2 Percent Of 10,000+ Cancer Clinical Trials Included Black People. Kornelius Bankston Plans To Change The Numbers

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
clinical trials
Underrepresented populations are excluded from clinical trials for medicines created without them in mind. Kornelius Bankston and his firm techPLUG are out to change the numbers. Bankston is managing partner at techPLUG, an innovation firm that’s helping emerging companies with health solutions for Black people and marginalized populations to reach the community and scale. Photo: Anthony Florence Jr.

It is no secret people of color are often excluded from clinical trials and healthcare studies.

In 1993, Congress passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act which was supposed to improve representation. Yet a report in 2014 showed fewer than 2 percent of 10,000+ cancer clinical trials included Black and brown people, according to a Scientific American magazine. This underrepresented population is excluded from clinical trials yet is expected to use the medicines created without them in mind.

Kornelius Bankston, the managing partner of the innovation firm techPLUG, is out to change the numbers.

Based in Atlanta, techPLUG is working to bridge the divide between tech, health, and diverse populations.

“The idea for techPLUG started around the question, how do we help emerging companies who have health solutions for people of color, particularly those in marginalized and underserved populations, to reach the community and scale?” Kornelius said.

A graduate of Morehouse College, Emory University and Georgia Tech, Kornelius serves as a board director for the Southeast BIO, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship in the life sciences in the Southeastern U.S.

He’s putting his bioscience and business development background to work for himself. Since launching in 2019, techPLUG has conducted research for an Atlanta utility company, launched a health tech symposium, and worked with the City of New Orleans and with SynsorMed, a telehealth and patient monitoring platform that’s improving healthcare in underserved areas. techPLUG also partners in Atlanta with Joey Womack’s Intentionally Good Project.

Kornelius spoke to Moguldom about the tech trends that can help transform the health of underrepresented people and advice for Black tech founders looking to grow in the space.

Apple, Google and all these large companies are getting engaged in health tech. Many of the innovations are happening through the phone. People in marginalized communities can’t always afford a $1,000 phone. How do we ensure these large tech companies are not leaving this population behind? We decided to help.

Kornelius Bankston, managing partner at techPLUG, an innovation firm that’s helping emerging companies with health solutions for Black people and marginalized populations to reach the community and scale.

Moguldom: Why did you start techPLUG?

Kornelius Bankston: For most of my career, I have been thinking about how to take innovation from the lab to the marketplace where individuals can actually utilize the tech or the small molecule drug (a drug that can enter cells easily because it has a low molecular weight).

I’ve noticed a lot of things happen on the large pharma side, but it seems as though people in marginalized and disadvantaged or low-income communities were not receiving the innovations I thought they should receive. The idea for techPLUG started around the question, how do we help emerging companies who have health solutions for people of color, particularly those in marginalized and underserved populations, to reach the community and scale?

The whole thought around techPLUG is to connect those communities with emerging companies so they can develop the innovation for them. We saw there was a huge gap in the tech community.

Apple, Google and all these large companies are getting engaged in health tech. The trend we are seeing is many of the innovations are happening through the phone. As we know, people of color and people in low-income and marginalized communities, can’t always afford a $1,000 phone. How do we ensure these large tech companies are not leaving this population of people behind? We decided to help with this problem. This is why techPLUG exists — to close that divide between healthcare tech and populations of underserved and marginalized communities.

Moguldom: With your extensive background and education in healthcare and business development, and being a Techstars Mentor, you have seen trends in health tech. What tech trends do you think could be effective for improving the health of the Black community?

Kornelius Bankston: For one, data collection is huge. Look at how much data we can acquire so we can use AI and predictive analytics to predict certain things. Then I would say clinical trials. Clinical trials are very important in the healthcare space and are especially important for the Black community.

On average, clinical trial participants are 50-year-old white males. We’re in the age of precision medicine. With precision medicine, the whole idea is we have innovative solutions geared towards your genetic makeup. If people of color are not participating in these clinical trials, we’re missing out on being a part of this whole innovative process of precision medicine.

This is part of the reason we experience side effects. When you see the side effects listed on commercials that if you take this drug you might have adverse issues from it, that’s all a part of what happened during clinical trials. If we’re not participating in them, our genetics is not considered. We really need to get behind clinical research, so that the innovative solution can be geared towards our makeup. If precision medicine continues to evolve and we’re left out, what will we take to help cure our ailments?

I think these big tech companies have to be a little bit more proactive in getting into our community to develop trust. Google now has a health solution. What are they doing in Vine City (Atlanta) to address some of the health disparities in this community beyond giving access to search on Google? We need to look more at how we can utilize these analytics to help improve health outcomes in communities of color like Vine City.

On average, clinical trial participants are 50-year-old white males. We’re in the age of precision medicine. The whole idea is innovative solutions geared towards your genetic makeup. If people of color are not participating in clinical trials, we’re missing out on being a part of this whole innovative process of precision medicine.

Kornelius Bankston, managing partner at techPLUG, an innovation firm that’s helping emerging companies with health solutions for Black people and marginalized populations to reach the community and scale.

Moguldom: Due to what we have learned about Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Airmen, people of color find it hard to trust the medical community. How can we begin to foster a sense of trust with the medical community?

Kornelius Bankston: Morehouse School of Medicine and other organizations like them have been around for years and have developed trust. The emphasis isn’t really on the community, to be honest with you, it’s really on the large organizations and how they develop strategies to get into the community to develop trust.

I’m a Black man and I don’t trust a lot of things and I work in the industry. I still have to research to make sure I’m comfortable with the information I’ve been given. So, our community is not going to wake up one day and say I’m going to trust our healthcare system. It’s going to have to take a very proactive approach, not just from the community to be engaged and be willing to receive the information, but it’s on these large organizations and our healthcare system.

There are a lot of innovative approaches that are being taken to address some of these health disparities, but our community has been taken advantage of for so long there are deep-rooted trust issues. It’s going to have to be a proactive outreach strategy from these health tech solutions to move things forward. One of the solutions we’re working within the Bay area is a solution I think is phenomenal. I can’t really speak to what it is exactly yet, but it is around population health and getting into the community at the ground level to get people engaged. People are incentivized financially for participating in this tech which is helpful because they can immediately know what is working and what is not.

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Moguldom: You have a health-tech symposium, Beyond the Divide. To accomplish all of these activities, how did you find team members as passionate as you are for this subject?

Kornelius Bankston: One team member and I have been doing work together since I was at Morehouse School of Medicine (Kornelius worked there for 3.5 years as program manager for the Office of Translational Technologies). She and I have been working together for about 10 years and I know her quality of work. Our other team member was very proactive. She reached out to us after we did our event in New Orleans where we took our portfolio companies and teamed up with the Department of Health. She saw me on a panel speaking and she reached out. I just liked her hustle and I thought it would mirror what we’re doing as we’re growing. We will engage others for help with our activations.

Kornelius Bankston talks with Pam Alexander. Photo: Tara Thierry

However, I look for people to be engaged and understand their interest in this particular issue. If you don’t have a passion for closing the health disparity gap utilizing technology, this probably would not be a good fit. It’s not always glamorous working to get people access to innovative solutions. I also need people who have the scientific and business acumen to help these companies.

Moguldom: This isn’t a traditional business with the typical model for scaling and fundraising. How do you see the company expanding and growing over the next few years?

Kornelius Bankston: One of the things I think that we learned from last year was community and city engagement is very critical. It introduces the population to the solution. We will be building this out more as we go into more cities.

We’re going into San Francisco, and back to New Orleans. As we grow, it will be one of our big drivers. You can develop a solution, but if you develop it in a vacuum and leave out the community, it will not grow.

We really need to get behind clinical research so that the innovative solution can be geared towards our makeup. If precision medicine continues to evolve and we’re left out, what will we take to help cure our ailments?

Kornelius Bankston, managing partner at techPLUG, an innovation firm that’s helping emerging companies with health solutions for Black people and marginalized populations to reach the community and scale.

We just completed a research study with a large utility company in the Atlanta area over the holidays. We completed research within the communities in which we serve around social determinants of health as it relates to energy usage. When you think through it, if you’re living in a home that has not been weatherized, what kind of health implications will that cause if you’re elderly? If it is 28 degrees, how does that impact your home, your family life, your health and the type of medications or at-home treatments?

If you have to purchase your medication and utilities are $300, how can you afford to purchase food? We just completed that research study a few weeks ago and we’re actively engaged in research with other large organizations. We anticipate this only increasing in the future.

Moguldom: Do you have any advice for Black healthcare tech founders who want to be successful in the industry?

Kornelius Bankston: Do not innovate in a vacuum. Really understand the community, or the customer or the end-user you’re creating this tech for today. If it is Joanne that lives on the south side of Chicago, spend time in that community to really understand her needs. Develop a solution that can meet the needs of your audience, but also create it at a price point your customers can afford.

I see a lot of people innovating and thinking through things and it’s either something people do not need or it’s at a price point the user can’t afford. Find entities within the city that could potentially partner with your organization to help reach those communities. It could be a community health center or a hospital that serves the community you are trying to target. Just become engaged with them so you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting by yourself.