Canary Fund Health: Man On A Mission

Donald Listwin brings his dot-com-era skills to the early detection of cancer.

When we first profiled Donald Listwin back, in November 2000, the picture offered up was that of a quintessential Silicon Valley executive at the top of his game. Listwin had just left his position as the No. 2 at Cisco Systems Inc. and taken a job as CEO of cellphone-software maker Openwave Systems Inc. A Canadian Business reporter who climbed aboard Listwin's private Challenger jet to interview him found out that his astonishingly successful career had already generated a fortune in the “nine digits.” Not bad for a former University of Saskatchewan engineering student, suggested the writer, who wrapped up the profile with a nod to the propitious nature of it all. “There's no point in trying to predict what his next move might be,” she wrote.

How prophetic those words are just five years later. In 1999 and 2000, Listwin's mother was misdiagnosed twice with a common bladder infection and succumbed to ovarian cancer in September 2001. Listwin was overwhelmed with grief. “You think you're the captain of the universe and that with all your resources there's no problem you can't solve,” he now says. “But there are things here way bigger than us. It was very personally humbling and a terribly devastating time.”

An unrepentant techno-optimist, Listwin found an opportunity in the tragedy to do some good. It's an oft-repeated fact that early diagnosis of a disease makes a huge difference in the success or failure of a medical treatment, and Listwin says he was dismayed to find that less than 10% of the funds devoted to cancer research went into early detection. Hoping to correct some of the mistakes around his mother's treatment, he decided to bring his personal wealth to bear, and, more importantly, his knowledge of how to structure organizations for success. “In the United States, all the cancer research is centred around one principal investigator trying to investigate some interesting part of the cancer problem,” explains Listwin. “But there is almost no cross-disciplinary work, meaning no one gets a genetics expert and a protein expert and an imaging expert in the same room and says, 'How would we try to detect this early?'”

Collaboration, of course, is precisely how the dot-com economy got rolling in the first place. Listwin thinks a dose of Silicon Valley thinking could do wonders for medical research. “Twenty-five years ago the U.S. government said we have all these different bits and no one has tried to put them together yet, so it funded two big grants to try and get it standardized,” says Listwin, referring to the origins of the Internet. “And that's similar thinking to how we're trying to work here.”

The result is the Canary Fund, named after the role canaries once played by alerting coal miners to hazardous gases. Listwin, who left Openwave a year ago, founded what he believes is the only non-profit organization in the United States devoted exclusively to early cancer detection. (Last summer, he inaugurated Grand Prix auto-racing in San Jose, Calif., proceeds and donations from which go to the fund.) It has two missions: to make available within five years a simple blood-based test specifically for ovarian cancer (that would then become the model for other cancers), as well as an imaging test to isolate the cancer down to a million cells. “At that level we have very effective interventions,” Listwin says. “You can do pinpointed radiation, you can do small surgical. You don't need chemotherapy.”

In early November, Listwin, 46, travelled to Victoria to meet with executives of B.C. Cancer, an organization he hopes will be able to help with the validation studies. His choice of a Canadian provincial health authority highlights a sometimes-overlooked benefit of this country's single-payer health-care system. “In the U.S., the standard of care is different at hospitals just 30 miles apart,” says Listwin. “But one of the things about Canada, and B.C. in particular, is that the system provides one standard of care for everyone in the province, and that makes running trials on a large scale easier.” Therese Quinlan, a director of the Canary Fund in California, also mentions that the culture in Canada is much more “pro-screening,” adding that there seems to be a sense here that citizens have a responsibility to participate in studies.

Listwin hopes to sign an agreement with B.C. Cancer soon so that validation tests can be performed when a prototype test is available, likely by the end of 2006. If that seems quick, chalk it up to Listwin's faith in that old New Economy idea about doing business at Internet speed. “If we can't change the way things are done right now by the end of the decade, then we're on the wrong strategy,” says Listwin, sounding something like a dot-com exec circa 1999. Sure, the tech bubble made a lot of investors sick, but the thinking it spawned may just turn out to be the best medicine yet for cancer sufferers.