SAN JOSE, Calif. - When Kathryn Tunstall was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 1998, she thought of her two children, her life, the best way to battle the disease. Then - in the Silicon Valley way - she thought of a business plan: There must be a better method to link patients with possibly life-saving clinical trials.
"I started putting things together," she says. "I realized there's a real opportunity to meet the needs of patients, to provide information to make better decisions. . . . There's a business here. Companies are spending a lot of money recruiting patients for trials and they aren't being very effective."
Her business plan morphed into Menlo Park, Calif.-based Hopelink.com, which received first-round funding of $3 million from the likes of Andy Bechtolsheim, Sun Microsystems co-founder; Ram Shriram, a former Netscape executive; and Charlie Crocker, chairman and CEO of BEI Technologies Inc. The company will be looking for second-round funding in the fall.
Hopelink aims to connect patients with companies offering clinical trials. Medical drug and device corporations, not patients, will be charged.
The Web site is up and Tunstall expects to have the service running by fall.
Tunstall, a 26-year veteran of the medical industry, teamed up with Jim Messemer, another expert in the field, and Hugh Hempel, an information technology executive.
"Jim Messemer calls it one degree of separation: Everybody knows somebody who is desperately ill and could be a candidate for clinical trials," she says. The mothers of Messemer and Hempel have battled breast cancer.
After her diagnosis, Tunstall, 50, was unable to hook up with an experimental treatment. She endured a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and, just recently, a double modified mastectomy after a recurrence. She considers herself 80 percent recovered from the operation.
"You feel your whole world crashing around you. The only thing more difficult than getting your first diagnosis is being told it has recurred," she says. "It's devastating."
In a philanthropic twist, 20 percent of Hopelink's founders' stock, or 1.375 million shares, has been dedicated to a foundation, Web of Hope.
Reducing clinical trial costs can be the difference between bringing new treatments online and medical companies closing their labs, Tunstall says. She knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find patients for clinical trials.
"I spent $25,000 for radio ads and ended up getting four patients for a trial," says Tunstall, former president and CEO of Conceptus, a San Carlos, Calif., developer, manufacturer and marketer of medical devices for women.
Countless patients never hook up with available trials. For instance, a mere 3 percent of women with breast cancer who could be involved with clinical trials actually participate in them, Tunstall says.
It's not that clinical trial information isn't out there somewhere, Messemer observes. It's that no one can find it - even professionals.
Indeed, Tunstall, after getting her bleak diagnosis, turned to the Internet. It was of no help. In addition to being difficult to locate, information on clinical trials was virtually impossible for her to decipher.
"I very confidently got online and thought with my ability to do medical research, I would have no trouble finding clinical trials" she says. Boy, was I mistaken."