How newly minted Hopkins grad David West’s company is shaping the future of cancer diagnosis

By Tina Irgang

David West

David West Jr.

At 22, David West Jr. is already a successful entrepreneur. Inspired by his mother’s battle with breast cancer and a longstanding passion for computers, he became interested in how technology could be used to help improve diagnosis and treatment for cancer. That interest turned from an undergraduate project at Johns Hopkins University into a fast-growing digital pathology company, Proscia. Here, West discusses how Proscia got its start, and what he hopes it can do for the future of medicine.

Why did you decide to start Proscia?

West: I’m 22, and so people usually ask me this kind of strange question of, how on earth are you in this really obscure industry of digital pathology? I’ve always been interested in cancer technologies, basically since my mom had breast cancer. That was when I was a little bit younger, but it definitely had a big impact on my life, and I was always somewhat of a technologist. I love computers, and by the time I got to college, I was studying biomedical engineering, I was interested in business, but I was really interested in cancer technologies and how we can build tools that make the diagnosis and treatment of cancer better.

So I started Proscia after getting connected with some researchers at Hopkins who were using computers to look at pictures of cancer biopsies. They were measuring many things about those biopsies — how round are the nuclei, what’s the average area of the nuclei, and more complex things that are rooted in understanding connectivity and how the nuclei are arranged in the tissue. With some pretty advanced algorithms, you can extract a lot of information about tissue architecture, and so I started playing around because I was fascinated by the fact that you could use a computer to quantify cancer. So we were taking all those measurements and then using machine learning to predict cancer outcomes based on the images. …

Proscia co-founders

From left: West and co-founders Coleman Stavish and Hunter Jackson.

[Cancer diagnosis] is a big problem because for patients like my mom, pathologists only agree on cancer aggressiveness 75 percent of the time, and in prostate cancer, it’s 55 percent of the time. It’s totally subjective — it’s a human looking at a piece of glass, and they’re just examining it for patterns that they’ve been trained to recognize. It takes years for them to be able to pick up those patterns. And so it’s subjective and they disagree. So we thought we could bring together this aspect of computer vision, which is measuring things with a computer, and machine learning, which is predicting things using those measurements, and cloud computing, which allows us to put it into the realm of Big Data. That’s why I started Proscia.

In terms of the actual treatment, how do cancer patients benefit?

West: Think about it like this: If you’re a cancer patient, would you rather have your diagnosis be that your tumor looks good, OK or bad, or would you rather have it say you have a 77 percent chance of it metastasizing, and therefore you should have [surgery]. Every patient would rather have a more precise, quantitative diagnosis.

How did you get the financing to take this from a project to a company?

West: We started out just building a minimum viable product, so people could basically just log in and update their [biopsy] slides. We just bootstrapped that. We were students in college and had a little bit of free time. Our seed capital was initially prize money, and my dad as an angel investor. He went on to put a little bit more money into the company, and then we raised our $1 million seed round a couple of years ago. It was led by an investment company out of New York. They’re run by another Hopkins alum.

Hunter Jackson

Proscia co-founder Hunter Jackson in the company’s “war room.”

Who was involved in founding Proscia?

West: There’s myself, there’s Nathan Buchbinder, who runs operations for the company, there’s Coleman Stavish, who’s our CTO, and Hunter Jackson, who’s the vice president of research. He basically does all the math and stuff. … He’s building all the models that help us predict cancer. Coleman, I’ve known since kindergarten. We went to the same school all the way through 12th grade, and then he went to university in Pittsburgh. Coleman back in high school was a pretty serious builder of iPhone apps. He made a pretty solid amount of money for a 15-year-old kid, building applications. I think in high school, he was voted the most likely to be a billionaire, so he was the first person I called because he was a very talented developer. I started talking to him about the stuff that I was doing with Proscia because I had problems and couldn’t figure out the technical solutions. I just called him and said, would you be interested in helping me turn this into a business? And then Nathan was a biomed engineering student with me at Hopkins.

If you could shoot for anything, what’s the goal you’d like Proscia to achieve?

Proscia team

The Proscia team huddles around a table to work while the company’s office suite is undergoing construction to accommodate employee growth.

West: If I could shoot for any goal, I think I’d like to see computers help doctors make a diagnosis in every single diagnosis. I think that computers allow doctors to have so much more insight than they ever have in the past, and it’s so underutilized in medicine. … The advantages are almost unimaginable, and it will result in many, many people’s lives being much longer, people living more fulfilling lives and having better diagnoses because they were able to use the technology that is incredibly powerful and apply that to the biggest problem in the world, which I would say is cancer.

You founded Proscia while you were still an undergrad student at Hopkins. How did you juggle those two pretty major responsibilities?

West: Frankly, I didn’t. I did have to sacrifice sleep and my GPA. It was a very tough program, and I was not at the top of it. … But I have managed to graduate, barely.

Do you see Proscia’s future in Baltimore? What other opportunities do you have your eye on?

West: We’re growing pretty quickly as a company, our team is growing quickly, our sales have grown quickly, our customers really love the product that we’ve built, and I want to get that into the hands of as many people as possible. So I see that growing. I love being in the area that we are. I think we’ll probably have a presence here for a while, but who knows what the future holds.

Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about the numbers, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.