“Build genuine relationships” with Morgan Cheatham

Build genuine relationships with key industry stakeholders, including providers, payers, employers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and direct-to-consumer brands.Value human touch. Technology saves time; services save lives. Human-to-human connection will always matter in health care.Develop empathy. It is just as difficult to receive high quality health care as it is to provide it. As part of our series about […]

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Build genuine relationships with key industry stakeholders, including providers, payers, employers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and direct-to-consumer brands.

Value human touch. Technology saves time; services save lives. Human-to-human connection will always matter in health care.

Develop empathy. It is just as difficult to receive high quality health care as it is to provide it.

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Morgan Cheatham, an investor with Bessemer Venture Partners in the New York City office, where he focuses on health care. Before joining Bessemer, Morgan worked at Goldman Sachs in the Consumer Retail and Healthcare Group in the Investment Banking Division. He also worked as a data scientist at Kyruus, a health care IT startup focused on patient access and provider data management, and as an analyst at Rhode Island’s Health Information Exchange. Morgan was accepted to medical school at age 17 and graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a bachelor of science degree in Neuroeconomics. Morgan is a board director with the Sickle Cell Transplant Advocacy and Research Alliance and is a member of the Associate Board for the Cancer Research Institute, the world’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to fueling the discovery and development of powerful immunotherapies for all types of cancer. He has been on the board since June 2019 and regularly lends professional expertise to support social events, assist with fundraising initiatives, and cultivate individual and corporate relationships.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., and both my parents worked for the government. I spent most of my free time as a kid being a kid — I played many sports, notably basketball and Tae Kwon Do. I spent weekends with my family enjoying all that the mid-Atlantic region has to offer, from fishing to water skiing to eating blue crabs. Growing up near our nation’s capital was a blessing for many reasons, as I felt close to the nexus of decision-making for our country and had the opportunity to immerse myself in the wonderful cultural experiences that D.C. has to offer. At the same time, my conception of what I could become when I grew up felt limited as most adults around me either worked for the government or became teachers, doctors, or lawyers. I didn’t have much exposure to industries I would later explore in finance, life sciences, or technology.

From a very young age, however, I became obsessed with medicine and health care. I wanted to become a physician. I’m grateful to have had a supportive family who invested in me and my education and to have had the opportunity to pursue my interests as early as high school, when I attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. I took every opportunity available there to spend more time learning about health care. In my sophomore and junior years, I sent “cold” emails to the chairs of anesthesiology at several academic medical centers in the Washington metropolitan area to inquire about opportunities to shadow in the operating room. To my surprise, one said yes, and I spent a summer shadowing residents and attendings. I saw everything from biopsies to deep brain stimulation procedures.

My experiences shadowing led me to seek an expedited path for obtaining my medical degree. I applied to the Program in Liberal Medical Education at Brown University, where I was accepted to both their undergraduate degree program and the medical school at the age of 17. The beauty of the program was that with a guaranteed acceptance into medical school at such a young age, I had the liberty of exploring other areas in addition to my pre-medical curriculum. For me, these areas included applied mathematics, computer science, and computational neuroscience. Ultimately, I combined these three disciplines into an independent concentration called Neuroeconomics, where I investigated human decision-making from canonical mathematical microeconomics perspectives informed by new research methods from the neurosciences.

Prior to beginning my medical training, I decided to take a few years off to explore the health care industry from a macro perspective. After graduating from Brown, I joined Bessemer Venture Partners as an investor on the health care team, where, for the last three and a half years, I’ve been investing in innovative health care and life sciences technology businesses from the seed to growth stages.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There are many books and organizations that have had significant impacts on me. I’ll speak to the most recent book I read, called “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows, which explores various frameworks for understanding and modeling complex systems, leaning on examples across disciplines and industries. Though the book does not focus heavily on health care or life sciences, I found the underlying frameworks thought-provoking as it relates to understanding the complex incentive structures that we must navigate in the health care industry today.

Many people say that health care is 10 or 20 years behind other industries technologically. While I believe that the industry has come a long way over the last few decades, I also believe that we can and should lean on innovations in other industries, including the categories of consumer internet and enterprise software, keeping in mind the unique dynamics that govern the health care industry. Though I do enjoy reading about health care and life sciences, I have struggled with the ephemeral nature of health care-specific content given that our system changes dramatically with each new administration (though these texts serve as wonderful archives of health care history). Exploring health care through other lenses enables me to think about the first-principles transformation that led us to where we are in other industries, such as the technology sector, with the hopes that some of these principles might add value to health care. At the same time, the meteoric rise of the technology industry, though impressive and transformational, has had many shortcomings. I believe there’s an opportunity to shorten our learning curve in health care by learning from mistakes in other successful industries.

You are currently serving on a board leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

The Cancer Research Institute is focused on supporting novel ideas in cancer immunotherapy. To do so, we build relationships with researchers who are committed to translational medicine, global collaboration, and interdisciplinary approaches to cancer research, with a commitment to transforming our current understanding of cancer biology and immunology and an investment in advancing the therapeutic landscape. The Cancer Research Institute remains a trusted resource for the latest credible, accurate cancer immunotherapy information for scientists, patients, and supporters. Additionally, the organization connects people to an inspiring network of patients and advocates to see real stories of immunotherapy experiences and help others looking for insight and information.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

It’s impossible to ignore the impact of cancer. Like many of my passionate and talented colleagues on the Associate Board, I have a very personal relationship with cancer, having lost several important people in my life to the disease. I lost my uncle at a young age to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and my dear grandfather to lung cancer; he passed away just three months after his diagnosis. Of course, I am not alone in having personally felt the impacts of this terrible group of diseases. One in three people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, statistically suggesting that everyone will be impacted as a patient, caregiver, or both over time.

Despite these somber statistics, as an aspiring physician and as a venture capitalist who invests in emerging areas of health care technology, I cannot ignore the remarkable scientific progress we’ve made in advancing cancer immunotherapy. The Cancer Research Institute has consistently supported and believed in the field of cancer immunotherapy for nearly 70 years, and over the last decade, these investments have resulted in several exciting immunotherapies that have entered the market and become accessible to patients, advancing the standard in cancer care.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began serving on a board leading an organization?

Each interaction I have with the board, the researchers we support, and the broader Cancer Research Institute community is special. I’ve been particularly impressed by my fellow board members and the way in which the organization has curated such a diverse group of individuals who are all committed to the unifying mission of advancing research and therapeutic development in cancer immunotherapy. The immense impact the board has made speaks to the importance of inviting individuals from across disciplines and backgrounds to solve what are perceived to be the intractable problems our society faces.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Cancer has had a material impact on people I love. These diseases have left many people I care about with more questions than answers and have left many believing that cancer is an inevitable progression in life. By working with the Cancer Research Institute, I am helping many find the answers they are looking for and comfort in knowing that, in light of the loved ones we have lost, we are working harder than ever to revolutionize how we care for people with cancer.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference takes many forms and doesn’t always mean that you have solved a problem outright. Sometimes, making a difference can be asking the right questions at the right time. It can also be connecting people, identifying “known unknowns,” or creating the space and infrastructure for others to do their best work.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to join the Cancer Research Institute Associate Board? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

After my first two years of working at Bessemer as a venture investor focused on health care, I decided that I wanted to commit my free time to an organization or multiple organizations that were dedicated to causes that are important to me. Based on my lived experiences, I was interested in supporting an organization focused on innovating in the field of cancer research and therapeutic development, and I found the Cancer Research Institute in my research of organizations with this mission. After learning more about the Cancer Research Institute online, I discovered that the organization had an Associate Board of young professionals who are passionate about cancer research and immunotherapy specifically. After contacting the team to inquire about potential opportunities to join, I was able to meet several incredible people at the organization, share my vision for how my current role as an aspiring physician and investor could support CRI’s initiatives, and ultimately committed to join the Associate Board.

I’m focused on making an impact in health care, and so the top five pieces of advice I would give to individuals who have a similar passion would be:

1. Appreciate the complexity of the industry. Health care is not a single, $4T market; instead, the industry looks a lot more like 4,000 billion-dollar markets. Both the challenges and the opportunities stem from this fact.

2. Understand incentive structures among health care stakeholders and learn the history of the industry. The historiography is worthwhile, too.

3. Build genuine relationships with key industry stakeholders, including providers, payers, employers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and direct-to-consumer brands.

4. Value human touch. Technology saves time; services save lives. Human-to-human connection will always matter in health care.

5. Develop empathy. It is just as difficult to receive high quality health care as it is to provide it.

What are the values that drive your work?

Intellectual honesty, empathy, equity, and perseverance are the most important values that drive my work.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

I have known that I wanted to make an impact in the health care industry since a very young age, though the ways in which I have pursued that call have evolved materially over time. As an aspiring physician, I am pursuing a parallel career in care delivery and health care investing because I want to amplify the power of the 1:1 patient-provider relationship via the 1:N impact of venture capital. As the “atomic unit” of the industry, the patient-provider relationship offers the knowledge required to solve challenging problems in health care using first-principles thinking. I intend to utilize investing and venture studio incubation as broad platforms for driving innovation in health care, combining my understanding of on-the-ground clinical dynamics with market-based perspectives informed by the venture ecosystem.

On a more granular level, every few months I ask myself: “Am I enjoying what I am doing? Do I feel that I am being challenged by my work and those around me?” Depending on the answers to these questions, I adjust my path to reflect forward progression.

On a daily and often hourly basis, I take time to reflect on the impact of the decisions I’m making in my current role as an investor. We all have ideas for how the health care industry could improve, and it is critical to understand what the world looks like when certain ideas are successful and whether that world is desirable and equitable. This practice keeps me grounded in the broader mission of improving health care through patient-centricity, technology, and quality for all.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

My vision for a future world is one that re-envisions health care as patient-centered, technology-enabled, and value-based, led by diverse professionals and focused on inclusivity. In the most tangible and personal way, this is a surplus of robust tools to fight cancers, with immunotherapy at the forefront. By working in tandem with a global network of researchers, supporters, patients, and advocates, we could fund the best scientists doing the most promising research — all while promoting awareness, sharing up-to-date immunotherapy information, and inspiring lifelong advocacy for the cause.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I would establish a foundation that invests in people and ideas that are positioned to transform health care.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

As a Black person who works in health care, it’s troubling to see such a lack of diversity in senior level roles in the industry. I would like to see more investment in and support for Black students interested in health care, life sciences, and technology.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Gratitude exists in light of adversity. We are all positioned to contribute meaningfully to society and so we owe it to ourselves and to those who are less fortunate to find out what it is that we are uniquely able to do and to prosecute those opportunities authentically.

I believe it is critical to have our voices heard, especially when we are the only voice in the room. I’m grateful to be a part of an organization like the Cancer Research Institute that seeks out diverse perspectives, which I, alongside many of my fellow board members, bring to the table.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

As a surgeon, author, and public health leader, Dr. Atul Gawande is a force in health care. I have followed him since elementary school on my own journey to making an impact in this industry and would have many questions for him as we embark on this next phase of restoring and re-envisioning our health care system as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Twitter: @morgancheatham

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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