Earlier this month, five digital health “winners” were announced at the inaugural PULSE @ MassChallenge. The top prize of $100k was awarded to SyncThink, Inc. which assesses visual attention – the most common deficit after a concussion. Cancer diagnostics company ConquerX didn’t win a PULSE prize. But it was the big winner nevertheless. Here’s why.
Born and raised in Recife, Brazil, CEO & Co-Founder Deborah Zanforlin made a key discovery back in 2014, while studying for her Ph.D., in Brazil. Her immediate reaction was to commercialize and expand upon the idea, ending her Ph.D.
She then journeyed through some of the top U.S. incubator programs. In 2015, for example, she was one of 70 students, from a global pool of 800, accepted into the prestigious MIT Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. Zanforlin also received one of four scholarships, which paid the associated fees.
At the bootcamp, she met three other entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds and fields of expertise. Together they formed ConquerX and the leadership team.The founders returned to their respective continents and worked virtually for one year. In June 2016, they got a break. ConquerX was selected as a finalist for the MassChallenge program.
Zanforlin went all-in, flying to Boston with a one-way ticket. Three weeks later, she learned by phone that her father had passed away. There was no money for a ticket home, so she stayed in Boston working on her startup. ConquerX made it to the final round of judging at MassChallenge.
To launch and be successful, Zanforlin believes ConquerX needs to be based in Boston. But with an expired visitors visa, she had to return to Brazil. MassChallenge’s Scott Bailey called me asking the VDC to help. Scott and I each pledged to find the money to keep her in Boston.
I used a scholarship donation from Goodwin Procter to give her a spot as a Global Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the VDC, which comes with wages and an H1-B visa. And PULSE awarded her (and nine other companies) a scholarship to participate in their program. Her end of the bargain was to match the funds from Scott and I.
Visa in hand, she returned to Boston joining the PULSE program in progress. She wasn’t idle while stranded in Brazil.
The day after the inaugural awards show for PULSE, Deborah waltzed into my office, asked for a pen and signed the closing documents for a convertible note from an angel investor who had been tracking her progress. Then she said “$100,000, that’s 329,325 R$ Reais” and broke into tears of joy.
Yesterday she began 3 months of validation work in a lab at the VDC. Her technology seeks to diagnose cancer in the very early stages — coincidentally the same mission outlined by GRAIL, that launched with $100 million in funding earlier this year, and Freenome, a startup that just raised $65 million. Let the competition begin. Based on her track record so far my money’s on Deborah and Conquer X.