Sanjiv Gambhir had an ingenious solution to an age-old problem in the fight against cancer. He never said it would be easy.

his was unusual, not least because he cherished face-to-face connections and was obsessed with visibility. A pioneer of molecular imaging and the director of Stanford’s Canary Center for Early Cancer Detection, Gambhir, known as Sam, had spent decades trying to make small, hidden tumors inside the body easier to see. Nearly 600,000 people in the U.S. die from cancer every year, mostly because we tend to catch tumors when they’re too late to effectively treat.
“Cancer doesn’t need to be a death sentence,” Gambhir would tell the researchers in his lab, as he reminded them of the actual patients they were trying to save. By the time he was 50, his breakthroughs in early detection—including developing the reporter genes used in positron emission tomography, or PET scans—had led to three startups, millions in seed funding, and 40 patents.
His latest startup, Earli, was the culmination of a decade’s-worth of research into whether you could force tumors to show themselves, by having them send out a signal that could be detected in blood tests or PET scans. If that worked, you could open up a new frontier in cancer detection. Gambhir had pioneered the technology, but cofounder Cyriac Roeding, an energetic e-commerce entrepreneur had convinced him to turn it into a company. By the start of 2020, they had already raised $19.5 million in venture funding to fuel the commercialization of their technology.