Astellas crowns virtual reality anxiety management tool in 'Shark Tank'-style challenge

"Shark Tank" judge Robert Herjavec and Astellas' Mark Reisenauer judging C3 Prize at Stanford Medicine X

Astellas Oncology recently chose a virtual reality anxiety management tool as the top winner in its inaugural contest to innovate new non-treatment cancer care solutions. 

The C3 Prize drew more than 100 global submissions, with the grand prize $50,000 winner being Oncomfort, a company that develops virtual reality modules with audio that work with a Samsung Gear VR that cancer patients can use before, during and after treatment to ease anxiety.

The contest also awarded grants of $25,000 each to Prostmate, an Australian company which helps connect rural prostate cancer patients with community clinical care, and the Litebook Company for its light therapy device to address fatigue in cancer patients. All three winners also receive mentorship from Astellas and a one-year membership to Matter, a Chicago-based healthcare technology incubator and community hub.

Astellas Oncology treatments include prostate cancer drug Xtandi, which the company co-markets with Medivation--the company Pfizer recently announced it was buying for $14 billion, after Medivation turned down Sanofi's unsolicited lower bid. Xtandi's chief competition in prostate cancer treatments is Johnson & Johnson's Zytiga. Sales of Xtandi topped $1.87 billion in 2015, and EvaluatePharma expects the med to be one of the top selling cancer drugs by 2020.

Mark Reisenauer, senior vice president of the oncology business unit at Astellas Pharma U.S., said Astellas Oncology initially came up with the innovation challenge idea as a way to exemplify its mission to enable patients with cancer to focus on living.

“We want to do more than just provide our drug therapies to patients because we know that the journey cancer patients face is an arduous one,” he said. “The drug is such a small part of their overall experience and it is important to us--we see it as an obligation--to provide more than just our drugs. We need to be part of that team approach addressing the entire patient holistically.”

The idea turned personal for Reisenauer when not long after work on the contest began, he started his own journey as a cancer caregiver for his father who was diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

“I’ve been in oncology over 20 years on the pharmaceutical side,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of things relative to patients and thought I had a decent understanding of patients’ needs and the patient journey. I can tell you I was sorely wrong. As I was going through the experience with my father, I was astounded at how little support there is for some of the very simplest things.”

The top 5 finalists presented submissions live at the Stanford Medicine X conference with a slate of judges that included entrepreneur Robert Herjavec, a judge on the reality TV business-investing show  “Shark Tank” who was also a cancer caregiver for his mother. Astellas plans to run the contest again next year.

This is the second recent contest held by pharma companies in search of beyond-the-pill ideas. Takeda held a similar digital innovation challenge to surface new patient-centered ideas to help people with depression.

- see more at C3 Prize website

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