide range of current and potential applications in clinics and for research. Whenever a new idea comes up, I quickly write it down in the Notes app or Evernote on my phone. Then, I spend at least a couple of days thinking about it by myself and evaluate if the idea is worth exploring further. Once I collect a good amount of information and I’m confident about the idea, I bring up the idea with my co-founder and team members to hear what each person thinks about it. Bringing ideas to life, especially for commercial products, requires a variety of thoughtful inputs and decision makings from different perspectives. One person cannot make it real, particularly in the healthcare industry, where so many stakeholders are entangled. At ImpriMed, I am privileged to be surrounded by capable people in critical positions who provide invaluable insights.
What’s one trend that excites you?
It is the trend towards precision medicine. Each patient is unique. A drug that works for a particular patient does not work for another patient in the same way. Supported by the Precision Medicine Initiative, funded by the President’s 2016 Budget, medicine has evolved from one-size-fits-all to personalized care. We see an increasing number of targeted anti-cancer drugs that are combined with companion diagnostics and precision medicine services that screen effective drugs for individual patients as time goes on. This trend also applies to our furry friends with cancer. Four years ago, when we founded ImpriMed as the first company developing precision medicine service for canine cancer patients, more and more companies have emerged into this space. It is a fascinating time for all of these companies who are building a new big market that will improve cancer treatment for dogs and cats, and eventually humans, thanks to the remarkable similarities between human and animal cancers.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Due to too many things to deal with every day, my brain easily gets packed with lots of thought processes on many different topics. I usually take a short walk around my company’s building at some point during the day. Taking this small exercise and breathing fresh air helps me organize the ‘files’ and ‘folders’ in my brain — categorize topics, structure priorities, sort out tasks — and make better decisions. After work, I usually watch one TV show a day. During this time, I don’t think about work and just laugh a lot. I have been doing this since I was in my first year at graduate school in 2005. This habit has been beneficial for my mental health and helps me become more productive the next day.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would say to myself, “The path you have chosen as a startup founder will be by far more difficult than you could ever imagine right now. Keep your persistence. Don’t lose your passion. Trust your vision. Love your team. And take care of yourself.”
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
When I first came up with my company idea — analyzing a patient’s ‘live’ cancer cell responses to anti-cancer drugs outside of the patient’s body to find the most effective therapeutic drugs for individual patients — I received lots of negative feedback from experts in the field. Mostly, the feedback was: “It would be phenomenal if you could do it, but it’s impossible, because cancer cells easily die when they are taken out of a patient’s body. How can you test drugs on the cells that are already dead?” When I researched publications, I found that it was true that many failures were reported. However, at the same time, several scientific papers reported promising results. Thanks to this negative feedback, I set the highest priority on finding a solution for this problem immediately after incorporating ImpriMed. After almost five months of dedicated research in the lab, I was fortunate enough to invent the ImpriMed Optimum Culture Media for cancer cells from lymphoma and leukemia patients. Combined with the ImpriMed Transport Media that we use for sample delivery, we now keep up to 80-90% viability of the blood cancer cells for 4-7 days, which enables all the downstream steps in our commercialized service workflow.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Everyone can become a founder easily, but being a CEO & Founder is entirely different. I became the founder of ImpriMed as a consequence of the company’s incorporation. I set my title as CEO when I was the only decision-maker at the company’s beginning; however, maintaining the title involves many other stakeholders. My team members applied for ImpriMed, joined the company, and work here, recognizing I am the CEO of this company. Our investors made their investment decision with admitting I lead the company. All these people allow me to represent our company. That is why I serve them with gratefulness and try all my best to make this organization great. I recommend other startup founders also recognize that being a CEO is not the same as simply being a founder; always thank your team members for what they do.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Every aspect of business always starts with people and ends up with people. I believe in finding the right people for the right positions and always listening to what they think and say is one of the most important jobs as a CEO and co-founder of a company, especially at an early stage. At ImpriMed, we have a thorough interview process to find the right candidate for the target position regardless of its level. We do a series of cultural and technical interviews via phone calls, Zoom meetings, and a PowerPoint presentation. Essentially, we always include reference check calls with a mixture of the candidate’s previous managers and colleagues. In addition to a candidate’s technical knowledge and experiences, we highly value how they communicate with the existing team members. Each of our departments has a people & project manager who takes care of the individuals in the team, and my door is always open to anyone who wants to share their feelings, suggestions, and concerns. All our company’s remarkable achievements have been made by these amazing people who passed the competitive hiring process, believe in our vision, enjoy working hard, and love each other.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
During our first round of fundraising, we received an attractive investment offer with a solid number from a very well-known venture capital in Silicon Valley a few days after I met the famous founder of the firm. As it was my first experience raising capital from a prominent institutional VC, I asked advice from one of the professional investors in my company’s network on how to respond to the offer. The advice and the email draft I received caused me concern; it didn’t feel right (I cannot share the details of the advice). Although I was not comfortable with the advice, I followed it, thinking this might be Silicon Valley way of doing things that I did not know. As a result of my email response, the VC walked away from the deal immediately. The round was later filled up with another prestigious venture capital with a bigger check, but it substantially extended the fundraising time. Since then, I have made my own business rules: 1) I collect advice from multiple people with credentials, and 2) I do not follow advice when I feel something is uncomfortable or not suitable, which makes me fully responsible for my decision and prevents any other possible blames.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A $100 registration fee for my basketball club for three months. I am such a basketball lover and have played basketball for the last 20 years. Even after I founded ImpriMed, I played once or twice a week after work, no matter how exhausted I was by my busy day. Basketball has strengthened not only my physical health but also my mental health – it’s been my all-time best way to remove stress. However, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped my friends and me from playing basketball for more than one and a half years. Finally, the gym reopened recently! Although we have to follow safety restrictions and play just once a week, I feel alive and become more productive.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Dropbox for us. I am sure I don’t have to explain what Dropbox is. Since the beginning, our company has been uploading, sharing, tracking, editing, and securing our files using Dropbox. Dropbox is extremely handy when working in real-time on the same files from multiple projects across different departments. For our company, we always transfer patient information, raw data, AI modeling results, statistical analysis, and final reports among Commercial Operations, Wet Lab, and Dry Lab teams. I recently compared Dropbox with other competitor products and found that Dropbox has the fastest real-time sync speed and does not damage files during their sync or transfer even at a sudden internet disconnection.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I expect many good autobiographies, novels, and essays would have been shared already by many other founders who answered this question. I can add some more to the list, but I would like to introduce a different genre. This may sound funny, but the most inspiring book about the startup journey to me is a comic book called One Piece. It is a story about Luffy, who sails with his crew as a captain of a ship to find the treasure One Piece to become King of Pirates. His journey is full of ups and downs. He overcomes the obstacles one by one with the help of his crew members as a team. He filled up the critical jobs in need to achieve the goal by recruiting the people who have the right skill sets. Luffy is a genuine protagonist, a loyal captain who is willing to risk his life for his crew, and each of his team respects him in their own way. There are so many episodes that are similar to what happens in startup life and many lessons that startup entrepreneurs can learn. With all these well integrated in such an exciting story, I strongly recommend One Piece to anyone working in the startup space.
What is your favorite quote?
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
– Steve Jobs
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.