Teri Thomas, CEO, Volpara
Breast cancer is now the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world with around 2.3 million people affected globally each year. It’s also the fifth-leading cause of death in women, with an estimated 685,000 women dying from it in 2020. In Australia and New Zealand, it’s the cancer that’s most commonly diagnosed in women, and the second-most in the US, behind heart disease.
The survival rate has improved dramatically thanks to improved screening techniques and treatments. If an invasive breast cancer is located just in the breast, for example, the five-year survival rate for women is 99 per cent. Companies such as health technology software provider Volpara are leading the charge in early detection of breast cancer with its integrated platform of multi-vendor breast imaging tools.
Volpara’s artificial intelligence (AI) software platform enables personalised screening that’s based on measurements of volumetric breast density, compression and radiation dose. The platform applies AI to analyse the mammogram images and allows healthcare providers to inform women about their breast density and risk, and manage reporting and appropriate next steps such as genetic testing and MRIs.
The company listed in April 2016 under the symbol VHT when it raised $10 million from the issue of 20 million shares at 50 cents each. Since then, it’s gone from strength to strength and in the 2022 financial year, more than 14.7 million women used a Volpara product. Its software is installed in around 2000 facilities including at top cancer centres in the US. Volpara’s platform is also supported by numerous patents, trademarks and regulatory registrations, including US Food and Drug Administration clearance and Conformité Européenne (CE) marking.
In April this year, Volpara announced Teri Thomas had been appointed as its new CEO, while co-founder and former CEO Ralph Highnam moved to the role of chief science and innovation officer. Thomas says there’s many challenges ahead for Volpara, some a result of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, many people put off getting their mammograms done, so a number of our customers – and prospective customers – are now trying to catch up with their backlogs,” she says.
Thomas adds that Volpara has just passed the 40 per cent mark in the US. “This means 40 per cent of all the mammograms done in the US are touched by at least one of our products,” she says. “We have a lot of potential there as many of our customers don’t have all of our software. We are also extending into genetics and risk assessment at younger ages than typical for mammograms.”
Revenue growth is strong, Thomas says, adding the company is “driving towards profitability and focused on continuing to grow while reducing expenses”. “We would love to see our share price reflect the continued stability and growth that we see in our customer base, compared to the share prices of other SaaS companies that don’t have as much revenue coming in,” Thomas says. “The company has a new strategy, but it’ll take a few quarters for the investors to see it executed – the challenge is having the patience to be able to get there and to show the market that we’re on track – which we are.”
Thomas says the new strategy is simple. “It involves spending time looking at what revenue is coming in and understanding which are the most profitable products. We are determining the areas that can best support our profitability and aligning our resources behind those.”
Partnerships and deals are important to Volpara’s growth strategy as it seeks out promising technologies. It already has a lung-screening program Thomas describes as solid. An agreement with Microsoft will accelerate the research and development of software that uses mammograms to identify potential cardiovascular issues. The partnership aims to expand the ability of breast cancer screening programs to make cardiovascular assessments from routine mammograms.
The Microsoft agreement capitalises on Volpara’s recent BAC patent to create a tissue composition map that identifies and quantifies BAC from a mammogram, helping radiologists identify the need to take steps toward the prevention of heart disease. BACs are clusters and patterns of calcification that appear on the mammogram image and may indicate heart disease or high risk of disease.
The launch of the cardiac decision support tool would mark Volpara’s entrance into the $146.4 billion cardiovascular disease market and would help women to learn more about, and take steps to, protect their cardiovascular health during regular breast screenings.
As a new CEO, Thomas is also spending time meeting major investors and sharing the Volpara story. “One comment a male investor shared with me was that men don’t really know much about mammograms. So, we arranged a tour at the Sydney Breast Clinic to show them the mammography equipment. We want our investors to better understand why Volpara does what it does and why it’s important.”
Volpara’s biggest investors – in terms of those that hold the most shares – include Harbor Asset Management, which has increased its position recently, the original founders, Spaceship and Baillie Gifford. “As a company, we’re interested in longer-term investors. Those investors who want to make an impact and those that care about ESG or are representing people that want to know that their money is helping to improve people’s lives. Those investors are a really good fit for us,” Thomas says.
Volpara is currently working towards B Corp certification, which Thomas says it is on track to achieve. “We’ve reported on ESG for the first time in our most recent annual report, but it’s always been part of our company DNA, given that we’re a very purpose-driven organisation,” she says.
Thomas explains Volpara divides its ESG efforts into four pillars: improved cancer prevention; a principled resilient business; a thriving workforce; and responsible climate stewardship. “This idea of not just detecting cancer but preventing it, attracted me – and most of our staff – to the company. With our Risk Pathways Program and some of the science that we’re doing, we’re getting closer to preventing cancer from happening.”