His father had been a talented self-taught engineer who was a machinist building aircraft engines at General Electric. All the while, their family wasn’t detached from practicality. In addition to his job as a machinist, Joe and his father repaired cars, bakery equipment, and meat processing equipment. They lived in New Mexico and spent summers on the farm in Colorado. Joe reflects often on that childhood of necessity, the fixes, and curious tinkering, as his backbone for facing down challenges and overcoming problems through well-thought solutions.
In college, Joe studied business computer systems and programming at the University of New Mexico, where he advanced his interests in systems integration and software performance optimization, which channeled his talents from farm fields and on to fields in technology.
This concoction of tech-savvy problem solving led to Joe’s early rise from manufacturing to software development for Motorola, before leading the Company’s semiconductor products division Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) teams. From there, he shifted to the tech aspects of the airline industry, serving as Chief Information Officer for America West Airlines and then US Airways over a 10-year period.
Amid these successes, Joe and his wife Retta faced tenuous adversity in 1996, realizing their newborn twins — Noah and Alexis — suffered from persistent tremors, seizures, and a mysteriously debilitating loss of body control. Doctors, unable to trace back to the cause, initially diagnosed Noah and Alexis with cerebral palsy.
The exhibited symptoms, though, didn’t fit this diagnosis, as Joe and Retta continued to see their children spiral in dissipation. Desperate but determined, Joe and Retta retooled. Equipped with an outlook for facing down challenges and solving complex problems, Retta poured herself into research, sought research studies for Noah and Alexis to participate in. Ceaselessly, for years on end, until they landed on solutions.
Technology, problem-solving, and perseverance coalesced in 2008 when Joe took his career into biotechnology, at Invitrogen, the biotech company that became Life Technologies and was later acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Their family now existed in the realm of science and solutions, and Retta sought to have Noah and Alexis’s DNA samples sent to Baylor College of Medicine for sequencing analysis. There, answers began coming back. Noah and Alexis had genetic mutations affecting the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin, far afield from initial diagnoses of cerebral palsy. Doctors accordingly modified their treatment to include adding the serotonin precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) to their treatment. Noah and Alexis quickly rebounded and thrived.
The perseverance of parents unafraid to face down problems, teamed with evolving opportunities in health discovery and advancing technology, helped Joe and his family to live strong, healthy lives.
Now, as Luna’s Chief Executive Officer, Joe is scaling its platform to further unite people, communities, and researchers to accelerate health discoveries. “It took 15 years to get a definitive diagnosis to treat their rare genetic disorder, “Joe said. “Today with Luna, we would have found that in 15 months.”
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Joe shares more with us about his life and career journey, and how he became a prominent health tech executive spearheading health initiatives for the greater good.
Hi, Joe. Thanks for taking the time to share more about your life and career journey. Can you share more about your life growing up as young Joe?
My mom’s maiden name is Velasquez. She grew up in southern Colorado and did not speak English until she went into high school. My dad grew up in Elkhart, Indiana. They met when he was stationed at the Army base in Colorado Springs. I was the first grandchild within both families and blessed to have both cultures influence my life growing up. I spent my summers on the farm with the Velasquez family, which included my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. The winters were spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico while I was in school. I was fully emerged in the Hispanic culture.
When did your interest in tech start? What inspired you to eventually take this career path?
My father did not go to college. In fact, I got my high school diploma before he did. Despite that, he is one of the most gifted engineers I have ever met. He eventually worked for most of his career at GE building aircraft engines. From a very early age, I learned to repair equipment and was interested in how machines work. We did many side jobs together. When I went to college, I was driven to be an industrial engineer. In my early days at the University of New Mexico, I found that I was more interested in the computer side of the engineering discipline. I would write programs for my fellow students, and they would do my calculus homework. This was the point in time that I realized that I was going to pursue a career in information technology.
How has your heritage shaped your career today? What aspects of your heritage do you think have impacted the culture of your workplace?
Overall, I think that my heritage has shaped me in two very specific ways. The first is my work ethic. Coming from a mixed family and from a minority group, I learned the value of working hard, working long hours, and going above and beyond to earn what you make. The second is my perspective on diversity and what it means. I do not have the features or the last name, but I am at my core Hispanic. This makes for very interesting conversations in the workplace when someone finds out I am Hispanic and then asks if I speak Spanish. Diversity is not about your looks or your ability to speak a language but how you think and your life experiences.
Well said. Let’s talk more about your role as CEO of Luna. What excites you most about your leadership role at Luna, personally and professionally?
Luna is a super exciting company. We have all the elements that make for life-changing moments for individuals and researchers who use Luna, investors, and employees. We have a great product, incredible team members, and most importantly, we change the quality of life of people. I have had a wonderful career for over 30 years, and I want my legacy to be about what we do at Luna.
What do diversity and inclusion mean to you?
Diversity to me is about lived experiences and what lens an individual can use to solve a problem. It is connected to all aspects of an individual. Inclusion is recognizing the value of everyone’s lived experience and creating an environment that not just respects that but leverages that for the good of the individual and the team.
What one piece of advice would you give to others passionate about becoming leaders in technology?
Technology is one of the most available careers. We can work and grow in technology regardless of where we live, how much education we have, and what our desire is to do. My advice is to use all these aspects to focus on the element that excites you and to use your heritage as a motivator and lever to expand in the field.
Finally, what would you like your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to be a combination of three things. First, is my faith and family. My greatest accomplishment is my relationship with my wife and my children. Second, is my ability to be humble but courageous and always put the customer, employees, and the company first. Finally, I want to be known for working for companies and producing products that impacted people’s lives.
Luna’s suite of tools and services connects communities with researchers to accelerate health discoveries. With participation from more than 180 countries and communities advancing causes including disease-specific, public health, environmental, and emerging interests, Luna empowers these collectives to gather a wide range of data — health records, lived experience, disease history, genomics, and more – for research.
Luna gives academia and industry everything they need from engagement with study participants to data analysis across multiple modalities using a common data model. The platform is compliant with clinical regulatory requirements and international consumer data privacy laws.
By providing privacy-protected individuals a way to continually engage, Luna transforms the traditional patient-disconnected database into a dynamic, longitudinal discovery environment where researchers, industry, and community leaders can leverage a range of tools to surface insights and trends, study disease natural history and biomarkers, and enroll in clinical studies and trials.