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Episode 6: Engineering the future of reproductive health

Posted:
7 October, 2021

Reproductive healthcare has struggled as an under-researched area and underinvested area in science. This is starting to change, and two startups, ImVitro and Juno Bio are working to tackle the gender health gap. 

ImVitro works to improve the success of IVF, and Juno Bio’s microbiome test kit helps women with a wide range of vaginal and reproductive concerns..

In this episode, we speak with Hana Janebdar, co-founder and CEO of Juno Bio, and Alexandra Boussommier, co-founder and CEO at ImVitro. They join host and Entrepreneur First’s co-founder Alice Bentinck to talk about how their companies are using innovative technology to tackle reproductive health issues.

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Shownotes

Alexandra’s entrepreneurship journey: Alex always knew she wanted to start a company, but she wanted to build up her scientific maturity [00:01:26]. It was after she received her PhD when she felt ready to build and build an R&D centric company. In academia, she felt that there was too much inertia, and she wanted feedback from end users. 

Hana’s entrepreneurship journey: During her Biochemical Engineering Master’s, she was fascinated by how biology could be translated into meaningful products for the world, and this started her on the journey to put products in front of people [00:03:31]. 

Biology is great, but this is terrible and needs to be changed: Hana was prompted to focus on the microbiome space because there was a glaring absence of work done in the area. The microbiome in the vagina is the most directly accessible and meaningful out of microbiomes as it impacts over 30 women’s conditions [00:05:36] and the fact that it was under-researched was ridiculous. 

Starting a company alone is hard: Alexandra had worked on her idea for a year but discovered that she wasn’t making headway. [00:06:25] At EF, she eventually managed to turn her initial research on cell culture and apply it to the IVF space. With the use of AI, her software is able to identify which embryos should be transferred first for treatment, and in turn increase the chances of a successful pregnancy. 

Juno Bio aims to close the gender health gap with their primary focus on vaginas: Their at-home wellness test is currently the most comprehensive screen that women can get for all the microbes that live in the vagina. This feeds into their research and some of the biggest studies of its kind so far [00:11:16].

Is “FemTech” the right term to use for products that cater to women’s healthcare: Practically speaking, Femtech may make sense in the short-term. However, with Juno Bio solving problems for over half of the world’s population, Hana believes that FemTech is a tiny category that has limitations on many levels as it divides people and limits engagement, including from a funding standpoint, which will become even more self-limiting [00:12:40]. Alexandra thinks that labeling technology based on gender is unnecessary. With IVF, these labels shape the experience deeply, and implications include fertility being a woman’s problem, and by extension, the burden of parenthood falling on women. 

With access to reproductive healthcare an ongoing issue globally, Juno Bio’s at-home services provide a key benefit: The pandemic accelerated this shift and gave people with vaginas control over their own wellness and health journeys [00:18:13]. Additionally, this coincided with a greater sense of self-advocacy and a sense of wanting to do something about health and wellness. 

When shifting from research to real-world, be ready to spend time with customers and get comfortable with storytelling: Alexandra welcomed the opportunity to spend time with the end-user or the patient in her case [00:19:58], which is not always the case in academia, where she could be in her lab doing research days on end. In research, she was accustomed to always having the data in front of her to prove a point, but in startups, she would need to sell the vision before she built the product, which was a reversal. Hana describes the difference shift to being vision-driven from data-driven as one of the first important changes someone transitioning from research will see [00:22:56]. 

When fundraising, Hana and Alexandra share some tips: Hana describes a meeting where she was asked not to mention the word vagina to an investor [00:24:24]. Her observation is that when raising a seed round, founders need to remember that it’s all about being vision-driven and talking to people that are right for you. In these instances, having a strong conviction around things such as, “the world is messed up and this needs to change” is key instead of shying away from it. Alexandra thinks that finding the right investor is like dating [00:25:40]. There will be days after pitching hundreds of times in weeks where the only thing that keeps a founder going is the belief about what you’re working on. Relationships with these investors are also two-way, where you need to click and be willing to listen to them as you will need to work with them for many years. 

Both Juno Bio and ImVitro have exciting milestones ahead of them: Juno Bio will be launching a clinically actionable version of their test kit soon [00:28:47], and Alexandra will be deploying their product to their partners imminently. 

Hana and Alexandra share their tips for prospective entrepreneurs: Alexandra recommends that founders need to pick something they’re really interested in, and for academics in particular, is that they should learn to sell themselves. Finally, she encourages founders to aggressively ask for help. As a founder, your job is to move mountains, and you have a finite amount of energy [00:30:17]. Hana believes that the best thing to do is to start, and keep going, and talk to all the founders you can talk to [00:31:09].

Full Transcript

[00:00:15] Alice Bentinck: Hello, and welcome to the Entrepreneur First Podcast, where we uncover the stories and ambitions of some of the world’s most inspiring entrepreneurs. My name is Alice Bentinck. I’m the co-founder of Entrepreneur First, and I’ll be your host for this episode. Today, we’re talking about innovations in reproductive healthcare. This is a fascinating and traditionally underinvested in area of healthcare. I’m super excited to see the next generation of founders tackling so many problems in this space. Our two guests for this episode are Hana Janebdar, CEO and co-founder of Juno Bio, and Alexandra Boussommier, who holds the same role at ImVitro.

Both these companies use innovative technology to tackle reproductive health issues. ImVitro works to improve the success rate of IVF, and Juno Bio’s microbiome test kit helps diagnose a wide range of vaginal health issues. Settle down, and grab a cup of tea to hear a fascinating conversation between two amazing founders doing exciting things in the reproductive healthcare space.

[music]

At Entrepreneur First, we’re always eager to find out why people decide to become a founder. I asked Alexandra how her journey began.

[00:01:26] Alexandra Boussommier: I’m a researcher by training. I did a PhD. I did a post-doc, and to be fair, I always knew I wanted to start a company, I just didn’t know when. I just knew that I was still lacking some scientific maturity. I think I was at the end of my postdoc when I felt like I had accumulated enough experience. Because going through a PhD and a postdoc is not easy, and it builds a lot of soft skills that I find really interesting for when you start your company. It was really at that stage. I always knew I wanted to build an R&D centric company. So, that’s why I felt like it was the right time to go into it.

The other reason that really made me take the leap is that, while I loved academia, I always felt like there was maybe a little too much inertia for my personality. It’s all very well it being like this, like you need some risky long-term academic projects. I was doing a lot of fundamental research, but I felt like I was missing some more immediate return. I wanted some sanity checks from the end users, and  I felt like starting my R&D company, that would be product centric, having a parallel stream of feedback that would make sure that your R&D, even though it takes longer to achieve, is going the right direction, was the perfect fit. That’s why I ended up going there.

I moved a bit. I was first in Switzerland, then in the UK. Then I went to the US. I ended up coming back to Paris first because I’m French and Spanish, so I did want to come back to Europe. It had been ages, but actually, it was because I obtained this fellowship from the Marie Curie Institut. They have developed this fellowship that really encourages academics to come to Europe and integrate a startup to discover this world, and I really used that as a stepping stone. I just tried to start my own company, and then I joined the EF. Now I’m in Paris, and you can tell it’s really an interesting hub to be in.

Of course, London has always been known to be a great startup hub, but you can tell that they’re trying really hard in Paris to make it a great place for founders, and I think in many ways it is. I can tell that especially founders are really trying hard to help each other out to make this a long-lasting startup hub.

[00:03:27] Alice: For Juno Bio, it was biology which sparked Hana’s interest in entrepreneurship.

[00:03:31] Hana Janebdar: To be quite honest, I think it probably started quite early during my Master’s. I went from doing biology at Imperial to Biochemical Engineering at UCL. The Master’s was very much about, how do you translate biology into meaningful products for the world? It’s all about scaling up things, building bioreactors, downstream processing and all the rest of it.

That Master’s for me was the eye-opener, that actually biology isn’t just about having your favorite parasite, or your favorite microbe, which I’ll admit I have, it’s about using that to put products in front of people. The microbiome industry is really exciting. It’s nascent in a lot of ways, but also the impact that it can potentially have is huge. Previously, we’ve seen in the space that, I think, there are a lot of overreaching claims that have been made, interpretations that don’t quite add up, et cetera.

Also, a lack of transparency for the customer, and we’ve seen companies fail in the space – quite big companies backed by really big investors. For us, it’s really important that we’re fully transparent with the customer. What is it that’s being sequenced? What is it that is being pooled and anonymized and used to power up research, and to what end? Is it  just to make endless profits or is Juno to close the gender health gap?

Then with these claims, the microbiome industry navigates a space that is adjacent to things like probiotics, which to date haven’t been regulated, et cetera. You really need to make sure that what you say is backed by science, backed by consensus in science and caveated in a way that makes it factual, but also accessible to the customer. That is challenging, and it’s challenging in communication as much as it is in what we do behind the scenes, and that’s where we’ve been really responsible.

[00:05:22] Alice: As one of the co-founders of EF, I’m also keen to understand why people join us. Whilst EF plays an integral role in making a founder’s role ambition a reality, we often find that goals and ambitions change once they’ve joined us. I asked Hana to tell us a little bit more about why she joined EF.

[00:05:36] Hana: I joined EF because I had been working in the microbiome space. I’d worked in the lab, and I’d seen all the different applications of this kind of technology. But I’d seen a really big sort of huge space and lack of anything being done when it came to the microbiome in the vagina and women’s health. Which to me was ridiculous, because of all the microbiomes, it’s the most directly accessible and meaningful, and impacts over 30 women’s conditions. I had this idea that like, well, this is ridiculous. This needs to change. Someone introduced me to Jade who used to work at EF back in the day, I think. I just sat down with her and I said, “Biology is great, but this is terrible and this is what needs to be changed,” et cetera and she’s like, “Well, come to EF and do it there.”

[00:06:20] Alice: Alexandra had tried starting a company before, but she felt that EF could take her founder ambitions to the next level.

[00:06:25] Alexandra: I knew that I wanted to work in the field that we call cell culture, so manipulating cells in the lab. Ironically, it had nothing to do with IVF, which actually makes this story I think even more interesting to me because I actually had tried starting a company for a year. The first time EF had contacted me was for the first cohort in Paris, and it’s actually funny because I was like, “It sounds interesting, but I want to give it a try for myself.” I hear there’s no better way of attributing value to something when you’ve tried, because I was trying for a year alone and it’s really hard.

What was really funny is that the same person called me a year later, because they’re really smart, and they were like, “How are you doing? Do you want to join us?” That’s when I was like, “Yes, maybe I do. Maybe this is actually really hard in the end.” And so, I did decide to join EF, and at that point, I had matured a bit, had some ideas, and I did make some progress, but it wasn’t nearly as much as I would have done and I did end up doing with EF in a couple of months. 

The idea was that I had spent a lot of time in the lab as a researcher. My research was in bioengineering, first around glaucoma, then cancer, and so, it was more the techniques that I was really interested in. Because I could really see – and I’m not the only one – that cell culture is going to be central to many, many treatments. What was interesting is that EF was really good at encouraging me to just look into it and different fields where cell culture was central. I didn’t have a set idea. I thought I did and EF was really open to saying, “Don’t worry, you’re going to come in with your idea. You’re going to think it’s the best one and you’re actually going to realize that it isn’t,” and that’s exactly what happened.

The good thing is I came in with knowing what I was passionate about, which I feel is maybe more important rather than attaching yourself to a specific idea. Then I gave myself, or EF gave me, some space to explore what other applications around that initial idea I could find traction for. That’s what ended up happening because at the heart of IVF, you do have cell culture.

[00:08:17] Alice: I asked Alexandra to tell us a bit more about what ImVitro does.

[00:08:21] Alexandra: The one-liner is that we use AI to tackle infertility. In reality, as you can imagine, there’s many ways of doing it. One of the main medical solutions to infertility today remains in vitro fertilization or IVF, and while it has helped a lot of people, often its success rates still stagnate, and they’re still quite low. It means that the patients have to go back. They have to repeat their treatments, which are not easy. They take a lot of time. They’re expensive, and emotionally, it can really hurt. The mission really here is to increase the success rate of IVF to make an easier path towards parenthood, but in doing so, we want to help doctors better treat their patients. 

It’s B2B and what we’re  developing is a Software as a Service platform, whereby we’d have a software that the IVF experts in the lab, the embryologists, could connect to, essentially upload some of their key data, and we would then help them make more robust decisions. The one decision that I was really interested in to start with – first because it’s really key, but second because it gets back to my own expertise in the lab – is that of the evaluation of the embryo. Because again, in a nutshell, IVF consists in creating embryos in the lab using the patient’s gametes, maintaining them alive in the lab for a few days, and then choosing which one you’ll transfer back into the patient.

For the last decade, clinics have been equipping themselves with a new generation of microscope called time-lapse microscopes. All they do is acquire images of these embryos as they develop every 20 minutes for six days. This is the data we’re interested in because, as much as they have their undeniable expertise, the embryologists spend time going through these videos looking for biological hints that might help them predict which of these embryos has the highest chance of leading to a pregnancy.

Again, as much as they have their expertise, if you saw one of those videos, you’d realize how rich in information it is. The belief is that we’re missing out on maybe some key hints that AI could pick up on. We have algorithms that have been trained on these videos of embryos for which we know there was or was not a pregnancy. The idea is that now it’s accumulated some knowledge that helps them upload their video. That way, when the algorithm sees a new video, it can predict with an accuracy that is higher than that of the doctor which one should be transferred first, so that the patient doesn’t  repeat treatments that will fail.

I’m really happy to say that this year has seen our first version of the product come out. We actually also got what is called the CE marking; we’re in the medical field, and so, obviously, you want to make sure that what you develop is safe to use for patients, and for doctors. This was a huge milestone earlier this year in June. The team did a wonderful job and so, now we have the CE marking and we have a first version of the product, which is a software, I’ll tell you more about later. Now it brings us much closer to the patients, to the users, and it opens up a lot of doors for us to keep improving the product and the company, of course.

Alexandra pitching at Demo Day
Alexandra pitching at Demo Day

[00:11:16] Alice: Meanwhile, Hana’s company, Juno Bio, focuses primarily on vaginas. I asked her to explain how they cater to the wellness of people with vaginas.

[00:11:23] Hana: At Juno, we’re decoding the vaginal microbiome. The vaginal microbiome is the community of microbes that live in the vagina and are implicated in over 30 women’s health conditions from recurrent infections through to unexplained infertility. These conditions are poorly characterized, badly diagnosed and inadequately treated. We provide women with an at-home wellness test, which is the most comprehensive screen that they can get of all the microbes that live in the vagina, what it means for them and what they can do next. Then we pull all the results that we have and we use that to power up research to close the gender health gap.

I think our biggest recent milestone similarly is the launch of our product. So 10 months ago we launched our product, our first ever one. It was informed by the study that we had done the year previously, which was in itself, one of the biggest studies of its kind. Then over the past 10 months, we’ve been working really iteratively, adding features, talking with our customers and really learning so much. 

Breaking news, I think we’ve hit product-market fit according to the Sean Ellis test, so that’s super, super exciting for us.

[00:12:30] Alice: Recently, the label FemTech is being used increasingly to refer to products which cater to women’s healthcare, but is it right to use such a term? I asked Hana if she finds this label appropriate.

[00:12:40] Hana: I think the short answer is, in the short term, sure, why not? It’s a sufficient categorization, but in the medium to long-term, no, it’s not the right terminology at all. The way to categorize our company is first of all, obviously, what we do for people with vaginas, it’s not just your traditional FemTech or women’s health type company. Then, second of all, I think it’s probably not advantageous for the kind of problems that we’re solving to bucket us into just this one FemTech category, because you’ll get people that are either engaged in it or not engaged in it even from a funding perspective. What we’re doing is solving problems for over half the population of the world, and I think it’s bigger than just this tiny little FemTech name that we get given.

[00:13:30] Alice: Alexandra believes labeling technology based on gender is unnecessary.

[00:13:33] Alexandra: I realise maybe it’s because I don’t know, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of MenTech. I’d be curious if that exists. It could, I’m not saying it shouldn’t. But, I think, especially with IVF, I’ve tried to be as vocal as I could about it because, it’s very often that I hear that IVF is FemTech, and don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. I think it goes back to what you were saying, Hana. You need some labels sometimes, and it’s partly FemTech in the sense that we do use tech to help women.

I feel with IVF it’s just even more of a problem because, in some ways, it sounds like it’s just semantic, but words matter. They matter a lot. Words shape the experience of people, and especially of patients, I think, and even though it sounds subtle, what I would imagine is that, if you keep hammering this message home, it could really sound like fertility is a woman’s problem, which if you extend the argument could really sound like the burden of parenthood falls on women.

Again, it sounds a bit extreme but also, let’s face it, it has been true in society and could still be in some places. The point is, I really think changing the way we use words could really remind us that, no, at least it doesn’t need to be if women want to be parents. Of course, it’s great, but it doesn’t need to be that the burden feels like it falls on women, because you can imagine if you were infertile, it’s even harder because you could feel like you’re failing. In some countries, it does happen, and in some places, it’s not just a conversation that makes you uncomfortable, it can be a big deal.

That’s why I think it would be really good if we stopped associating fertility and parenthood with women, and also back to Hana’s comment because, gender is also being redefined. It’s not just women and men anymore. This is a separate subject, but there’s also homosexual couples, men that would use IVF with surrogacy. The last thing I’ll say is that it would also undermine all the men that desperately want kids and they’re having fertility issues.

I don’t see it as being problematic. Like Hana said, just use FemTech short-term if it makes sense logically. We are helping women. I just wouldn’t want it to be used exclusively. That’s why back to my comment, okay, FemTech, let’s talk then about MenTech, let’s talk about everything else and make sure that we don’t make this association that in the long term will not be beneficial to women.

[00:15:47] Hana: The burden of all this, all the problems that we see in this space, shouldn’t be on women. I think that is a big thing that isn’t traditionally addressed when we’re talking about the companies that we build. A lot of the time you’ll be asked as a woman, what happens, and as a woman, this and that. It really shouldn’t be as a woman, it should be as a person navigating the patriarchy. If you want to call it anything, call it anti-patriarchy tech, don’t call it FemTech.

[00:16:15] Alice: Advances in technology have also helped the reproductive healthcare market evolve. I asked Alexandra to tell us about some of the new tech trends she’s paying attention to in this sector.

[00:16:23] Alexandra: The thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to talk about the trends that I want to see happening or the ones that I’m seeing. It could be a mix of both, but one thing that I’m hoping is happening is really this idea that we are going to leverage AI to become more and more interdisciplinary. I’m a firm believer in being interdisciplinary. It’s in my training and I think it’s known that it’s often where you foster creativity.

I would really hope that there’s going to be almost this idea that we can use AI to learn a lot from different experts within the same field. If you look at IVF, there’s already this challenge of having gynecologists and embryologists, the experts in the lab, sharing their knowledge. They already do it and they do it well, but there’s always this feeling that we could really make sure that data and help flows more freely across experts within reproductive health, and also outside of reproductive health.

I think this could actually apply, I would hope, to all of AI in medicine, so making sure that we see AI being used to share knowledge even across clinics. I think that it would be really great to make sure that we’re not just all trying our own solution locally, which I find happens often in academia too, by the way, but making sure that we can really get to the next level and add some transparency, both for the doctor and for the patients. 

I’m not saying patients should have as much information as doctors. They don’t have the same training, it can be scary, but I do think it’d be a really great trend. I think that’s where we all want to go, where we can actually, again, use this more data-driven medicine to help patients also go through the process more peacefully and to make sure that they’re more informed about what’s happening and what decisions are being made.

[00:18:02] Alice: Globally, access to reproductive healthcare continues to remain an issue. Hana’s company is trying to tackle that by offering at-home services. I asked her to elaborate on how this works and why it’s beneficial.

[00:18:13] Hana: It definitely was accelerated by the pandemic where a lot more things had to happen at home. The reason why it’s so great is because, it really helps the patient, or in our case, women, people with vaginas, take control of their own wellness and health journeys, especially when, traditionally, they would have been dismissed or not had the same access if they’d gone and done not at-home testing. We’re seeing the at-home testing space really grow in a really exciting way. We’re also seeing people really self-advocate for their health and wellness, which I think, they didn’t really have as much self-consent to do so.

To go and self-advocate and say, “No, I feel that this is wrong and something has to be done about it.” We’re also starting to see a lot more nuance. Now that people, in a greater way, understand biology in part because of COVID-19, and they understand the fact that there will be ambiguity and that science is an evolving thing, people understand nuance. People can accept uncertainty around different aspects of the at-home testing space.

[00:19:26] Alice: I love this point around enabling people to advocate for their health needs, and particularly in under-researched areas. I asked Hana what she thought about this.

[00:19:34] Hana: A big part of the gender health gap is literally just being taken seriously. Women and people with vaginas aren’t taken as seriously as their counterparts in the medical industry.

[00:19:46] Alice: At EF, I’ve often noticed how founders who transition from academia to business can initially find it challenging. I asked Alexandra to tell us about how she dealt with leaving her lab to spend more time pitching her products to customers.

[00:19:58] Alexandra: I suppose, one of the big changes that was very welcome actually in joining EF is this idea that, if you want to start a company, or at least the way I started it myself, you need to be ready to face the end-user, or the customer, or the patient, call it however you want. I’m not saying that when you’re in academia, you never do. You could, but it’s not something that is typically encouraged, unless you’re really on the clinical side of things, but even then. 

I guess my point is just, making sure you like it because, often, when you’re in academia, you could be someone that likes being in their own lab – I certainly was – alone, or very often, not talking to users. I think that would be a change that you’d need to be ready for. Especially the idea of not having any excuse, in the sense that when you’re doing research, you have so many other things to do, and especially if you’re a perfectionist, you’re going to be like, “Okay, let me work more on this, let me work more on this.” Guess what? You didn’t talk to the end-user, and that’s fine by the way, because more often than not, you don’t need to in academia. The first change I’ll say is really be ready to have no excuse.

It’s like, no, actually, if you want to start a company, you’re not going to be pushing technology, which is often the case in fundamental research, I’m not talking about all research. You’re going to have to first show or prove that this technology is going to be pooled, and it sounds subtle, but that switch is actually really hard, because you’re always going to be thinking, “Oh no, but I really believe in this technology, I have preliminary data, believe me.” It’s switched around. That’s the first thing. 

The second one is maybe a little more personal. I don’t know if it applies to everyone. Science is often incremental, as it should be. Not always, but often, you’re often used to bringing data with you to prove what you’re saying.

I guess, I don’t know if you see where I’m going with this, but the idea is that when you want to start a company, at least the way EF encourages you to, there’s this switch to see big. I’m not saying you don’t see big in academia, but in academia, when you want to get grants, you’re not talking to investors that are looking for long-term risk. You’re talking to people who are a little more risk averse. You have to adapt your discussions. Especially, as I said, in your training, you’re often seen as someone who does good science, and it’s true, if you have data that proves what you’re saying.

I guess the switch that was hard for me and still is today is the idea that you are encouraged to be a storyteller, and it’s good. It’s fine. It’s good. But it’s this opposition that I often make, which is that I do think there’s this difficulty of just admitting that it’s fine. You’re telling stories. You believe in it. You’re not lying. You’re just trying to take this feed so that you get money to then prove it. It sounds again subtle, but I feel like it was, and it still is sometimes a bit hard for me to marry those two sides of me. 

Hana and her co-founder Leighton
Hana and her co-founder Leighton

[00:22:33] Alice: Something I’ve observed at EF is how founders often struggle with storytelling in a way that feels authentic to them. They need to sell their beliefs: this is what I believe in and what I’m raising venture capital for. For some CEOs, this starts off as a bit of a struggle, but then there’s a shift where they begin to suddenly enjoy the storytelling and embrace that as part of their role. For Hana, embracing uncertainty is key when it comes to dealing with clients.

[00:22:56] Hana: I think being vision-driven versus data-driven is, I think, the first most important shift that you definitely see. But I think also the second is probably around just being super comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and navigating that every single day, every week, every month, because that’s possibly the second hardest shift that you will encounter. It’s the most important skill to have when you’re running a startup, the ability to navigate and still function in ambiguity and that ambiguous environment.

Then I think the one after that would be moving from a place that’s maybe comfortable where you have a list of things that you will always– It’s science, science evolves, but you’ve got the basics down. You know how it works, then you go to a place where you have to question every assumption that you’ve ever made about your company. Not only are you living in this ambiguous environment but you’re also questioning the fundamentals, the basics, the assumptions that you’ve made and changing your company according to that. The last one I was going to say is just, it’s more of a practical thing that you go from working in your own little head, in your own little lab to the real world, and there are things like nine to fives and holidays.

You can’t just send an email and expect people to respond to you immediately or the next day, they’ll come back to you in two weeks sometimes. You have to navigate the real world, which I know sounds crazy, but it was a definite shift for me.

[00:24:19] Alice: I was also keen to find out how Hana and Alexandra initially got the attention of investors.

[00:24:24] Hana: The one that always sticks out in my mind is always the process of pitching a vagina company, and the difficulties of pitching that vagina company. I think I’ve talked about it before, but I can never overstate how many times I’ve sat in a room full of the same type of person and been met with things like, “But, vaginas, do they really have these problems? I’ve never heard of it.” I’m like, “Of course, you haven’t heard of it,” or, this other instance in which we were on our way up to a board meeting and in the lift on our way up to the final meeting of this investor that we’d been chasing, we were asked not to say the word vagina.

I was like, “That’s the company. If you’re not comfortable with that, then this isn’t going to work.” I think the takeaway from that is when you are raising a seed and it’s your early days, and it’s vision-driven, you have to talk to the people that are right for you. Navigate instances where if you are building a company around a taboo topic or something that is not standard or whatever, you need to be really strong in your conviction that no, the world is messed up and this is what needs to change, and that’s why I’m doing this and keep going as opposed to shy away from it.

[00:25:33] Alice: Meanwhile, Alexandra thinks that finding the right investor is like dating. She believes founders have to keep trying until they find the right investor.

[00:25:40] Alexandra: The only thing that comes to mind is just remembering the time where I pitched hundreds of times within four weeks. I was so tired of hearing myself talking. I guess there’s no serious take-away message other than, it’s normal. I guess what I’m trying to say is as much as I do believe that you need to be passionate about what you’re going to work on – because, literally, you’re going to dream about it, you’re going to talk about it in the morning and at lunch – I wouldn’t want people to feel bad if some days they’re like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m pitching again.”

It’s normal, it’s your job as a CEO. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. It’s hard, I guess, is the only message I have to convey. It’s hard. Back to both of your comments, I think I agree that it’s about volume. I think for most people, you’re going to have rejections most of the time, don’t take it personally. That would be the other thing that I’ll say, because it’s easy when you’re tired, when you believe so much in it. You’re going to hear so much noise, it’s fine. The other thing I’ll say is, I think you’re right, it’s about finding the right investors. I also think it’s about listening to some of them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, sometimes, at least in my experience, I’ve also gained from listening to them. It wasn’t just a one-way street. It was like, where of course you need to be convinced, I am convinced of what I do. I guess it was also interesting to hear some things from them, obviously, only after having advanced in talks. I’m not saying I’ll take the advice from the first introduction, but I was surprised to hear that some of them do take the time. They really do take the time. I thought it was a really good signal, because, back to what you said, “You’re going to work with these people for one, two or however many years.” In a way, it’s almost like hiring.

I don’t know how everyone hires, but one of the main things that I do when I hire is like, “Do I want to talk to this person every day? Are they nice? Do they have good values?” The takeaway message is it’s a really messy process. I talked to 70 investors over a month and a half, and sometimes it comes down to the few investors that you really clicked with. It sounds silly. It sounds like you’re talking about dating. It’s not. It sounds like you’re talking about finding friends, it’s not, but you do click. I have clicked. 

It sounds silly, but it was just this one. I talked with this one investor and I hung up and I was like, “Honestly, if it doesn’t work with this person, I don’t know who it’s going to work with,” because it flowed. You could tell we were super interested. You could tell, we would challenge each other. Sometimes it’s just hard to explain.

[00:28:06] Alice: It is like dating. Both EF and raising investment. Both of those thing’s just dating, right?

[00:28:12] Alexandra: I agree that, yes, actually, it’s a really good point that I always like to, when I’m asked what’s EF like, I’m like, “Well, imagine dating out in the open in front of 50 people so that it’s known when you break up. Everyone knows.” I agree with you.

[00:28:33] Hana: I do think EF would make the most wonderful reality TV show, but I don’t know if that would be appropriate.

[00:28:40] Alice: We find the best founders usually develop a meaty belief that keeps driving them forward. I asked Hana to tell us what the future of her company looks like.

[00:28:47] Hana: For us, our next big milestone is the clinically actionable version of our test that we’ll be launching soon, and it’s something that we’ve been working towards over the past 10 months since we launched our wellness test. We’re really excited to be putting that in front of a whole bunch of women that need it, and really scaling up the number of women that we reach.

[00:29:07] Alice: Alexandra’s milestones involve deploying a new product and conducting new research.

[00:29:11] Alexandra: There’s two really big milestones that I’m looking forward to. The first one is the deployment of our product. As I said, we have the first version we have seen working. Now, we’re going to deploy to our partners very soon, in the next month. That’s going to be very interesting. Lots of things that I want to get back from these pilot studies. The second one is that we’re in the midst of a pretty interesting clinical comparative study. Not many have been done like this, and that would really help us to answer the question, how much added value we have compared to doctors, as opposed to just throwing around numbers. I find that that often happens in AI where it’s like, “Oh, this is my performance. This is a really high number close to one. Buy me.” I think that’s going to be really core to our publication and to really convincing our users that this is good science. We are really helping you, and we’re not replacing you with another subject by the way, but if you use us, you could really save a lot of trouble from patients, obviously, it helps the clinics too. I feel like those results are going to really bring us to the next level.

[00:30:09] Alice: The future of reproductive health looks promising, thanks to the work of these amazing founders. I asked them to share a few tips for prospective entrepreneurs.

[00:30:17] Alexandra: Pick something you’re really interested in. Make sure you don’t just pick something because it seems to have traction and it could lead to fundraising, and then you could have your own company. I’m pretty sure you’re going to regret it and it’s not going to work out. That’s the first thing, the second one goes back to another comment we made earlier. It’s learn to sell yourself, especially academics. I think you have ways of doing it. Try to get your own grants, try to train yourself ahead of it, if you really do want to start a company, because I do think it really helps you, learning to sell yourself in academia at least.

The last thing is, I would really encourage you and the suppliers to meet you aggressively, and I insist on the word aggressively. Ask for help. If people don’t answer, it’s fine. Don’t take it personally. They’re busy. Within the limits of politeness, insist on an answer again because, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned is, your job as a founder is going to be to move mountains. Some are bigger, some are smaller, and you have a finite amount of energy.

[00:31:09] Hana: The most important piece of advice is to start. Start, and then keep going, and then talk to all the founders that you can talk to. Because there’s so much you will learn from your peers. I think for me, that’s the most useful piece of advice that I could give.

[00:31:25] Alice: That brings us to the end of this episode of the Entrepreneur First podcast. I hope you enjoyed listening to Alexandra and Hana’s stories and visions about innovations in reproductive health. Join us next time where I’m not just going to be speaking to Sasha Haco, founder and CEO of Unitary, who’ll be bringing AI to the content moderation space. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. For more information about Entrepreneur First, visit join ef.com. Thanks to Cofruition for consulting on and producing the podcast, and thank you for listening. Catch you next time.

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