Amy Sheng: Using Mobile Tech to Create a Digital First Aid Kit for the Home

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Amy Sheng is Co-Founder of CellScope, a venture-backed mobile health startup creating a suite of optical attachments for smartphones to enable remote diagnoses.

Its first product is the CellScope Oto, a smartphone otoscope for capturing diagnostic quality ear images and videos to diagnose ear infections.

CellScope spun out of a bioengineering lab at UC Berkeley creating mobile microscopes for disease diagnosis in the developing world.

Amy previously led a team to develop an automated hematology analyzer with automated classification of white blood cells that was cleared by the FDA. She has an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University and an MBA from Berkeley-Haas. She can be followed on Twitter @amysheng.

Amy was named in Inc Magazine's 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2013.

We spoke to Amy about how she discovered the power of microscope-enabled mobile phones; the new tech she's most excited about; and the bold move which got Cellscope featured on primetime television!

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for CellScope and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

AS: We started CellScope in Professor Fletcher’s bioengineering lab at UC Berkeley. We were working on mobile microscopes for remote diagnosis of infectious diseases in developing countries. Many people around the world have cell phones but no access to doctors. By providing community health workers in rural areas with cell phone attachments, they could remotely capture diagnostic-quality images of samples such as blood or sputum and transmit them to doctors for review and diagnosis. Our team was the original pioneer of mobile microscopy and back then we were working with Nokia phones and the iPhone didn’t exist.

Our pilot testing in India and Uganda confirmed the power of microscope-enabled mobile phones and we realized that there were additional exciting applications closer to home.

We spun CellScope out of the lab about two years ago and focused on applying our technology to body surface imaging such as diagnosing ear infections and skin conditions.

TNW: How many people do you hope to reach with CellScope technology in the next few years, and what is the scope of how your tech might be applied?

AS: Our first product, the CellScope Oto, is a smartphone otoscope for diagnosing ear infections, one of the most common illnesses in children. In the US alone, there are 25 million ear infection-related visits annually. As a parent of a two-year old, I understand first-hand the pain point of an inconsolable, sick child (usually in the middle of the night or on weekends when the pediatrician’s office is closed!) and the need to get a diagnosis quickly without the enormous expense of an emergency room visit or waiting until the morning when the pediatrician’s office opens.

At CellScope, we’re building tools to give parents peace of mind from the comfort of their home.

We’re starting with the otoscope and have plans to expand and create a suite of attachments to smartphones to create a digital first aid kit for the home.

We think people around the world will want to have this kit in their home – from busy parents who want to save a potential trip to the doctor’s office to people living in rural areas who live far away from their doctor. In addition, doctors and nurses are ready to use our devices in their practices for capturing a digital record for comparison during follow-up visits, educating patients and medical students and getting second opinions. We’ve received a tremendous amount of interest both from medical professionals and consumers who are interested in our mobile health products.

TNW: How do you ensure your company stays at the cutting edge of technological advances?

AS: We have a strong core team of intellectually curious and open-minded people. We each have different and complimentary technical backgrounds across optics, bioengineering, software development, mechanical engineering and medical device development.  We hire people with diverse backgrounds who share our curiosity and interest in mobile health and our vision for changing healthcare delivery through new products and services. We are active in the digital health space and frequently get asked to speak on panels and demo our product at events that bring together thought leaders and people interested in digital health.

TNW: Tell us a little about your history of raising investment for your business. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking for vc funding?

AS: Fundraising is hard, uncertain and takes a lot of time. We started fundraising when digital health was just starting to take off and we were one of the early companies in this space. We found that traditional technology investors were nervous about investing in a medical device company because of uncertainty around the FDA and regulatory risk. We found that traditional med tech investors were nervous about investing in a digital health company because the space is so new and the business models were unproven. Fortunately, after many pitches and rejections, we met Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures who believed in what we’re doing and funded our seed round.

My advice to entrepreneurs looking for VC funding:

  • Check for fit: First determine if your company is a good fit for VC funding. There needs to be strong alignment between your company and the VC in terms of market opportunity, stage, exit potential, etc. VCs tend to look for huge market opportunities and solutions that are quickly scalable. If your company’s not a good fit for VCs, consider other financing options such as angels, crowdfunding or bootstrapping.
  • Create a working spreadsheet with your list of the top ten VCs that you think are a good fit for your startup. Do online searches of the VCs, check out the firms’ websites and figure out if there’s a fit in terms of the stage your company’s at, investment areas of focus for the VC, their portfolio companies to see what other startups they’ve invested in. Talk to other entrepreneurs who have pitched at or are funded by the VC firms that you’re interested in. Use your network to get a warm introduction to the VC, the more senior the person you can reach, the better. Attending conferences and meetups in your space is another good way of meeting investors and always be ready to give a concise pitch if you are able to get the investor’s attention.
  • Much of the fundraising process is out of your control and it’s hard to plan how long it will take but do everything you can to keep the process efficient. Get your pitch deck ready and practice in front of people who understand what VCs are looking for so that they can ask you the tough questions and poke holes in your reasoning before you actually go in front of VCs. Once you’re ready, try to schedule the pitches in a timeframe of a few weeks otherwise it will inevitably drag out from weeks to months. The other benefit of scheduling your pitches close together is that if you end up getting more than one termsheet, it’ll be around the same time which means you’ll have more leverage in your negotiations.
  • Don’t give up hope. Many successful companies today had a tough time getting their first investment. It’s a combination of so many factors, many of which are unpredictable and out of your control so the best you can do is do your homework ahead of time, be prepared, be open to feedback and adapt over time.

TNW: Tech is a notoriously male dominated field. How (and how much) does this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?

AS:

Growing up, I watched my mom work as the only female engineer in a male dominated field so I think I got used to it and it became normal for me.

In college and graduate school and then in the working world, I mostly worked with men and always directly reported to men. However, there were usually a couple of outstanding female leaders in school and at work that I admired, sought out and became friends with. In my working life, I don’t think too much about the gender of the people I work with and instead think about whether they’re good people to work with and what they bring to the team. That said, I love meeting strong, capable women who are doing interesting and challenging things. I have participated in Rock Health’s XX in Health events which bring together female entrepreneurs, investors and leaders who are interested in changing and improving healthcare. I always leave these events feeling inspired by the powerful stories that these women share and reenergized to keep pushing my startup forward.

TNW: What has been the biggest challenge in the history of your company so far and how are you tackling it?

AS: The biggest challenges for CellScope so far have been fundraising and hiring. Now that we have the backing of Khosla Ventures and good progress developing our product, I hope fundraising won’t be as difficult in the future. Hiring good people quickly is tough because there’s so much competition in the Bay Area with tech companies and startups. We’re constantly thinking about how to inspire job candidates with the long-term vision of CellScope so that they will be excited to join an early stage mobile health startup. Being in the medical device and healthcare space helps CellScope stand out from other startups because people connect with the larger purpose and meaning of improving people’s lives.

TNW: What kind of technology do you use to organise your business, and your life?

AS:

I’m a late adopter of technology, which is funny since I’ve always worked at tech companies. But I have a history of embracing technology 120% once I start using it.

I was one of the last of my peers to get a cell phone, smartphone and to join Facebook and Twitter. But once I start using technology, I inevitably become a super-active user. I use Google docs and calendar for sharing files and coordinating schedules for work and home. At CellScope, we use tools like Resumator for managing our hiring process and SmartSheet for project management tasks. At home I have a big whiteboard for communicating important daily information with our nanny. The technology I use most frequently is old fashioned Post-Its!

TNW: Have you come across any exciting new technology recently? What did you like about it?

AS: I studied mechanical engineering in college because I love physical things and figuring out how things work. As a result, I am particularly interested in startups with a hardware component because it’s something tangible that I can interact with. There are many companies building exciting technology and one that comes to mind is Nest, a startup building a smart thermostat for the home. I love the beautiful design, the simple user interface and the potential it has for reducing energy use by learning consumers’ heating and cooling habits in the home. I’ve always been conscious of reducing consumption, not wasting resources like water and heat so I find Nest’s product particularly compelling.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

AS: Be scrappy and fearless and go for it. This is a good trait to have in general and especially important when you are part of a cash-strapped, early stage startup. Recently, CellScope’s smartphone otoscope made it onto the Colbert Report which was totally thrilling and we did it ourselves, without paying a PR firm. We noticed on Twitter that Stephen Colbert had punctured his eardrum while diving. We also knew that Dr. Eric Topol, a leader in our space, was going on the Colbert Report to talk about digital health. In a 48 hour period, we contacted Dr. Topol who agreed to try to get our prototype on the show, overnighted our only functioning engineering prototype at the time to Dr. Topol and eagerly waited to see if the CellScope Oto would make it onto the show. Everything worked out and we made it on national primetime television!

This story shares an important lesson: Be scrappy and fearless and go for it. You never know what doors will open for you.

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