Who I am: Benji
As a firm, the team at KdT has decided to publish long-form Bio’s to help the folks we work with learn more about who we are as people. Our hope is that the openness and vulnerability that comes from sharing our stories will help enable our dialogues with all our partners, most importantly, current and future KdT founders. Here goes nothing…
Hello world. My name is Benji and I’m from sunny La Jolla, California. You can find me in Chicago, playing golf (if weather permits) or at a coffee shop reading (if it doesn’t). I am both honored and incredibly excited to be joining the KdT family. If you don’t mind, let’s start from the beginning.
My first obsession was superheroes. When I was five years old, I had a bad case of the flu and was in complete shambles. My dad, trying to cheer me up, told me there were superheroes inside of me (my immune system) fighting off the villains (the virus). I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever, and never forgot about this first superpower. My grandfather, a radiologist by training, was a formative figure during my childhood. He caught onto my interest in biology early on, and did absolutely everything he could to foster it. Not only was he an absolute medical encyclopedia, but he was eager to share his knowledge with anyone willing to listen, and I was more than willing. Any time I asked him a question, wherever we were, he would drop everything and immediately transform from grandpa to professor. If we were driving, he would pull over the car and get out his notepad and proceed to draw intricate anatomical diagrams and explain the answer in exquisite detail. He had his notepad, but was always willing to ask the waitress for a pen and quickly turn his napkin into a chalkboard. Walks on the beach quickly turned into anatomy lessons in the hard sand at low tide. He was the most remarkable teacher because he refused to move on until he could tell you understood. Sometimes we’d be on the side of the road for 15 minutes before he was satisfied and we could get back on the road. These moments had some of the greatest impacts on who I am today. He taught me the superpower of turning curiosity into knowledge and knowledge into healing power.
Playing an inordinate amount of golf growing up, one of my earliest heroes was Tiger Woods. I’ll never forget watching Tiger make his chip in at 16 on Masters Sunday in 2005, or watching him drain his putt to force a playoff at the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008. I have probably watched every shot of every major he’s ever played in, some more times than I’d like to admit. I spent years trying to emulate his swing (not his love life) to gain some of his superpowers. What I came to appreciate was that his superpower was not the mechanics of his golf swing (which he changed every few years), but his relentless work ethic and his impenetrable focus. He is by no means a perfect individual, but, early on, he inspired me to obsess over small details in the hopes of achieving perfection.
From a young age, I was drawn to science — the closest thing I could find to creating superpowers. One scientific hometown hero I began to admire was Craig Venter, who raised private capital to decode the human genome and complete the human genome project. I found inspiration in Dr. Venter because he was the first to describe DNA as the way I’ve come to see it: the code of life. Venter has dedicated his life’s work to decoding the human genome and finding all of the many things about us that can be predicted from this sequence of A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s. He instilled in me the idea that DNA is nature’s programming language, and if we could decode the entirety of the human genome, we could identify and remove the bugs in our code. From him, I learned the idea that solving human disease was a surmountable data problem, and the perspective of human disease as bugs in nature’s code that could be both identified and fixed.
I went on to study chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern, which luckily put me in one of the most prolific synthetic biology departments in the world. My hero there was my professor, Josh Leonard. Josh taught me that biology was not just a substrate to decode but also one to engineer; with our increased knowledge of genetics came the ability to build new functions just as a computer programmer would create new software. Using genetics as software rather than computer code, these programs and functions could manipulate the physical layer. In the Leonard Lab, we built genetic circuits that could sense and respond to hypoxic (low-oxygen) environments, in the hopes of detecting cancers throughout the body with living diagnostics. At Northwestern, when I wasn’t in lab or in the library shoving engineering equations into my overworked brain, I was helping build business with a student-run holdings company, Northwestern Student Holdings (NSH). During my time at NSH, we inherited two businesses and built two from scratch. In hindsight, it wasn’t academics that fed my soul in college but the opportunity to take something from zero to one, from an idea in your head to an asset with tangible value as a scientific tool, product, or service, and getting feedback on the degree of value with experimental data or financial metrics.
During college, I spent a couple of summers in investment banking, where I serendipitously made a few discoveries that would completely change my perspective on the world. The first was blockchain technology. At first when I heard about bitcoin I thought it was stupid that people were trying to create fake digital money, but have since gotten over my initial biases and realized that this tech is both aligned with my personal philosophy and going to be a paradigm shift in how we transact data and value. Specifically, I have come to fundamentally believe it will change governance, capital formation and allocation, increase transparency, and provide a mechanism of incentive alignment between counterparties regardless of the language they speak or the rule of law in their jurisdiction. If Bob wants to do business with Alice, but has no idea if Alice is a friend, foe, or bot, Bob or Alice can write a contract (coded as a smart contract) that they both can audit, agree upon, and trust will be executed without having to trust each other. This simple concept can provide a source of truth for valuable (health) information and a trustless protocol for transacting upon it, while maintaining privacy (for private health information). I see very strong use cases for blockchain in healthcare — the foremost being the disruption of health insurance to create greater alignment between insurers and patients — which I expounded on in a post here. If artificial intelligence (AI) is the brain of the digital organism that learns patterns from the world around us, then blockchain will be the blood that moves this knowledge around to those who can derive value from it. What also became highly apparent during banking was the promise of AI to disrupt biotechnology and motivated me to move my career in a direction that allowed me to deepen my understanding — leading me to start my post-grad career as a computational biologist at Tempus Labs.
I fell in love with Tempus’s mission of generating large (next-generation sequencing) datasets to find the patterns within the complexity of cancer and actuate that knowledge into patient impact. There, I worked on research and data contracts with many of the top ten pharma companies, small biotechs, and developed machine-learning based diagnostic tests for homologous recombination deficiency with impact-driven scientists and engineers. In the four years I was there, I learned a ton from incredible people and would be honored to share some of these lessons.
Our bodies are organic chemical plants and disease occurs when the chemical plant stops responding to our evolved regulatory mechanisms. One of my favorite classes in college was control systems, the discipline of using sensors (thermometers, flow meters, etc.) and controllers (heaters, pumps, etc.) to regulate and maintain chemical plants at steady state within tight bounds that prevent the plant from exploding. Analogously, studying oncology, you learn that cancer is a disease of dysregulation, and manifests when the molecular sensors and controllers break, and cells start spiraling out of control. The medical practice of oncology is developing better sensors (diagnostics) and controllers (therapies) to reign in when our cells start spiraling out of control to bring them back to steady-state and allow the party to go on.
Spending years as a data scientist in a health data company gives me confidence that we can solve many of humanity’s problems by collecting datasets and mining them to develop insights that lead to medical discovery, even in challenging diseases such as oncology. However, given the nature of our healthcare system, oftentimes what becomes discovery-limiting is not the absence of data, but the integration between siloed producers of health data. Tempus revealed to me the reality that generating valuable health data is often not what is limiting discovery, but the incentives and infrastructure for sharing that health information between different entities within the healthcare system.
What brought me to venture is the desire to help founders create the future. Alongside them, I hope to make my own superpowers the ability to stand at the intersection between optimism and realism; the present and the future; to see clearly the world as it is, but just as clearly how it could be, and hustling to make it so. With the KdT team, we will make it so.
“The future cannot be predicted, but it can be created.” - Dennis Gabor