097: Boston Speaks Up with Alice Pomponio of American Cancer Society’s BrightEdge
Boston Speaks Up (BSU) is a podcast owned and operated by Value Creation Labs.
Alice Pomponio is the Managing Director at BrightEdge, the venture capital and impact investment arm of the American Cancer Society, where her work is making waves in the fight against cancer. With a passion for economic and health equity, she has built a strong track record of bringing groundbreaking ideas to life, developing cutting-edge technologies, shaping markets, and creating value within these ecosystems.
Pomponio's journey through the biopharma industry has tracked alongside many of the industry’s defining moments, earning her the playful title of the ‘Forrest Gump’ of biotech. Through the many ups and downs of the economic cycle, Pomponio has persevered as many professionals would, but for her this is much more than a career path. For Pomponio, this mission is deeply personal. Having lost her mother to cancer and witnessed her family's 14 battles against seven different types of cancer, she is committed to the fight against this deadly disease, all while making health equity a central focus of her work.
In her current role as Managing Director at BrightEdge, Pomponio spearheads efforts to fuel the fight against cancer through impact venture capital and patient-centric innovation. BrightEdge was founded by the American Cancer Society in 2019, and is a beacon of hope for the fight against cancer. Pomponio's work at BrightEdge is a testament to the idea that philanthropy can ‘supercharge’ donations. By investing in healthcare startups that blend financial growth with cancer-fighting innovations, Pomponio and her team ensure that every dollar donated has the potential to multiply through the investment process. This not only accelerates the development of life-saving technologies but also supports startups that might otherwise struggle to secure seed funding.
On top of her work at BrightEdge, Pomponio is also Vice President of Innovation and Impact Investing at the American Cancer Society, and also serves as faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, further contributing to the advancement of healthcare and innovation. Pomponio's commitment to her mission is further exemplified by her roles as Board Observer at healthcare-focused companies such as Naveris and Vincere Health.
It was an honor to sit down with Pomponio and discuss her inspiring journey and groundbreaking work at BrightEdge, and most importantly, her unwavering dedication to the fight against cancer and health equity. You can listen to our podcast discussion embedded below or on any podcast platform you prefer (YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play):
Here’s a teaser video clip from the episode:
Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?
I’m first-generation American-born Taiwanese, and my family moved around a lot. I was born in Nebraska, then Boston, Canada, and spent the bulk of my childhood in Texas and California. I moved back to Boston from San Diego in 1991 for college at MIT, stayed on for grad school at Harvard, and then settled here in MA.
Childhood for me was all about discovery, about trying new things. I moved every 2-3 years, so we saw a lot of different parts of the country, types of schools, made friends, stayed in touch with friends—lots of letter writing with stickers. It kept me on my toes but also taught me how to form relationships and keep relationships.
I grew up in a traditional household that valued education. Had high expectations to meet, but it was also liberating. If it was school related, my parents gave me free reign, so that’s where I really could feed my curiosity, openly ask questions, be creative, be myself.
Childhood was about translation—my parents are immigrants, they were learning English, and as the oldest child I was always trying help them understand what was going around them. It makes you grow up quick. So I learned responsibility and caring for others—that not everyone has a voice.
Can you share with us what inspired you to join BrightEdge and the American Cancer Society's mission?
No question, it was the mission. American Cancer Society exists because the burden of cancer is unacceptably high.
My mother died from undiagnosed colon cancer at age 62. She avoided care because she was scared of what it would cost. She was uninsured. And this was when my career in biotech was taking off. Since then my family has been taken down by cancer—we had 14 battles over 12 years and 7 different types of cancer. That’s a huge burden in just one family. ACS became our cancer charity of choice because it is all cancer types and all geographies—it was the most inclusive way for me to make a difference because people I loved were impacted by cancer in so many different ways. Some were survivors, some orphaned, family members struggling to pay for care, across the country. The range of emotions, outcomes, the whole gamut. I started volunteering locally here in Boston, raising funds through community events, then lobbying with ACS Cancer Action Network on research funding and access to care. Eventually I became chair of the New England Board and then served on the National Board of Directors for ACS CAN.
That was the turning point, because as I got to know ACS and ACS CAN, and all the data on cancer survival across types of cancer, the persistent health disparities, system-level challenges, and then it clicked—the burden of cancer is high AND it’s UNACCEPTABLE how it’s distributed. And even though I couldn’t help the people I loved, I could take my experience and platform to help others. And BrightEdge, by working with the best innovators and entrepreneurs could help ACS make a bigger difference for more people in a sustainable way.
You've been referred to as the ‘Forrest Gump’ of biotech. What are some pivotal moments in your career that have shaped your journey? I loved that movie. When I was a kid there were doctors and professors. I fell into biotech as it was just emerging. And when I look back on 25 years in the industry, it was like I was an accidental biotech revolutionary! Like Forrest Gump found himself at these key moments in American history, my career tracked alongside some of biotech’s key moments.
After I figured out I didn’t love working the lab, I was a White House Intern working on funding of basic research through the US Human Genome Program, then helped launch first-in-class biologics at Genzyme—meaning, get novel science developed and FDA-approved, priced and reimbursed. I got to work on key economic and trade policies to grow the life sciences industry when I worked at the UK government. When I came back to Genzyme I was meeting with ministers and government officials all over the world to advance orphan drug policy adoption and health equity policies.
So the first part of my career was all about getting science funded, products approved and purchased, then at AstraZeneca I led Science Affairs and had responsibility for Bioethics, and ESG, meaning how does biopharma engage in society responsibly. But I get really excited about doing things right at the earliest stages, so I am on faculty at the Harvard-MIT HST Sloan Healthcare Ventures where I teach biomedical innovation and healthcare entrepreneurship helping the brightest minds and tech tackle the biggest problems.
When I look back and there’s no way I could’ve mapped that journey at the outset. So with BrightEdge, I can take all these experiences and work with a growing team of top talent to make intentional investments for impact across the cancer care continuum—from prevention and screening to treatment and tech. BrightEdge’s unique connection to the American Cancer Society and its research means we’re working on the biggest problems, can identify innovation with the greatest potential, and drive patient-centric impact, and financial returns.
Can you tell us about some of the most promising healthcare startups that BrightEdge has supported recently?
The most promise is by tackling the areas of known need. We have 11 thematic mission priority areas where we invest—these were identified using expert consensus across research, cancer control, and social determinants. So these range from novel therapeutics and diagnostics to infrastructure, optimizing treatment, novel R&D platforms, reducing patient hardships and improving social outcomes.
BrightEdge has the responsibility to be selective in our investments, today we’re donor-funded and we have to make those dollars work extra hard. We want triple bottom line, meaning great science, returns, and progress that accelerates our mission. So our returns are a blend of financial and impact. We are not concessionary, we want more from the market for patients.
Today we’ve made 21 investments across the cancer care continuum, and in our impact report we highlight how our companies are designing for ways to:
Improve access—Cellcentric, has an oral agent for multiple myeloma where most of the treatments in development are biologics; Paradigm is helping more patients access clinical trials; TailorMed helps patients reduce financial toxicity and medical debt.
Address vulnerable populations—we have several companies working on brain cancer, Freenome Mercy and Naveris are working on more accessible screening technologies for high risk patients.
Pave way for best science to deepen outcomes—Nusano is a proprietary radioligand manufacturing platform to help advance the whole field of diagnostics, nuclear medicine, and research.
What have been the most significant milestones BrightEdge has achieved in its mission to impact the lives of cancer patients and their families?
So many milestones in a short period of time. Internally, BrightEdge went through a major relaunch in 2021 after I arrived. We made our investment strategy intentional impact aligned with American Cancer Society’s mission. We’re now formally part of ACS’s responsible investment strategy and were selected by the National Board to be the manager of the VC allocation of the Investment Pool. So ACS is already an impact organization—largest nongovernmental funder of cancer research, present in 5000 communities for patient support, leading advocacy group in 50 state capitals and Washington DC. Now the Society is making its investment work for impact—that’s powerful. So ACS does not invest in anything that has tobacco, that’s the ESG negative screen. Then BrightEdge is the mission-driven investment component. Imagine if more companies to activated in this way—making their dollars work for impact?
On the investment side, we want to be a different type of investor, and how we show up should draw upon strengths we gain from being part of ACS. We’re moving towards earlier stage investing and innovation support. ACS is the largest nongovernmental funder of cancer research, $5B granted to date, 1100 institutions, 25000 researchers, 50 Nobel prize winners. So we have great knowledge networks and pipeline. But also going EARLIER means we have a chance to design for impact.
We are also leveraging ACS’s impact knowledge and data to hold ourselves accountable for mission and help others invest for impact. Our Cancer Impact Investment Framework helps investors appreciate the mission performance of a company alongside the traditional business and financial performance. So if cancer disparities are like healthcare’s version of global warming, imagine if we could show how our investments are making a difference. Investors want to know they are doing well and doing good—but you can only tell if you measure.
How does your personal connection to cancer and health equity drive your work at BrightEdge? More than 1.9 million people living in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in 2023. While there have been significant advancements in cancer treatments, we must be intentional to build a culture of health equity within the innovation ecosystem.
ACS’s core mission is health equity and every day I wake up every day feeling the privilege and the responsibility to find and invest in high-impact, equitable solutions, treatments and technology to fuel and deliver ACS’s mission.
This is the driving force not just for me, but for every BrightEdge team member. BrightEdge truly operates at the intersection of investment, innovation and impact, and we’ve attracted top talent who are passionate about our purpose and excel at this intersection point.
Our cross-discipline team includes amazing individuals from major research universities, VC and asset management firms and venture philanthropy.
But I think what drives and motivates us is that improving cancer outcomes and health equity is our jobs. It’s not a special project or side gig, it’s our core offering and we’re bringing it to others so they can do more to make a difference for patients and their families.
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs and innovators looking to make an impact in the healthcare industry?
Pull before you push. Meaning do a lot of listening and watching before you push a solution forward. If you have a well-defined problem you can design ways to deepen impact in your business and product development.
Second, for innovators and entrepreneurs at the earliest stages of development, facing high level of risk and short time horizon, raising and spending capital to cross The Valley of Death can be hard. Surround yourself with advisors and mentors, build networks, learn from peers.
These early stages are really where we can drive more impact. Supporting early-stage entrepreneurs makes total sense for American Cancer Society and BrightEdge because we want the top talent to benefit from our knowledge and investor networks, which is why we’re launching accelerator programs so we can support the next generation of leaders and innovators to end cancer. If we don’t support the next generation of leaders and innovators to be impact-forward, we won’t succeed
Are there any exciting upcoming projects or developments at BrightEdge that you can give us a sneak peek into?
We’ve been so busy growing our team, refining our investment strategy, and building systems and processes to partner with ACS. But I’m very excited that BrightEdge is expanding its community and convening around the shared challenges across the ecosystem to deepen impact for patients. In November BrightEdge will be hosting our second annual ACS BrightEdge Summit, this invitation-only event is an exciting opportunity for us to bring together our community – investors, entrepreneurs and ACS-funded cancer researchers to share novel financing and commercial approaches and foster collaboration in research and investing to advance the fight against cancer.
Secondly, we are very excited about how our Founders Circle, the donors who have supported us in this initial phase, are helping us deliver on the promise of BrightEdge’s 3-D impact model across science, social, and sustainability. Our Founders Circle is made up of philanthropists who want long term impact and for their dollars to multiply, but are also helping us realize the future of cancer care. So it’s our Founders Circle who have helped us launch the three accelerator programs to work at earlier stages, support Entrepreneurs, tackle innovation challenges in health equity, and support researchers across the country, not just in biotech hubs. That’s why we call them our Founders Circle, they are here at the founding stage and helping us co-found the next generation of BrightEdge programs and products.
How do you balance the financial goals of venture capital with the mission of impacting cancer patients and their families?
To be clear, we are not concessionary. We want impact in addition to financial returns. So within the American Cancer Society, BrightEdge is a strategic platform under our enterprise objective of resource diversification. At the same time, we can deliver deeper impact, engagement, and differentiation for the Society.
One way to balance financial and impact is to have a more standard measurement and clearer reporting. While impact investing is growing exponentially, there is no definitive standard framework for impact measurement in healthcare investing, let alone for oncology. BrightEdge has developed a unique and proprietary Cancer Impact Investing Framework TM (CIIF) to assess potential investments and opportunities. CIIF is used throughout the investment process from deal sourcing to post-investment management so that BrightEdge is not only investing in innovations with financial return, but that these investments also make an impact -- whether that be improvements to prevention, detection, treatment, survivability, access or costs, and that these improvements align with the mission of the American Cancer Society.
How do you see the intersection of technology and healthcare shaping the future of cancer treatment? I think it’s the reverse. How can the future of cancer care come alive through technology? We know what the future of cancer care should look like—prevention, earlier detection, right treatment for the right patient at the right time, and reduced costs with better outcomes.
So then how can technology enable that? It needs to center around improving engagement across the stakeholders involved, whether that’s the providers, the family, caregivers, anyone who touches cancer care needs to be empowered to do more to improve patient outcomes. Most importantly, it needs to make sure that the patient is both in the center and has enablement to drive their care.
Technology can also be a democratizing force in healthcare. Whether that’s through data analysis to identify those populations that are silently being left behind, or supporting more informed decision-making at all points in the patient cancer journey, or creating more at-home care or alternative site of care options so patients can adhere to care.
That’s how we see it at least. We’ve convened an amazing Scientific Advisory Council of 13 experts across all disciplines and centers, who are helping BrightEdge first understand what the future of cancer care should be, so that when we are presented an opportunity to invest in technology we can both fund and drive technology towards where we need to go.
Could you share a success story from one of the startups BrightEdge has supported that particularly resonates with you?
Freenome is a SF-based company that uses machine learning and multiomics to develop early cancer detection blood tests. They’re starting first in colorectal cancer, which is what my mother passed from, and the second most deadly cancer for men and women combined. Rates are increasing among younger population. And 4 in 10 people who are eligible for screening don’t get screened. They don’t like colonoscopy, poop in a box, whatever.
Freenome’s vision is to meet patients where they are — so imagine a blood test is how you could be screened. But more importantly, they’re designing their product with all the things we like to see—real world evidence, ensuring enough data is being collected through the clinical trials to support both FDA and reimbursement decisions, partnering with Walgreens to increase diversity in research, and even exploring ways for other cancers to be detected through a single blood draw.
What was great was last year Freenome was at the White House for the Cancer Moonshot alongside our ACS and ACS CAN colleagues… so one of BrightEdge’s investments was also out there helping to shape the future of cancer care discussions.
FINAL QUESTION: We like the idea of ending our episodes with a challenge for the listeners/readers. Whether it be reaching out to an old friend, reading 5 pages a day from a book, creating a new healthy habit… What is one challenge you have for the listeners?
Mind-heart connection. If you can, pick up some meditation – 5-10 minutes a day – maybe even longer. Be authentic. Journey with purpose.