Cristian Owen reflects on insights from the first series of his HealthTech CEO podcast
One of the best things about my job is that I get to interact with fascinating people. CEOs and innovators in HealthTech are working on some truly astounding projects, from Virtual Reality as therapy to preventative medicine, data optimization and AI programmes that could help to alleviate conditions like jet lag, PMS, and even hangovers. I wanted to put together a series for the Venari Podcast, so given the varied and talented people in my network, it made total sense to feature some of them in a programme of interviews.
For the first season of the HealthTech CEO podcast, I spoke to:
It’s been a pleasure to discuss the careers and visions of these remarkable individuals over the course of the past few months. Now that the first season of the HealthTech CEO podcast has ended, I wanted to recap some of the key learnings and trends we’ve seen across these interviews.
In the final episode of this first season, I spoke to Jennie Shulkin, who outlined her journey to becoming a healthtech CEO. She wanted to be a lawyer, but two separate traumatic brain injuries left her battling full-body chronic pain syndrome – leading her to become, in her own words, ‘more of an expert in chronic pain than I am in law.’ The experience inspired Jennie to co-launch Override, a virtual pain therapy clinic, and while she’s delighted to be helping patients with their treatment, she acknowledges that the company’s origin is ‘not a happy story – as is the case with many healthcare entrepreneurs.’
Indeed, several of the other founders I spoke to had poignant reasons for launching their businesses. Ari Tulla switched his attention to digital health from developing video games and apps in the wake of his wife’s struggles with a thyroid tumour. She was first diagnosed some 20 years ago, and although the tumour was removed, it caused a series of further complications including autoimmune disease and hormonal imbalances. Their experiences reaffirmed the importance of helping entrepreneurs to create new healthcare companies – ‘something meaningful that can affect people’s lives’ – to Ari.
Elsewhere, Ed Likovich was inspired to establish Nymbl Sciences after his grandfather ‘had a fall and really suffered from that, and passed away well short of what he should have.’ The experience of having ‘that close loved one who was impacted by a medical condition’ was part of what inspired Ed to found Nymbl – as well as a growing desire to work on something for older people, who are frequently marginalised in society.
Of course, it makes sense why so many healthtech founders have a personal connection to the causes linked to their company. Some of them, by contrast, had a more happenstantial route to becoming healthtech CEOs – though something that unites each person I spoke to is their dedication. It all ties into Ed’s advice for future healthtech gurus: ‘Find something you’re interested [in] and passionate about and just go as deep as you can into that’.
I’m fascinated about how healthtech CEOs are driving innovation. Talking to them can feel like getting an advance preview of the next big thing. For instance, the chief differentiator for Sarthak Sawarkar’s company, Sama Fertility, is that they are the only tech-driven fertility clinic in the U.S. The convenience this affords their users in a nation that is comparatively thinly served sets them apart from competitors – as does their cost, which is also informed by their lower overheads. Treatment is thus more affordable and accessible, allowing Sama to reach patients in small towns with minimal disruption to their routines. Sarthak wants them to be ‘the largest serving fertility platform in the world in the next five years, and we will be somebody who is truly able to change what patients can access in terms of fertility care and how easily they’re able to do this right.’
Separately, Vijay Ravindran is convinced that VR can be beneficial not just for neurodiverse people, but also in helping to bridge the gap between in-person meetings and video calls in care settings – especially for what concerns mental and behavioural health. He’s already seen this in the U.S., as real-time patient monitoring and remote care opportunities continue to increase. AI and generative content are important areas for him, ‘because AI can enable more rapid creation of new virtual reality experiences through creating 3D content’ – for example, by creating characters to interact with a therapy patient, or interpreting data to create efficient treatment plans. The advent of VR in healthcare, as in his company, Floreo, marks ‘the start of something special’, in Vijay’s words.
Staying with AI, Andrew Herr has been doing interesting work in this field. Intrigued by the high-performance unit studies he conducted with the U.S. military, ultimately, he decided to launch his own company, Fount, to scale his efforts and help a wider range of people. ‘What we do is we run these experimentation-based protocols,’ he explains. ‘It could be blood work, wearable data, how you feel’ – which will then inform how the findings are applied. Andrew realised that doing this for enough individuals would create ‘a very unique data set’, which could be used for other readings and ‘AI models that could then scale this to millions of people because we could build an elite digital coach.’ The data generated in their existing six-month subscription plan is powering the early versions of Fount AI, which will be more affordable than the digital coaching service currently on offer. ‘The AI revolution is helping us do it faster.’
Life as a CEO
Launching a healthtech startup is not for the faint-hearted, and hearing about these founders’ bravery and resilience was a constant across the HealthTech CEO series. For instance, Julia Regan quit her job to co-launch RxLightning in January 2020, mere weeks before COVID turned the world upside down. ‘For me, I’m not risky, and then the world shuts down and I’m like, “Oh wow, I just made a pretty big life change and now there’s just chaos.”’ The timing was a blessing in disguise, however: not only were Julia and her co-founder able to focus on building their product without distractions, but Julia also admits that ‘there was a lot of nice flexibility’ in not having a corporate job at a time when she was looking after her young children at home. Still, starting a company is incredibly challenging, especially at the beginning. You may not have the resources or capital to come up with the solution to a given problem, so ‘you have just got to figure it out,’ Julia admits.
Kal Patel also discussed the difficulties of being a healthtech CEO: ‘Being an entrepreneur can be a very lonely job because you feel the weight of your team, the company, your investors, on your shoulders.’ He describes the difference between where BrightInsight is now and where it was four years ago, when it gained Series A funding, as being like ‘night and day’. While they’ve had to learn from setbacks and successes alike to get to this point, ‘moving forward more than you are sometimes going sideways or backwards’ is key.
Advice for future CEOs
Finally, what advice did my guests have for the healthtech gurus of tomorrow? (Aside from Jennie’s wry ‘Don’t do it’, that is!)
Many of the CEOs advocated for the importance of having a trusted network to rely on for advice and mentorship. Tatiana Fofanova describes ‘surrounding yourself with the right people, the right mentors’ as ‘absolutely critical’. On the particulars of leading a company, she also notes that women leaders don’t have to mimic traditionally masculine leadership styles. If you don’t fit this paradigm, ‘you can lean into your natural strengths’ to just as much effect – if not more so. Most importantly, she believes that as a healthtech CEO, ‘you’re effectively married to your investors. So, you should choose incredibly wisely.’
Ian Koons echoes Ed Likovich’s advice, meanwhile, recommending that healthtech founders ‘do something that you either are an expert at or super passionate about. Because ultimately, you’re going to be spending all day, every day, every night thinking about solving this issue.’ Ian also stresses the need to be resolute and focused on your ultimate goal – to let criticism ‘roll off’ you – as there will be no shortage of people to tell you that ‘you’re dumb’ or that you can’t do something. For Ian, making sure ‘everybody is aligned and pushing [in one] direction, rowing the boat together’, is key, as ‘tech and people solutions’ working together can remedy many real-world healthcare issues.
Series Two coming soon!
It’s been a pleasure to curate the first season of the Healthtech CEO series – and I’m incredibly pleased to note that a second season is already in the works! We have some great guests lined up and I can’t wait to share their stories and insights with you.