A benign brain tumor was pressing against a young woman’s optic nerve. She faced a medical Catch-22: remove the tumor via a complicated surgery with a high likelihood of destroying the nerve, or closely monitor the tumor as it grew.
"Either way, she would most likely become blind," Wayne Wu said. Having learned of the ailing school teacher’s dilemma, the venture capitalist’s interest in CyberKnife’s technology was piqued.
The CyberKnife, a non-invasive robotic radiosurgery system, offered a compelling alternative. The machine hones in on the exact location of a tumor and then zaps it with precise beams of high-dose radiation, limiting dosage to the surrounding tissue. Painless and accurate, it’s an ideal treatment for people with inoperable or surgically complex tumors.
"When I heard the CyberKnife story — when everyone hears the story — it’s ‘Wow, we can deal with people’s tumors without cutting them?’” Wu said. “Patients can come in for brain surgery in the morning and leave by the afternoon. That’s so exciting.”
Wu, who earned his master’s degree in mathematics from USC Dornsife in 1992, played an integral role in getting CyberKnife’s technology off the ground and into medical treatment centers worldwide.
In 1998 he invested in Accuray, the company that developed the system. Wu then decided that he wanted to be more active in the company’s development. That year he became a board director at Accuray and then in 2004, took on the chairmanship.
In that position, he helped guide Accuray through a number of critical steps that took the company public and launched it as a global leader in the radiosurgery field. He also helped sell the first systems in China and in Taiwan. To date, more than 100,000 people have been treated with the CyberKnife.
Wu likened the process of building up a business to that of raising a tree. Elements such as good soil, water and sunshine need to be in place for a seedling to grow and flourish.
“It’s the same thing with a company,” Wu said. “You need a good product, a good management team, a good environment, and very likely the company, just like a tree, will grow.”
Wu continues to put his energy into developing other medical device companies as president and CEO of Pacific Health Investment, Inc., an enterprise he runs with his long-time business partner Mimi Kwan, a graduate of USC’s accounting program. He resigned as chairman of Accuray’s board last year.
With Pacific Health Investment, Wu’s goal is to support the cultivation of companies that will improve medical outcomes.
“You can earn money in all different types of businesses,” Wu said. "If you can make something that also benefits people, that’s more rewarding.”