A Cornell education combined with an entrepreneurial passion for science helped a pair of alumni land a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List. Lauded for their early achievements in medicine and artificial intelligence, Erica Barnell ’13 and Sharon Li Ph.D. ’17 were named last month to the magazine’s annual list, which recognizes the work of individuals who have made innovations to their field at a young age.
Barnell, who is currently enrolled in the Medical Scientist Training Program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, was recognized for her biotechnology startup, Geneoscopy — a firm that has developed a more convenient and accessible method of detecting gastrointestinal diseases by using stool samples.
According to Barnell, her interest in genetics first began on campus, where an appreciation for lab work and biochemistry courses pushed her to pursue a career in the field. This interest, in turn, led her to a summer internship at Washington University, where she went on to conduct work that would eventually develop into the groundwork of her company.
“I started developing this technology to isolate human cells from stool samples, that was our approach to diagnosing these children. After we were incredibly successful at this diagnostic development, I recognized it was a platform technology,” Barnell said.
It was at this point that Barnell teamed up with her fellow Cornell graduate, and older brother Andrew Barnell ’11 to found Geneoscopy.
“I loved that process of thinking about technology that silos into academic institutions and creating something for patients,” Barnell said. “I’ve hoped and dreamed that I would be able to apply my academic education to something in business and something in medicine, and Geneoscopy was the first step in that direction.”
The company went on to develop a three stage process to screen for gastrointestinal diseases, such as colorectal cancer. First, patients receive a collection kit in the mail, in which they deposit a stool sample and send it back to the company. The company then extracts the body’s cells from this sample and removes RNA, which is then analyzed for certain biomarkers.
To date, the startup has raised $8 million dollars to fund clinical trials, and has conducted two rounds of clinical trials involving 275 and 1,200 patients, respectively. Going forward, Barnell hopes to use this funding to market its detection product to gastroenterologists, obstetricians and gynecologists.
While receiving the news that she had been named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list was “surreal” and gave Geneoscopy exposure, according to Barnell, “it doesn’t change what we’re doing, I still wipe the floors in the lab, I still do inventory, there’s nothing special, it’s just surreal I am among some incredible people.”
Like Barnell, Li, who studied electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, found her way to the list as a result of the work that began with her time in Ithaca. Inspired by her courses, Li first became interested in studying deep neural networks, an artificial system that takes inputs and processes them through several layers to create an output.
“I got really excited not only about the possibility of building this intelligent machine that could learn from this massive data, but more importantly answer questions such as understanding how they work,” Li said on her time spent at Cornell.
After graduating, Li worked at several technology companies, including Google and Facebook, where she worked on algorithms that analyzed visuals on websites in order to better categorize and sort this data.
“My time in industry has shaped my view on research. Being in industry means I had access to people exploring academic research questions as well as actually driving real world impact,” Li said. “This is super useful to help mey think and formulate research questions that are going to be useful and benefit a wider range of people.”
Currently, Li is working with machine learning in order to aid in decision making in the healthcare industry. Having a physician look over medical test results and images can be time consuming and costly, which means “any advancement we make will result” in “improved and more cost effective healthcare,” Li said.
As the first person in her family to earn a Ph.D., Li was honored to be named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list, having never expected to achieve such success.
“Looking back, when I came to this country six years ago, I never thought I would make it this far so this honor means that all of my hard work has been recognized and valued,” Li said. “I see this as a reward and recognition to a heart full of dreams.”