Blog: An app that tells you if you have lung cancer: Emily Wang, Cornell ‘21
Welcome to another edition of PIE, where we interview cool people who are building cool things. Our guest this time is Emily Wang, a sophomore at Cornell and co-founder of Canairy, a mobile app that detects early signs of lung cancer by analyzing users’ coughs using a proprietary machine learning model. Their vision for the app is that of a canary of a coal mine: to alert people of potential respiratory diseases as early as possible. My conversation with Emily was wide-ranging and insightful, on topics like team-building to dropping out of college to pursue your passion, and I hope you learn as much from her as I did.
1 —“Just pitch your idea and a team will form around you.” The most impressive part of Emily’s story was that she’s the only person on the team who is an undergrad! Her co-founders include Rayees, a machine learning PhD candidate, Chi-Chi, a master’s student in design who was previously the Senior Art Designer at eBay, and Alexandra, who is a regulations compliance officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Emily met Rayees on the train to New York and they hit it off immediately. They started brainstorming project ideas and pitched the initial concept of Canairy to a crowd at the hackathon, and a team gradually formed around them. The team then developed a machine learning algorithm that was able to cluster coughs obtained from lung cancer patients from normal, everyday coughs, and Canairy was born.
2 — On knowing when an idea is worth chasing after: The team won first place for best overall hack in lung cancer, but now were faced with a difficult decision: what’s next? For half of the team, this was a novel project but not something worth pursuing, but for the others, they felt they had stumbled onto something transformational. As Emily put it, everyone who stayed on had “incredible urgency” to build this into a full-fledged product because they all had a person in their life suffering from this problem. In addition, each team member was at a point in their life when they were ready to found a company: they were all problem-solvers at heart, and some were ready for a career shift.
In addition, there is a huge opportunity at hand: More than 99.2 million people are living with asthma, COPD, lung cancer, and allergic rhinitis in the US, and the yearly cost of both indirect and direct medical costs due to lost productivity, long term symptom management, and early deaths is $147.5B annually. If Canairy can achieve their long-term vision, which is becoming a full-fledged diagnostic platform that can monitor how these conditions develop over time for a patient, then they can fundamentally change respiratory disease discovery/management at scale.
3 — Living a meaningful life and taking a gap year: As Emily put it, “To live a fulfilled life you have to live an examined life.” From our conversation, it was clear that Emily loves problems (in a good way), in the sense that she sees every problem as a solution to be found. Like many students, her college experience was fun but not conducive to what she wanted to be learning. By nature she is a very goal/project-oriented person, so she took last semester off to work at her friend’s non-profit Period, a Cornell startup called Twiage, and consulting firm PwC. From these activities, she was able to reset and explore her interests on her own terms.
4 — What’s next for Emily?: Around the same time they applied to Y Combinator, Emily applied to the Thiel Fellowship on a whim. For those who don’t know, the Thiel Fellowship is a $100,000 fellowship started by Peter Thiel for students who want to drop out of school and build their ideas. She didn’t think her application would get read, but to her surprise, Emily got an interview! When asked whether she would consider dropping out of school to pursue Canairy, she simply said:
“What’s important is not what you do, but the means by which you do them. When you feel strongly enough about something, you realize that staying in college might actually the riskier path.”