The engineering approach to facing cancer

prof03.jpgSteve Kirschâ''electrical engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and, oh yeah, inventor of the optical mouseâ''has a rare and officially incurable form of cancer. Given a typical prognosis, heâ''s got about five years to live.

Or thereâ''s another way to look at it. Kirsch says on his web site, â''I have enough time to change the outcome.â''

Kirsch has a blood cancer called Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia; it is diagnosed in about 1500 Americans annually.

I met Kirsch seven years ago in the offices of Propel, a company he had founded to develop easy to use e-commerce tools, a concept he described at the time as â''Amazon in a Boxâ''. He previously founded Mouse Systems (sold to Kye System Corp., Frame Technology (sold to Adobe), and Infoseek (sold to Disney). His office at Propel overlooked an amusement park; the thrill rides below were an apt metaphor for his fast-paced career.

Since that 2000 interview, Kirsch started another company, Abaca, aimed at beefing up email security, blocking phishing attempts and viruses as well as spam. He remains as CEO as Propel, last month the company launched a product at Demofall designed to help individuals manage the way their computers are using bandwidth. He became a force in Silicon Valley philanthropy, putting $75 million into a foundation and stepping up with a $1 million donation when Silicon Valleyâ''s United Way campaign fell short one year. He also became a major contributor to the Democratic Party.

Kirsch has never been afraid to take on a challenge. And now, facing the biggest challenge of his life, heâ''s doing what served him so well in the pastâ''heâ''s taking the engineering approach. Heâ''s reading the peer reviewed articles on the subject. Heâ''s taking every test his doctors suggest, studying the results, and posting them on his web site so others can look at them as well. Heâ''s analyzing risk factors and survivability data. Heâ''s investing heavily into R&D; the foundation he started, the Steve and Michele Kirsch Foundation, announced this month that it will redirect most of its funds to efforts addressing this rare cancer.

â''Realistically,â'' he writes on his web site, â''whatever I do to find a cure will likely be too late to save my own life.â''

â''But that doesnâ''t mean I shouldnâ''t try. I remember as a kid learning the old saying that â''nobody ever won a chess game by resigning.â'' Who knows. Maybe I will get lucky.â''

He continues: â''I believe that people make their own luck. I think my best chance of survival is to advance the science by using some novel approaches to raising massive amounts of money and then intelligently directing those funds into research that is likely to do the most good. It appears that [today] research is focused more on finding the best treatments rather than in understanding the underlying mechanisms that cause the disease. My strategic bet is that if we are to cure this disease, it wonâ''t happen by doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.â''

Analyzing problems, picking an unconventional approach, and then placing a big bet on the choice has proved a winning strategy for Kirsch in the past; I sure hope it works again. Good luck, Steve.

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