Finding a Founder: An interview with Kunal Kalro from Eugene
“Whatever startup you choose to pursue, it is going to be hard work. You may as well take on something that matters to you.”
Kunal Kalro is the co-founder of Eugene, a product that helps you make smart health choices through guided genetic screenings.
During his interview with Inspire9, Kunal, shares his passion to help address inequities in access to health services and improve ethnic and racial representation in data used in genomic and healthcare research; Insight into the his hunt for a cofounder; and building the right cofounder team.
Kunal is a long-term resident of the Inspire9 community and a member of the alumni from the early days of Melbourne coworking. This year in June he took home the bronze medal at our Inspire9 Table Tennis Tournament — A huge feat. He’s also known for stellar taste for global music. If you’re in of a new Spotify playlist filtered with afro, latin or blues, you know who to call.
Tell us about your startup?
We started Eugene to help improve ethnic and racial representation in genetic data used in healthcare research. To do so, we’re launching genetic screening products that are accessible to everyone and not just a select privileged few. First one off the shelf is a pre-pregnancy checkup for partners to see if they are carrying any genetic diseases they could pass on to their children.
How does your product work?
Okay, so suppose that you’re thinking about having a baby. You request a pre-pregnancy screening on the Eugene app. We work to get any necessary physician approvals and send you a saliva test kit.
Meanwhile, you connect with your personal genetic counsellor. Every Eugene member is paired with a genetic counsellor who is there to support and guide you every step of the way and helps you review what to expect and how to prepare for your results.
In a couple of weeks when your results are in, you Skype with your counsellor and you can even dial your GP in. Your counsellor helps you understand, and if necessary, helps you consider your options and make choices that feel right for you.
Your results, reports, plans and appointments all sit in the app, and it’s always in simple language. You get to learn more at your pace or jump on another call with your counsellor.
What type of customer can benefit from this type of testing?
Anyone who wants to make more informed decisions about their health. Pre-pregnancy screenings may be uncommon or unheard of today, but within the next few years it will be as common as taking folic acid when you’re trying to get pregnant.
I should preface this by saying that we are not live yet. When we go live, we’ll start with pre-pregnancy genetic screenings.
In the future though, we also look forward to offering screenings for genetic risk of cancer and cardiovascular conditions, as well as, helping people better understand how their genetics affect how they respond to different medications.
For example, there are bunch of antidepressants out there and often times people can take up to year to find one that works for them. A lot of those inappropriate responses are based on your genetics and genetic screenings can help people get on the right medications sooner.
Where did it all start?
After my last company, I knew that I wanted to work on something in health. There wasn’t, however, this “aha” moment where it all came together. It was more of a slow burn process of understanding the problem and finding different pathways to a solution. It all began when I became interested in exploring my DNA and genetic data.
I noticed that most association studies were based on primarily Caucasian datasets. There seemed to be a shortage of ethnic and racially diverse genetic data that was used in genomic and healthcare research, and this has long lasting implications. A lot of regulatory standards are set based on this research and a lot of treatment and drug discovery begins with genetic data. Because of the lack of diversity in these datasets, standards are better suited to certain demographics and the resulting treatments can be more effective on Caucasians for example, than other ethnicities.
I spoke to professionals in the field asking “isn’t this a problem?” [laughs] and their response was “Yes! Yes, it is a problem”. So for example Plavix, a drug used to manage coronary artery disease, was on the market for years before it was realized it didn’t work on about fifty percent of people of asian descent. And when drugs that are used to manage deadly disease don’t work, it’s a huge problem.
I thought this was an interesting problem — most people who have had a genetic test are generally socioeconomically wealthier with limited diversity among ethnic groups. And that if we did not include diverse populations in these promising technologies, we would worsen existing health inequalities and create terrible new ones while we’re at it.
What type of systemic change are you trying to create and why is this important?
At the moment, these health disparities are very real. This is true for both, access to services and also in healthcare research; and the advancement of this research only further increases this divide. We want to help fix that.
The challenge is to create a product that’s financially affordable; easy to understand and action; and takes into account the emotional and cultural sensitivities of a variety of demographics. By providing a service that’s accessible to all we can have a more diverse customer base; and with their permission, we can then help increase ethnic and racial representation in the data used in genetic research in healthcare.
How will you ensure diverse populations have access to the test?
We’re working with different business mechanisms to help drive the cost down to the end user which should increase financial accessibility of our products to varying socio-economic demographics.
Another benefit of providing a service through an app is that online access helps eliminate limitations for markets and demographics previously geographically unreachable. We also need to make the information from results easy to understand and action.
Finally, it’s fundamentally important to have an experience that has real empathy and thoughtfulness in its approach. Health and family is incredibly personal and we know the importance of acknowledging those emotional and cultural sensitivities because that plays a huge role in how people respond to and use (or not use) these types of services.
When will you launch Eugene?
At this stage, we don’t have a set launch date and are still in the development stage.
As a health care product, we are focused on quality assurance. Whether we have one customer or 150 or millions the quality assurance needs to be the same. “You only lose trust once”, and we have an ethical responsibility to our customers which we do not take lightly.
What’s the most exciting journey of your startup journey so far?
When highly trained professionals, in the field of science and medicine response to this idea, in agreement that, “yes, this needs to happen. Yeah, I want to do this.”
- “It’s like oh yeah cool, I’m not insane”.
So how many people are involved with Eugene?
Not everything is pen to paper yet but I have three other co-founders that I am seriously dating [laughs]. We’re in a committed relationship you could say.
Soon we’ll meet the parents, and eventually, …we’ll get married and have a baby named Eugene.
Do you have a mentor?
Yes, I have a diverse range of mentors. I feel there are lots of people in my life with specific strengths that are beneficial to my experience; whether it’s a friend or investors with a lot of business experience. I gain a lot through these avenues of mentorship.
Some people help me out around fundraising; workplace culture and relationships; customer acquisition; connections to business networks and advice.
Has it been hard to find the right co-founders?
Yes! From my experience, hunting for a cofounder is like dating. It’s not easy and can be very time consuming when trying to find the perfect match [laughs].
Thankfully, I did meet one of my co-founders, Zoë Milgrom, through the Inspire9 network. It goes to show the power of a collaborative community like this.
Not only do you need to find a cofounder with the right skills and experience but with the right attitude; mental fortitude; and ability to work together. Our team will have four cofounders, so we need to navigate 11 different types of relationships.
Learning how to manage these internal relationships is very important.
Have you thought of ways for managing these relationships?
We’re essentially starting a family, and everyone needs to be on the same page. We need to be able to trust each other and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
This trust comes from intimacy; vulnerability and openness. So the question I asked at the beginning of this process was “how do we build that?” First step is to be open and vulnerable yourself. And realise that if you’re going to be cofounders on this mission, then the vision too needs to be co-created.
Diversity within the team is also crucially important. This being diversity in skill set, diversity in thought; gender; race; sexual orientation; economic status; education. The team comes from very diverse backgrounds to ensure we have amazing humans with specific skills leading all the major parts of our organisation.
We need to be able to empathise with as many end users’ experience, which means we need people from all different backgrounds. The more diversity we have, the better we can empathise and serve.
Is this the reason you have four co-founders?
We need four to cover all the relevant areas of the business. It seems impossible to do with any less.
What advice would you give to a solo founder looking to find cofounders?
Get the f*** out of your comfort zone because you will never find them there. [laughs]
It might sound harsh but be prepared to feel rejected, be ready to feel like your idea doesn’t matter.
Remember that you only need to find the one person so explore every avenue that you possibly can. Think about where your ideal co-founder is and find them there.
I sent unsolicited messages on LinkedIn, did a massive scope of potential cofounders, a bunch of AB testing and contacted, what felt like, every single genetic counsellor that lives in Australia. [laughs]. Admittedly, I did eventually find my cofounders through my personal networks (one of them through Inspire9), so don’t forget to activate those networks. Tell everyone you know what you’re working on and ask them if they know someone. You need to put aside that fear of rejection.
Are there any mistakes you’ve made so far?
I identify mistakes as opportunities and yes, I have had tons of opportunities [laughs] I’ve written a piece about my experience.
The advice I can give from the mistakes I have made is to find your Everest because no other mountain is worth climbing. Whatever startup you choose to pursue, it is going to be hard work so you may as well take on something that matters to you.
How can we find you?