From Coffee Innovator to Cancer Treatment Pioneer: Aussie Expat’s Bold New Mission in Dallas

Russell Hayward, CEO of Etira Life and former CEO and founder of Dallas' Ascension coffee chain, has a history of starting a new company about every six years. He discusses Etira Life's cancer treatment approach, upcoming clinical trials, and how his background as a serial entrepreneur prepared him for his latest mission.

You may not know the company, but it’s likely you’re familiar with the problem it’s solving for. 

“Etira is tackling tumor heterogeneity,” said Etira Life CEO Russell Hayward. 

Tumor heterogeneity refers to the complex mix of different cancer cell genotypes, phenotypes, or mutations that make up an individual tumor.  That complexity allows cancer cells to morph or evolve into forms that are resistant to drugs over time, often leading to therapy resistance, treatment failure, and disease recurrence—usually metastasizing in multiple locations.

“We believe the key to overcoming therapy resistance caused by tumor heterogeneity is by targeting the vast majority of cells in a tumor, not just specific cell types as many modern therapies do today,” Hayward explained.

Etira has developed a new approach to treatment with next generation therapeutics that work by targeting and disrupting the core protein machinery that drives cancer cells, triggering apoptosis or programmed cell death. Rather than cancer cells multiplying, they die. And Etira’s drug does this while leaving healthy cells alone. 

The next step in development is Phase 1 clinical trials, which will happen soon in Australia. Why there? Because it’s faster and more efficient to do clinical testing in Australia, and the results are accepted by the FDA. 

“There are a few challenges, but navigating is a bit easier for me as an ex-pat,” said Hayward. 

When Hayward joined Etira in 2020, he brought a lifetime of experience, living and working around the world — most often with companies he founded.  

“I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 25,” he said.

Every six years or so, Hayward started a company in a new space. He’s headed the business function in the advertising, entertainment, and food and beverage industries. In North Texas, people might be familiar with one of his local ventures, the coffee chain Ascension. It has seven locations around North Texas, including Dallas’ Design District, The Star in Frisco, and Fort Worth. 

When he sold Ascension in 2020, he wasn’t planning a new endeavor. But his good friend, surgeon/scientist Ganesh Raj, M.D., Ph.D., introduced him to Etira’s treatment that he had developed. Raj trusted Hayward’s guidance to build and scale the company, get the drug into trials, and ultimately commercialize it.

It’s a job he wasn’t looking for, but Hayward says he was intrigued by Etira’s attempt at an entirely new approach to cancer treatment and its ability to provide hope for patients with therapy-resistant cancers who have no other options. 

Like many people, he’s also motivated by personal experience with cancer, as it took the life of his former girlfriend at just 35-years-old. Being part of a company developing a drug that has shown efficacy in treating triple-negative breast cancer is particularly gratifying for him.

“There are a lot of people trying to solve for cancer — and that’s exciting, we need that. For example, at one point last year at MD Anderson, there were more than 13 hundred breast cancer trials underway,” Hayward said.

After the Phase 1 trials in Australia, Etira will review the data and move to Phase 2 testing in the United States. The next step would be FDA approval and getting the drug into the hands of patients. 

Voices contributor Nicole Ward is a data journalist for the Dallas Regional Chamber.

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R E A D   N E X T

As a data journalist at the Dallas Regional Chamber, Ward writes about the innovation that is defining the Dallas region.