Student Spotlight: Sang Cho

Meet Sang Cho, a USC School of Pharmacy PhD candidate in Health Economics, who served as business analyst on a USC Viterbi School of Engineering team that won first place in USC’s Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition on March 22.


Sang Cho, PhD candidate in health economics, holds the hardware of his team’s prize-winning imaging device, which can offer real-time 3D thermal imaging during ablation therapies at one-tenth the cost of MRI or CT. (Photo courtesy of Sang Cho.)

The team, which took home a $50,000 prize plus $20,000 in free legal services, developed a new image guidance system that provides doctors with a real-time, 3-D temperature map during surgery to treat kidney, liver, lung and bone cancers.

Cho, a PharmD graduate of St. John’s University who worked as a supervising pharmacist in New York before embarking on his PhD at USC, shared his experience as the only pharmacist and health economist on a team of engineers creating a new health care business model.

“My team and I hoped to bring innovation to tackle the most fundamental problems in our healthcare system, which are cost, quality, and access,” he says.

How did the opportunity present itself for you to be part of the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition?

I first heard about this competition from a friend at Viterbi School of Engineering. When I looked at the past winners, I found that there were many health-related startups and I thought my experience and expertise in health economics would add diversity to the competition and to a team of engineers. I asked around to see if any of my friends at USC wanted to make a team together, but I wasn’t able to find anybody. So I put my name and field of study on the Maseeh Enterpreneurship Prize Competition website and soon after, I was contacted by my current teammates. They interviewed me and I explained that the healthcare industry is very different from other industries and they needed someone who understood the clinical, economic, and regulatory aspects of health care. 

How did you and the other members of the team determine the business model for Thermal View Monitoring, and what perspective did you bring to the team as the business analyst?

When I first joined the team, I was told they were developing an imaging device that can provide a real-time 3-D temperature map during ablation therapies. We knew our primary customers would be hospitals but we didn’t know how to present our technology in terms of its value proposition. We all knew thermal ablation therapies were highly effective with minimal complications, but we didn’t how our imaging device would add more value to the current practice. So the first thing I did was to conduct literature review on limitations of thermal ablation therapies, and I also went to the 2016 Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) conference in Chicago to interview interventional radiologists.

Because I have a background in pharmacy and health economics, I was able to facilitate interviews with doctors and hospital administrators. Ultimately, during the competition, we presented our technology as the solution to improve operational efficiency and clinical outcomes. Currently, there is no real-time image guidance during ablation therapies, and doctors need to use MRI/CT during the procedure. Taking images with those machines adds 30-45 minutes to the procedure time and this will be eliminated if doctors use our device instead. Also, application of thermal ablation therapies is limited because doctors do not know whether thermal energy is only contained within the tumor site. For example, if a tumor is next to large blood vessels, it is very difficult to determine how much thermal energy to give because continuous flow of blood will take away the heat. If doctors gave an extra large dose of thermal energy, it might kill the tumor completely but they would risk damaging healthy tissues in the surrounding area or even rupturing the blood vessel.

The Thermal View Monitoring team (left to right): Peter Beerel, Fariborz Maseeh, Pratik Shah, John Stang, Mahta Moghaddam, Andrea Belz, Sang Cho and Alice Liu. (Photo by Maita Schuster.)

After determining our value proposition, I performed market size analysis. Health economics research came in handy because I knew exactly where to look for relevant data to find the number of ablation procedures performed per year and the average reimbursement for ablation procedures. At the end, I was able to present how hospitals will benefit from improved operational efficiency and better clinical outcomes.

In addition, the price of our device was only 1/10th of MRI or CT. One of the doctors we met during the conference in Chicago said he wasn’t able to perform ablation therapies or other similar procedures at his independent clinic because he couldn’t afford to buy MRI/CT. By providing a cheaper alternative, we knew we would make ablation therapies much more accessible. 

What were your lessons and takeaways from interfacing with the electrical engineers? How, if at all, are the engineers different in their thinking and approach from pharmacists and health economists? What were the challenges inherent to taking this interdisciplinary approach?

Overall, working with electrical engineers was spectacular experience. I feel like many graduate students have expertise in their field of study but they need more practice on how to explain abstract ideas in conversational language. It was especially difficult because our team had only five minutes to give our business pitch and we couldn’t decide on which aspect of our technology was important and had to be included in our presentation.

I wanted to spend more time explaining clinical values for patients, and engineers wanted to focus on technical aspects. I feel like we were both somewhat wrong because we eventually gave our business pitch to judges from venture capital who didn’t have any expertise in clinical or technical areas. But luckily, we were able to get feedback from experts in various areas to shape our presentation. Michael Jamieson from USC Mann International Center for Regulatory Science was our mentor and helped us a lot in developing the business plan. With his expertise in regulatory science, I believe Dr. Jamieson will be an integral part of our team as we work to put our technology in the market. We also interviewed Rodney B. Hanners, Chief Operating Officer for Keck Medicine of USC, who provided his insight as a hospital administrator. It was a truly interdisciplinary approach; this competition allowed me to work with experts from all over the healthcare industry. 

Can you tell us more about your future goals, and also about the animal model study you will be pursuing as your side research project?

Now we have funding to conduct an animal model study. Hopefully, we will be able to get positive results that will allow us to get more funding to eventually conduct clinical trials. As part of the team, I will assist in reviewing the animal model study and clinical trial results as well as performing market size analysis. If our team needs to interview more doctors or present our technology to clinicians, I will be responsible for those works. My team and I hope to bring innovation to tackle the most fundamental problems in our healthcare system, which are cost, quality, and access.

Would you recommend that other students participate in interdisciplinary competitions such as this one, and if so, what can be gained?

I would absolutely recommend that everyone grab the amazing opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary team. It taught me how to apply my knowledge outside the classroom. It also confirmed that my skills as a health economist are highly in demand and  appreciated.

Read more about the 2017 Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition.