The vote of confidence from such an accomplished group of entrepreneurs was incredible, especially after years-long struggle to get our medical device company off the ground. It was terrifying because of all the stereotypes of silicon valley, and as an older-than-average female entrepreneur, I wasn’t looking forward to an avalanche of brogrammer culture (for the record, YC is the most welcoming environment I’ve ever experienced – but that’s for a different blog post).
What was confusing was that fact that we were accepted given the nature of our company. Our mission at Shift Labs is to rethink how medical devices get developed, from the ground up. We are throwing a wrench into technology-centric product development, and focusing on what doctors and nurses say they want.
We’re putting design on an equal plane with the technology itself – emphasizing ease of use, so we can reduce training time and enable people with less expertise to provide great care. We’re building for new markets and alternate site care. And finally, we’re tossing in a little bit of the “delight” of customer-focused design. The other day someone called us “Nest for medical devices.” We’d be pretty happy to earn that designation.
But then here we are at YC, what we originally thought of as the heart of appville and SaaS-land, where code is king and the assumption is that when you’re looking for an engineer, you need Ruby or Python, not CAD or Eagle.
When we showed up at orientation, though, we met a bunch of medtech and biotech companies. As the weeks went by, we met more and more of the cohort, and eventually it became clear we are a parallel culture here at YC, both overlapping and diverging in many places. Our metrics are different. When we talk of demo day goals, it’s about data points and proof points, not going viral. And yet, we all feel like we belong here, as part of the same conversation that fuels software startups.
This is something extraordinary that YC does, by the way. In three years in various communities and entrepreneur groups, never did I get the feeling that the advice or guidance given to the software startups was framed as relevant to our hardware/regulated-industry startup. That advice tended to be about the ‘what’ and less about the ‘why.’
But it was one of the recent dinners that finally made it clear. I was listening to a speaker who was talking about a host of things that, on the surface, were completely irrelevant to our company. Actually, even somewhat below the surface they were irrelevant; that’s not likely to ever be our path to customer acquisition. But it was a great talk, and I was engaged and enjoying the speaker’s stories.
At some point, it was more than ‘hey, this is entertaining.’ It became, ‘this is transformative.’ Not the talk – though it was genuinely a great talk. The transformative piece was sitting there as a startup that wants to just absolutely mess with the way medical devices get made -- that wants to go fast, that wants to prioritize the people using the device, that wants to look for innovations the market is hungry for without letting concerns about reimbursement codes dictate our development pathways – and seeing with clarity that the culture of YC that prioritizes growth and that encourages founders to run hard and fast is exactly what the healthcare sector needs.
The medtech and biotech and digital health startups in our cohort aren’t the outliers from YC philosophically. We’re all here because we believe we can change the way innovation happens, even in (especially in?) a highly regulated industry like healthcare. We can make things move faster, smarter, more imaginatively. Dare I say it: more disruptively.
Before dinner that night I was talking with one of the other founders who had been meeting with a medtech company that had been around for 17 years and still didn’t have a product on the market. Not pharma, by the way. Not implantable. A medical device. And we looked at each other. What have they been doing all this time? We couldn’t figure it out. After 8 weeks at YC the very idea seemed unbearably absurd.
Many of us are under-capitalized and concerned about raising money because we don’t fit traditional medtech/biotech models, either in what we’re doing, or what our teams look like. My company has certainly struggled with having traditional medtech investors look at us blankly, unsure how to characterize us without a reimbursement code. And many tech investors look at us with panic, fearful of the FDA.
But I’ve come to realize that it’s exactly that unusualness that gives us our edge, that makes all of us interesting bets for many investors, and that makes YC such a perfect place for us.
When we made the decision to step into medtech and biotech, we stepped into one of the slowest moving industries around. Having the audacity to go fast is one of the most disruptive things our YC cohort can do, and that’s on top of the amazing technology our batchmates are working on. Even just believing that startup speed can be applied to medtech is a little unnerving.
We all still believe in science and testing and rigor. But we also believe we can do things differently than they have always been done, part of which means thinking fast about all things related to what we’re doing, digging deeper into metrics, measuring news kinds of things, and, for us at Shift Labs, thinking about what it means to apply ‘customer engagement’ to medical devices. Actually, let me restate. We’re not “thinking about” what that means. We’re doing it. Now. Generating actionable data daily and adapting our approach in response.
And that means getting into YC is no longer confusing to me. This is a place that assumes companies will go fast and create new ways of seeing (and solving) problems. And if there’s one thing an ambitious, disruptive company in medtech needs, it’s a coach with a stopwatch, pushing you to shave off the seconds, a coach who assumes that if you showed up at the track, it’s because you want to go fast.
So thanks, YC. For believing that startups are about attitude and approach, not just familiar markets or metrics.
And thanks for teaching me to believe it, too.