Interview: Amy Sheng, MBA ’13, and Erik Douglas, J PhD ’08, Co-Founders of CellScope
Founders Amy Sheng, MBA ’13, and Erik Douglas, J PhD ’08, met at Cal in the summer of 2009 while working in a bioengineering lab developing mobile microscopes for remote diagnosis of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. Inspired by the impact this work had in overseas pilot demonstrations, and realizing they could do a lot closer to home, Amy and Erik spun out medical device company CellScope, Inc. They joined Rock Health’s inaugural class of healthcare startups and from there, raised funding from Khosla Ventures and started building the team.
Q. Tell us a bit about the spark that created the idea for CellScope – how did the founders meet?
Erik: CellScope grew out of a project in Professor Dan Fletcher’s lab (Department of BioEngineering), where we developed mobile phone-based microscopes for disease diagnosis in low-resource settings. I was working as a postdoctoral student developing technology and Amy was the project manager getting it out into the field. We worked with partners in India, Uganda, and Vietnam to demonstrate the value of the technology, and from there got excited about transforming it into a product for consumers closer to home.
Q. What significant challenge is your company working to solve, and how are you doing it?
Amy & Erik: CellScope is using the power and ubiquity of smartphones to improve access to healthcare. Our first product turns the iPhone into a digital otoscope, the tool doctors use for ear exams. Ear infection is the most common reason kids see the doctor. With Oto HOME families can capture an ear exam at home, and send it to a doctor for analysis, saving the inconvenient trip to the doctor’s office or urgent care. We’re working to show how technology tools can provide quality health care from home.
CellScope’s Oto Home and Pro smartphone-enabled diagnostic toolkits help patients get better answers, faster.
Q. What is the hardest thing about being part of a fast growing startup? What keeps you up at night?
Amy & Erik: Maintaining focus on our key priorities while being open to serendipity. Mobile health is changing quickly, and new opportunities come up all the time. We are focused on developing a great product, building a strong team, and developing a sustainable business model. But then every week something new comes up - a new reimbursement code, a pilot with a new partner. We need to charge ahead based on limited information, learn fast, and be willing to realign as we go.
Q. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently at Cal, or what programs/ activities/etc. would you have taken advantage of to prepare for your career in innovation?
Erik: The bioengineering PhD program was great preparation for startup life. I had to come up with a good idea, get support from my advisor and collaborators, and continually demonstrate that the work was important. I had to learn a lot of new techniques and technology quickly, and seek help and guidance from experts across campus to piece things together. I was also exposed to the funding side, helping with grant writing and understanding the groundwork required to make a project successful. I did international tech implementation research through Haas, and helped start a science policy student group. At times I wish I could have had a greater focus, but in retrospect each experience was valuable.
Q. What advice would you offer Berkeley students just beginning their careers in the startup world, either as founders or as early team members? Anything specific for women interested in becoming an entrepreneur?
Amy: Talk to people who have the job you think you want, and try to understand what it’s really like. It can be easy to hear a few success stories and assume they reflect the common experience. Startups are really hard, that’s what is so rewarding when things work.
For women interested in entrepreneurship, seek out other women who have created startups and find or build your own community of women who share this interest. I was actively involved in XX in Health, a Rock Health initiative to support and encourage women entrepreneurs in healthcare. I met an incredible community of women working at startups, investment firms and healthcare companies, and we all shared the goal of making healthcare better, more accessible and affordable. Seeing examples of other female founders who were building companies and families, gave me the confidence that I could do it too.