How the Syapse Product Development Team is Transforming Cancer Care
For the Product Development team at Syapse (distributed between San Francisco and Philadelphia offices), every day is a chance to make a difference. Their work is impacting the treatment of cancer at major health systems across the country — and the team has big plans for the future. Below, SF-based team members Jerry Hebert and Mia Nelson (Software Engineers), Jaime Lau (Senior Product Manager), and Pankaj Anand (Director of Software Engineering) explain how Syapse works, the technical challenges they’re facing, and why now is the time to join their fight against cancer.
For those who aren’t familiar, what does Syapse do?
Pankaj: Syapse helps cancer patients get better care through precision medicine, which uses biomarkers and genetics to tailor treatments. Our goal is to give every stakeholder in the oncology ecosystem actionable insights by allowing hospitals to share information on treatment options, therapies, and outcomes. Precision medicine is the future of the industry.
Jaime: It’s revolutionary. Historically, when you got a cancer diagnosis, the treatment prescribed wasn’t targeted to your personal molecular results. But with precision medicine, doctors can say, “Here’s the drug that’s most effective against this specific genetic mutation.” In some cases, you can completely bypass options like chemotherapy or radiation, which weaken your immune system and leave you susceptible to other illnesses. So precision medicine is pretty amazing for cancer patients. We want to make it available to everyone who needs it.
Why did you join the team?
Mia: I knew I wanted to be on a smaller team where I could iterate quickly, and I also wanted to make a real impact on the world. Like most people, I’ve had loved ones affected by cancer. Every day, when I come into work here, I feel like I’m making a difference, and there are a lot of big, interesting challenges to solve. Plus, because we’re a startup, we get to use a lot of modern technologies.
“Every day, when I come into work here, I feel like I’m making a difference, and there are a lot of big, interesting challenges to solve.” — Mia
Jaime: Like Mia, I wanted to be part of an organization that had impact. My father had stage IV cancer, and I saw firsthand how little information patients have. Every time doctors ran a test, it took weeks to hear back about options. No one suggested clinical trials. If I’d known about Syapse at the time, I could have asked his doctors about it. They could have integrated lab results with his molecular results to see if other treatment options were available. He passed away before that could happen, but at Syapse, I feel like I can do something to keep other families from going through the same thing.
Jerry: I feel the same way. My mom had breast cancer and is in remission, and other people in my family have had cancer, too. It’s just nice to know that I’m helping in some way. Plus, the tech stack here aligned with what I like, and I’ve been able to help address some pretty interesting scalability challenges. That’s exciting to me.
Pankaj: I’ll echo Mia, Jaime, and Jerry. I think everyone at Syapse is motivated by the mission — I wanted to work for a company doing something truly important. I also tend to join organizations that are about to hit an inflection point, when you’re about to deal with a lot of technological entropy. It’s a crucial time for choosing programming languages, setting up the engineering fundamentals, writing constructs for product development and scalability, etc. That’s what I like to do, and it’s one of the reasons I joined Syapse.
What sets Syapse apart from other companies in this space?
Jerry: One difference is we share de-identified data across health systems. An individual hospital might not have a statistically significant sample for how a treatment performed. But with Syapse, hospitals can look at data from all of our customers and see what’s worked well for similar patients. That’s powerful.
Jaime: And integrated data can make a difference even within an organization. Sometimes patient information exists in silos: you might get imaging from one department and lab results from another. When the oncologist can review everything in a single platform, that speeds up the case review process. We also give doctors the option to send cases to an expert panel, which might give them treatment options they weren’t originally aware of.
“With Syapse, hospitals can look at data from all of our customers and see what’s worked well for similar patients. That’s powerful.” — Jerry
Mia: Right. The more information that care providers have, the better equipped they are to treat their patients. Designing that collaborative ecosystem is an interesting challenge for a couple of reasons. We’re aggregating large volumes of data, and we want it to be quick and easy to query. Plus, health care is a heavily regulated industry. We are extremely careful about privacy.
Tell us more about the technical problems you’re solving.
Pankaj: Characterizing data is another challenge. We gather so much information from our customers, and there’s a big push right now to fully understand all of it, not just the parts we’re currently using, so we can share it with other stakeholders. For example, we recently partnered with the pharmaceutical company Roche to develop new software and analytics solutions for healthcare providers so they can practice precision medicine at scale.
Jerry: Another interesting data problem is integrating clinical trials. A doctor needs to search by a patient’s specific mutation, as well as by the parameters of the trial — women over 70 years of age who have a history of smoking, for example. There are a ton of different criteria. We also need to maintain up-to-date information on the trials themselves, and there are thousands of them. The federal government provides the data, but it needs to be standardized to make it easy to search.
And Mia mentioned privacy — that’s a particular challenge with the cloud technologies we use, because much of Amazon’s service catalog isn’t HIPAA-compliant yet. If a cloud service isn’t available to meet our needs, we create and manage a solution of our own.
What technologies do you use?
Jerry: On the cloud side, we use pretty much everything available from Amazon that’s HIPAA-compliant — Dynamo, RDS, Elasticsearch, Kinesis, EC2. We use Python for most things, with other languages here and there. We have some Terraform and SaltStack on the ops side, for example.
Mia: We’ve started breaking off pieces of our monolithic application and forming those into services. So there’s essentially unlimited autonomy if you want to use different languages.
How is the Product Development team organized?
Pankaj: We have eight teams with anywhere from 5 to 12 people, and they’re organized around features and customer value. Each team functions independently — they get to figure out the problems they need to solve and then take their ideas from conception to production. The goal is to encourage ownership. We want engineers at Syapse to think in terms of what they’re building, not just their job titles. It’s not just, “I’m a front-end developer,” it’s also, “I help Syapse build clinical trials.”
“We want engineers at Syapse to think in terms of what they’re building, not just their job titles.” — Pankaj
To mitigate the risk of tunnel vision, we also have what we call guilds, which go across teams and are organized by domain expertise like user experience, platform, and architecture. Guilds work together on things like the patterns we want to embrace, and how we want to use new technologies.
Jaime: From a product perspective, we are highly collaborative across both our SF and Philly offices — we take the word “team” very seriously. When we get feedback that we think could help multiple customers, we’ll take that back to the designers, engineers, testers — even oncologists if need be — and work together to find the best solution. Then we’ll review our solution with the customer and make sure it meets their needs, and then we start building it out.
Why is now a good time to join the team?
Pankaj: We’re about to dive into some exciting engineering challenges as we move out of the data-gathering phase and into making that data more useful. Traditional statistical methods aren’t enough, so we’ll be using technologies like machine learning and AI.
We’re also very purposeful about career progression. There’s a structure for figuring out where you’re excelling and where you need help, from technical competences to communication skills.
Mia: Yeah, and we have the flexibility to chart our own paths. I was on customer support when I joined Syapse, then I switched to a full-time engineering role on the customer-facing side, then I moved into server applications. Every move has been a significant improvement for me on a personal level, and those moves might not have been possible in a more rigid organizational structure.
I think we’re also at the perfect size right now, where you can come in with fresh ideas and iterate quickly to see if they work. That kind of velocity doesn’t happen at a larger company. Plus, there’s no shortage of technical challenges. Data keeps coming in, and every new insight we derive is a new opportunity. If problem-solving is your thing, this is a great place to be.
Jaime: There’s a huge gap right now between the information that’s out there and what doctors and patients have access to, and Syapse is the only company that’s really on the path to solve that. I remember when I joined, some people asked me, “Why don’t you go to Facebook or Twitter?” But it’s just not the same. We have the opportunity to make an incredible impact here. That’s what’s exciting to me.