October 31, 2022

Freenome Co-Founder Riley Ennis on the Company’s Most Important Differentiator

What drives a person to pursue such an ambitious goal as curing cancer? For Freenome Co-founder Riley Ennis, it was personal. “I watched my younger sister deal with a life-threatening medical condition and be saved,” he explained. Her treatment included experimental surgeries and cutting-edge medical devices. “Seeing how a clinical trial and completely novel ways of approaching a disease can save somebody’s life — especially when it’s your sister — changes your outlook on what’s possible,” said Ennis recently on The Gradience Podcast. “It definitely set me on a trajectory of wanting to tackle the next big problem that I saw around me and that impacted my family, which was cancer.”

Initially, the focus of Ennis’ research was on activating the immune system and using the body’s natural forces to fight cancer. Eventually, he shifted away from trying to find “the magic bullet” that would cure cancer. Not only were most treatments expensive and inaccessible to most people, but many had bad side effects. Ennis felt a better approach was to find cancer early and match people to the most effective therapies that would improve survival rates and quality of life. “It was very clear that the unmet need was our ability to catch cancer early. And that was really the impetus for starting Freenome,” he said.

While Ennis didn’t know the exact solution to effective early cancer detection at that time, he did know what he wanted Freenome to be: patient-centric, focused on actionability, and dedicated to discovering the best noninvasive markers to identify cancer at its earliest and most treatable stages. How do you build a company dedicated to this lofty goal? It goes beyond the science to encompass the organization’s culture and values. “It’s probably the thing that I obsessed over the most out of anything else, because it’s just so important,” said Ennis on the podcast.

Riley Ennis (second from left) with Freenome colleagues at a team event

“Our culture is driven toward our mission, and that’s improving quality of life for as many people as possible through what we’re building at Freenome. And to me, it all comes back to the culture and the people.” He continued, “We instill this idea that everyone shapes the culture, everyone through their day-to-day actions is a cultural leader, and you’re accountable at Freenome for upholding, shaping, and really owning the values.” From the beginning, the values of integrity, trust, and empathy have guided the company. Since its founding, the company decided as a team to add two additional values: servant leadership and strive for greatness.

Freenome prioritizes these values so highly that culture interviews  — interviews in which Freenome screens against these values — have been a standard part of the hiring process for all roles, from internships to executive level positions, since the start of the company. This ensures Freenome maintains its values-led culture as it grows and brings on new team members with their unique expertise and personal flair. With the company now at nearly 500 employees, Ennis himself has conducted hundreds of culture interviews. “We don’t want you to be just like everybody else. We want you to contribute something new. We learned pretty quickly that when you hire people who are experienced, passionate, bring new perspectives and are innovative, they want to be a part of shaping the culture.”

Ennis believes culture is especially important because that’s what differentiates and motivates an organization. “It’s going to help you get through the tough times. It’s going to help you avoid complacency and continue innovating. ”


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