By Angélica Pineda
On the 7th of May this year, Liza Velarde made history. The co-founder of Delee, a Y Combinator accelerated-health start-up, has scooped the Cartier Women’s Initiative, an award this luxury brand gives to businesswomen from seven world regions and which, for the first time in its 13 years of existence, has been won by a Mexican. And she did it by creating a solution with the potential to change the lives of thousands of cancer patients.
In 2012, the 27-year-old entrepreneur and her partners, Alejandro Abarca and Juan Felipe Yee, came up with a device that enables doctors to monitor cancer cells in their patients. The device platform finds and displays tumor cells, which gives oncologists a more complete image of the tumor and its possible mutations. This technology makes diagnosis and personalized therapy possible.
“Cancer mutates or develops resistance to therapies. With current techniques, it’s very difficult to determine at which precise moment this occurs,” noted Velarde. Delee has taken a step towards finding a solution for this problem. The doctor takes a blood sample from the patient and places it in the device, which then filters the cells. “The test is very fast. In 15 minutes, you can isolate the tumor cells to study them,” she explained.
From then on, the patient has to undergo routine tests every two or three months to monitor cell behavior. “We’ve shown that it works on people with prostate cancer,” said the CEO. The company is working to extend the test to patients with other types of tumors.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one out of every six deaths is cancer-related, which makes it the second most common cause of death in the world. Most of the problems occur in less-developed countries where, in 2017, less than 30% had oncology services to treat those patients.
Following their participation in Y Combinator in the winter of 2017, the entrepreneurs received a million dollars from Silicon Valley investors. This money enabled them to progress from a working prototype to a first version of their platform. Velarde said that the product is being used in the University of Nuevo León Hospital and by researchers at Stanford University.
The company will seek additional financing to continue developing its technology and bringing it to more doctors. The Cartier award has been fundamental in this respect. “The 100,000-dollar cash prize has made a difference, but its impact on our networking has been even greater,” commented the CEO.
From December 2018 to April 2019, Velarde worked with Joost Leeflang, CEO of the Marqt foods sales platform, who, as a Cartier mentor, helped the start-up develop its global sales strategy. “It’s very difficult for entrepreneurs to acquire this kind of knowledge. He helped us understand market subtleties like selling to the public and private sectors and what price caps are,” explained Velarde, who believes the company is ready to sell the device worldwide.
The Cartier Women’s Initiative award has received entries from 18,600 businesswomen in its 13 years of existence. Every year, 80 projects are pre-selected from which 21 finalists and the winners of each of the seven regions are chosen. During the process, participants receive business and networking advice, among other benefits.