Ripe for the Challenge

Never underestimate the motivational power of a noble challenge. That lesson came through loud and clear to me last week as VCs from across the country visited local schools as part of EntrepreneurshipWeek USA. While scores of students responded to the National Venture Capital Association’s challenge to develop ideas that can change the way we live, one stood out from the rest.

In her essay, Sonia Singh of San Jose’s Independence H.S. (in CA) describes a surgical tool that she hopes will “revolutionize the treatment of brain cancer.” Named the “Laser-Cure,” this device would use x-rays to find tumors in the brain, and then employ an ultrasonic laser to separate the tumor from the brain without harming the natural brain tissue. “The beauty of this surgical procedure,” writes Sonia, “is there is no pain endured and…no loss of blood.”

That’s pretty clever for a high school student, considering that Accuray, Inc., a venture-backed company based in nearby Sunnyvale recently began producing the CyberKnife Robotic Radiosurgery System, a tool based on a similar concept. (No word yet as to whether Miss Singh has hired a patent attorney). In fact, Accuray went public on February 8th of this year. 

What’s most compelling about this case isn’t the coincidence, but rather what motivated Sonia in the first place: Her grandmother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. As she writes in her essay, “My ideas for this invention will hopefully be manufactured and used in the near future to help people like my grandma.”

If a noble challenge like Sonia’s has the power to put a high school student hot on the heels of a cutting-edge med-tech company, then I have only one question: Why have we been so reluctant as a society to give Sonias of all ages the tools and the support – through education and federal research spending – to help them take on such challenges for the greater good? In doing so, we reinforce the ability of our children to think and do.

Perhaps it’s time for legislators and industry leaders to stop framing our challenges in terms of higher test scores or higher market returns, and focus instead on empowering our country’s motivated technologists and entrepreneurs with access to the resources and skills they need to meet their own noble challenges – and those we share with them. As Sonia demonstrates, they’re still more than up to it.