Startup Snapshot: Big Data, Big Outcomes for New Medicines

Gen Li, MBA ’96, is founder and president of Phesi, a provider of data-driven services that helps life sciences companies expedite clinical trials

By: Dick Anderson

Above: Gen Li at Phesi’s office in East Lyme, Connecticut. Photo by Devlin Photography.

Gen Li was an instructor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in 1996 when he enrolled in the inaugural class of Johnson’s One-Year MBA program for students with advanced technology degrees. He recalls a team-building session when a peer said, “Gen, you have an amazing capability in seeing patterns from chaos!” That capability underpins the philosophy of Phesi, whose data-driven services help life sciences companies expedite clinical trials, which investigate the safety and efficacy of new medicines and procedures.

“Pharmaceutical companies burn about $100 billion testing new medicines each year but often don’t have enough science guiding them through this process,” says Li, who completed a PhD in biochemistry at Beijing University. Using its large clinical trials database and predictive analytics tools, Phesi helps to mitigate the trial-and-error approach to clinical trials, making it less expensive and faster to bring new medicines to market. Case in point: Working with Phesi, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company delivered a new drug to treat leukemia six months ahead of schedule.

“Pharmaceutical companies burn about $100 billion testing new medicines each year but often don’t have enough science guiding them through this process.” — Gen Li, MBA ’96

Li’s entrepreneur project at Cornell — to create a pharmaceutical company in China — won the final competition in Professor David BenDaniel’s class, and BenDaniel introduced him to several investors. “While the project did not materialize, I still faithfully practice one of his core principles in entrepreneurship: ‘Don’t overleverage a startup company,’” says Li, who was global head of productivity for Pfizer prior to founding Phesi in 2007.

With ten employees scattered across four continents, Phesi is “a true global company,” Li says. Befitting the nature of his work, he offers multiple possible outcomes in Phesi’s future. “We could be acquired by a much larger company or combine with other similar companies and become much larger in scale. Maybe there are investors from the Cornell community who recognize what we are trying to do.” Regardless of the scenario, he notes, “they all require very hard work to make them happen.”