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@ycombinator Group Partner & head of bio and healthcare Surbhi Sarna is going to tell her own story of
🩺 How I built a medical device company nVision Medical) and sold it for $275M
it’s an incredible story of perseverance
📝 sharing my notes:
this talk is primarily targeted at healthcare and biotech founders - but the lessons are easily transferable to other domains!
healthcare is an important space for @ycombinator and @snowmaker personally
Surbhi joined YC recently to run their biotech investment division
today she'll tell her incredible story
which starts in high school. she was writing a paper on Emerson, when she felt a sharp pain
she blacked out from the pain and woke up in the hospital, which would be the first of many trips
diagnosis: repeat complex ovarian cysts
rather than wait for long diagnosis, she went on a journey to start nVision medical
she wanted to bring focus to womens' health
she studied science and engineering at uc berkeley and worked at companies with the objective of learning about ovarian cancer and why it's so hard to diagnose
she learned that 95% of the time, there are symptoms: pain, bloating, bleeding - overlap with benign conditions
so it's hard to make the call on whether biopsy of a cyst is worth the risk
so instead, they can do an ultrasound but can't tell if it's cancerous
or a blood test which is no better than a coin toss
there is a class of women who go through this process, who are faced with a difficult situation
women like Angelina Jolie who have the brca mutation
today those women are told that after 40, think about having your ovaries removed
but ovaries have a big impact on your health
the chances of getting Osteoporosis, depress and cardiovascular diseases increases dramatically
she pitched to a male investor, who had little empathy
but the numbers were dramatic:
600k cases of removal surgery every year
5 year survival rate is only 15%
she started a company in something else, but eventually realized that they could do a pap smear for ovarian cancer, done annually
latest research showed that ovarian cancer is a misnomer and it was typically starting in the fallopian tube
she developed a way to take cells from the fallopian tube for deformities
that started a multi year journey
you may not have an idea for your startup like her
for her, her company found her
if there is something that really upsets you, don't ignore it - lean into it
it's fuel for when things get hard
if you don't have something that frustrates you?
immerse yourself in a field that you care about
if it's education, go to a school - shadow them until they show frustration, that's a clue
you'll uncover stories of people trying something and failing
don't let that discourage you
maybe if it's been tried 1000x times.. otherwise take it as a data point and keep going
when talking to customers - your customers need to think it's a good idea
for her, she only knew cardiovascular surgeons but needed to talk to a gynecologist
she only knew her own. tried to call them, pitched the idea but got hung up on immediately.
she called again complaining about stomach pain
then she pitched the idea to the physician during the consultation!
she agreed to meet after the appointment, later at a cafe
finding people to give business or subject matter advice, you have to network
it doesn't need to be painful
it can be through 1x1 discussions
but the problem is at start, your network might be zero
you always have yourself - talk to anyone that will listen
for example a recruiter called her for a role, she talked to her!
when she was looking for a business advisor, she thought back to her high school friend's dad. it didn't go anywhere BUT the mom took interest. she introduces someone doing clinical trials in India!
PLEASE unlock the power of serendipity about anyone
that same friend's mom introduced her to her first optical engineer hire!
Put yourself out there!
after you have collected your advisors, validated the concept, done all your homework
it's time to raise money
for her, she had her concept, some physicians (12) that said it was a good idea
but no money to build, no savings
she kept getting 'no' from investors
her initial $350k took way more than 50 no's - she stopped counting
but one woman was interested, talked to her for 6 months
finally she was invited to meet in Boston
no traction, but finally got an invite to meet her partnership
it only takes one yes - and this was her last shot from her network
she knew that was her best pitch, they were so engaged
after the pitch, Darshna said she'll call tomorrow with good news
Surbhi flew home, kept her phone on loud
it was a No.
she was devastated
she asked why not - they said she had no experience running a company, no prototype... too risky
she climbed into bed and took a pause
that no had felt like a yes - so she thought of ways to de-risk
she called darshna back, said she will take more risk:
she'll move back home with her parents,
no salary for 2 years or until they raise money
they said yes for 125k if she could find another person to take the other half
she had someone waiting and she got it done!
remember it only takes one yes
don't get discouraged
validate your idea before, it will give you more confidence to handle the No's
investors are not validation for your product
customers are validating your product
another thing about talking to investors:
you should have such a solid understanding of your material that you can also read the room
simultaneously reciting your numbers and picking up on cues that customize the pitch to the person you're talking to
for example - she saw interesting reactions when she used the word 'vagina'
she switched to 'trans vaginal' and that went down better
never read from a slide, it needs to be authentic
she had some money, a concept, clinical advisor. she had to hire
again, she was a junior engineer at a startup, who could she recruit?
then she remembered her boss at that startup Dave Snow, who liked her
her first hire was her former boss!! her VP of R&D joined her after doing some consulting work with her
always think about what you're doing now, how hard you worked, as the foundation for what you end up building later
people will remember
always think through milestones first then hire based on those
ideally for the next 2 years - hire the right people to achieve those goals
make sure you know what each hire will be doing for 8 hours a day
here's the headline - seems easy
but this is the reality:
it was a long and tough journey including very tough process with the FDA
she never became a founder for the sake of becoming a founder
she did it to solve the very real problem that she experienced
she couldn't think of another job that would be as impactful as an entrepreneur
then she met @snowmaker and the biotech fund at @ycombinator
they wanted someone to come in and manage their biotech investments
her favorite mantra: build something people want
in healthcare, sometimes it's building what people WANT and sometimes it's what people NEED
her advice on dealing with the FDA
1/ start with the FDA website, they put a lot of information about processes there
2/ search the FDA database for previous approvals
3/ every approval will be linked to the name of the person who filed, find them on LinkedIn and hire them