Peter Jianrui Liu, co-founder and CEO of Oxford Cancer Analytics

Peter Jianrui Liu photo

Dr Peter Jianrui Liu is the CEO and co-founder of Oxford Cancer Analytics, an Oxford and Toronto based company he started in 2019 with Dr Andreas Halner. The company uses state-of-art proteomics and machine learning approaches to unravel novel blood-based biomarkers for early cancer detection. They have raised over £3.3 million in seed and seed-plus funding from institutional and angel investors and built partnerships globally to offer affordable minimally invasive early cancer detection solutions with unprecedented sensitivity and specificity. 

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?  

My background is in cancer research and molecular biology as a scientist, along with training as a physician. Throughout my clinical and scientific experiences, I realized that we already have some effective treatments for many cancers if detected early. It was evident that many cancers with high mortality burdens are often detected too late. Starting a company by uniting leading experts through innovation was a way to positively improve survivorship and quality of life for cancer patients worldwide. 

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?  
Oxford Cancer Analytics logo, purple-blue text on black background

I see entrepreneurship as a vehicle to deliver innovation to people who need them most. For Oxford Cancer Analytics in particular, it's about bringing together a world-class multidisciplinary team and translating the most cutting-edge technology into an affordable and scalable early detection test that saves lives globally, in high-impact areas that have not been conquered by others prior. 

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?  

We started by identifying unresolved niche areas in early cancer detection that have large clinical and commercial implications. Conventional approaches are often costly, invasive, and with poor sensitivity, particularly for cancers that account for high mortality burdens such as lung cancer. Our proteomics technology and machine learning approach identified a panel of focused and clinically actionable biomarkers that can detect lung cancer with 80-90% sensitivity and specificity in one of the largest studies of its kind. These sensitivity and specificity numbers are unprecedented and have been unravelled from a large cohort. We could also produce these tests in an affordable manner, up to one tenth the cost compared to existing modalities. The combination of high sensitivity, low cost, and the ability to pinpoint specific cancer of origin make this test a globally scalable solution for early cancer detection. 

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?  

I'd say integrity, humility and creativity. Integrity to stay committed to your mission, humility to accept new ideas, and creativity to keep identifying novel solutions for worthwhile problems to solve. No one knows it all, so you need humility to build a strong team. Integrity keeps you motivated despite challenges, and creativity leads to innovation - to go beyond the status quo to drive progress. 

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?  

I love pioneering new innovations and frontiers. With Oxford Cancer Analytics, it's about early detection in partnership with leading experts, commercial entities, and research institutions globally. It's exciting to push the boundaries of what's possible, supported by our exceptionally talented and mission-driven team. 

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?  

My uncle who unfortunately passed away from lung cancer inspires me immensely. He lived in poverty but with such humility, integrity and human spirit despite life's challenges. Losing him to late-stage lung cancer that could have been treated with curative intent if detected earlier keeps me committed to enabling early cancer detection and more effective treatments as a life-long mission. 

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?  

If I could speak to my late uncle, I would love to update him on our progress. I would share how we are able to analyse up to thousands of blood proteins which others have not seen before, and that we used the most cutting-edge science and machine learning to develop an affordable early detection blood test that can be used by humankind globally, regardless of socioeconomic and geographical boundaries. I would explain how we built one of the largest biobanks of its kind across three continents and working with key centres of excellence internationally to bring our innovation to patients. Most importantly, I would tell him that he inspired me to dedicate a life-long career in advancing early cancer detection and treatment.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?  

One huge achievement was building a world-leading lung cancer biobank with 600 samples analysed, 1,000 samples collected, and 13,000 samples in the pipeline. We did this on a shoestring budget while working with leading experts and centres of excellence fully aligned with OXcan’s mission. This validation is a potent source of motivation for our team as we scale.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?  

Every decision has uncertainty, but the key is responding quickly when things veer off track. Be transparent with your team and advisors to get their insight. It’s also about avoiding past mistakes - document what went wrong and have processes to ensure history doesn't repeat itself. There are always unknowns as an entrepreneur, and harbouring a growth mindset is key.

How have you funded your ideas?  

We started in 2019 by winning a £10K award among 100 teams in the Oxford wide All Innovate competition. That initial capital was critical and came with support programs to help establish a strong foundation. We used those funds to achieve milestones that attracted angel and institutional investors to execute a seed round. We also won grants from Innovate UK and Cancer Research UK. We are currently in a Series A round to scale further.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

Yes absolutely - In terms of entrepreneurship programs and competitions, the All Innovate competition was crucial and Oxford-specific. The Francis Crick Institute's KQ Labs accelerator focused specifically on healthcare and biotech startups, which further helped us expand our network and horizons. We're now part of the Creative Destruction Labs ecosystem specifically focused on cancer related technologies. We have also been fortunate to have received a number of grants including from Innovate UK and Cancer Research UK.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?  

The density of expertise here is second to none. Within walking distance, I can get world-class insights on cancer research, proteomics, tailored machine learning, commercialization expertise, and regulatory processes - everything we need to succeed. I can be at a cutting-edge research seminar in the morning and meet with leading regulatory and clinical experts in the afternoon. This environment is unique to an Oxonian.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

For starters, I'd point them to the Entrepreneurship Centre. I'd highlight structured programs like Oxford's All Innovate competition and the Said Business School's entrepreneurship courses. The Oxford University Scientific Society provides great networking and speaker events too. I’d make sure they know about accelerator programs like the Francis Crick Institute’s KQ Labs and the Creative Destruction Lab. 

Any last words of advice?  

My advice to new entrepreneurs is to find a true problem in the world which could have a significant impact when it is appropriately addressed, and be objective and critical with yourself that this is truly a real, unaddressed, and impactful problem. Then brainstorm innovative solutions and build a multidisciplinary team. With the right problem-solution fit, capital and partners will follow. Stay committed to your mission and be ready to adapt rapidly as needed.