Cancer needn’t mean can’t, Kimberly Gandy said.
When the Play-It Health founder and CEO was diagnosed with an aggressive, mid-stage cancer in May 2016, her startup found itself at a crossroads. Gandy had just joined the Kansas City-based Pipeline fellowship and her company was poised for growth through its web- and mobile-based health regimen tracking platform for transplant patients.
“I am asking this community, for its own benefit, to not give up on those given diagnoses of cancer. From the most objective of analyses, not all cancers are created equally and the implications for even business pursuits need to be evaluated with understanding and knowledge, bravely, and not with fear. From the most subjective analysis, there is richness of vision and experience in these individuals that have been through life’s trials that indeed should be embraced and utilized, as there is much those individuals have yet to give.”
— Kimberly Gandy, founder Play-It Health, accepting the Pipeline Member Inspiration Award Jan. 28
“And during the process of my cancer treatment, there were other early stage cancers that were detected,” said Gandy, who also is trained as a physician and scientist. “I went through several surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. I worked the entire period except for one week. A lot of that was just because I could anticipate what was happening with each step and knew how to navigate all of those phases of treatment.”
Her business also had to deftly maneuver through the ordeal, she said.
“We ended up going through a longer ‘Valley of Death,’ if you will, because we were considered an uninvestable company when I was in treatment,” Gandy said. She had been up-front about disclosing her diagnosis — and ethical and moral choice, she said — and potential investors weren’t confident in the company without her in the picture.
It was a Catch-22 dilemma: Play-It Health needed to bring in more quality talent to secure investments, but the startup couldn’t make the hires without an infusion from investors, Gandy said.
“We did have contingency plans for succession, if something had happened to me, etcetera., but it was still very hard for us to put ourselves forth as an investable company,” she said. “That created a much longer-than-anticipated ramp up period.”
But Gandy didn’t quit.
“To her credit, she stuck with it when a lot of people would’ve given up,” said Don Peterson, founder and president of Overland Park-based Infusion Express. “When she got her cancer diagnosis, I thought she would potentially go back to being a physician — take the easy money and just work on her recovery. But she stuck it out and fought her battle.”
Peterson and Gandy met about five years ago when he pitched his company at 1 Million Cups, the two founders said. Gandy’s perseverance and focus on evolving Play-In Health through her cancer has been remarkable, Peterson said.
“I have a lot of respect for what she’s done in her professional career, and a lot of respect for her as a woman,” he said.
Her story isn’t just about an entrepreneur’s journey through challenges, Gandy said. It’s an example of what’s possible for anyone receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, she said.
“We need to keep our hearts and eyes open, and realize that people can continue to contribute in their fields even when they get these diagnoses, especially since people are now getting many of these diagnoses in their prime — the periods of their lives when otherwise they might be able to contribute the most,” Gandy said.
Today, Gandy has a near-normal prognosis, she said. No tumor burdens are detectable anywhere in her body, following a final surgery in September 2017.
And Play-It Health’s trajectory is on the rise, Gandy said. A regulation and policy change in December made the company’s services entirely reimbursable through Medicare, she said. The startup anticipates private payers will follow, she added.
“Our previous mantra was that we were reducing complications, improving outcomes and reducing readmissions,” Gandy said. “That was still a harder thing to get people to appreciate than the fact that, ‘Hey, if you use our solution, you’ll actually get reimbursement next month.’ It’s a much cleaner sell, so it’s really changed for us.”
The company recently received commitments for its first big contracts, she said.
“It’s kind of another Catch-22. You become more investable when you have revenue,” Gandy said. “For digital health, it’s almost an unheard of thing for a company to start making money before they have investment, but we were put in a situation where we had to do it.”
Peterson, whose Infusion Express is now a client of Play-It Health, said he’s ultimately not surprised Gandy’s company weathered her illness.
“It looks like she’s getting the kind of traction now that she’s always deserved, but kind of had a hard time with because what she does is so abstract if you’ve not been through a transplant or know someone who has,” he said.
The two companies are working on establishing Play-It Health as an education platform for Infusion Express’s patients, Peterson said.
“It’s right in her wheelhouse,” he said.
A powerful, but humble voice
Gandy likely wouldn’t have fared as well through her cancer treatment, she said, without the entrepreneur community’s support of her daughter, Erica, and husband, Jos Domen, a National Institutes of Health-funded researcher.
Asking for such help was a big move for a person like Gandy, said Joni Cobb, president and CEO of Pipeline.
“Kim is such an independent, self-sufficient person. Go to her LinkedIn page and look at what this woman has accomplished in her career. It’s staggering,” she said. “For someone like Kim to lean on other people is a very difficult and possibly pretty foreign concept.”
“It was a very fine line for her fellow entrepreneurs to walk,” Cobb added. “I mean, diagnosis or not, she’s still the CEO of her own company.”
“Kim was really a mentor to me in the way that she was able not only to power through things, but also accept help and be open about her story,” Cobb said.
The on-stage honor wasn’t just for fighting cancer, she added. It also celebrated Gandy’s growth into an ardent voice for others in the entrepreneur community and beyond, she said.
“People are inspired by the fact that she has propelled herself into a stronger leader, not just someone who survived something — but who came out the other side more powerful,” Cobb said.
Watch Kimberly Gandy’s acceptance of the Pipeline Member Inspiration Award below.