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Enterprising Founders: Cailin Hardell, CEO & Co-founder of Segmed AI

Cailin Hardell is the co-founder and CEO of Segmed, which curates medical datasets by anonymizing, standardizing, and labeling medical data to accelerate innovation in healthcare. Cailin previously worked at Verily Life Sciences and in the Apple Health Tech department. She was also a Biodesign NEXT Fellow and Stanford Ignite member while earning her masters in Bioengineering from Stanford University.

Cailin has long been fascinated by the use of data to uncover the truth, reduce bias, and help people. She started Segmed to help higher quality healthcare get to patients faster. Along the way, she hopes to reduce bias — both in healthcare by providing diverse datasets, and as a female CEO attempting to set an example for diversity in leadership and company culture that others can follow.

In this interview, Cailin discusses the inspiration for Segmed, how she met her cofounders, and overcoming imposter syndrome.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What inspired you to work on Segmed?

I grew up wanting to be a doctor. I was pre-med in undergrad, and then I did an internship working in health tech. This was when a lot of applications using big data and personalized medicine were taking off. I was in a fortunate enough position in Silicon Valley to see the horizon where all of these technological advances could radically transform healthcare. I thought I could have a bigger impact by pivoting my efforts to be more quantitative and technical to enable higher quality care for a greater amount of people.

How did Segmed start?

I met my co-founders through the Stanford Ignite Entrepreneurship Program. We were originally working on an idea that was more focused on labeling medical data. We focused on this problem initially because we realized that it’s an area you need experts for and is a process that is both time-consuming and unorganized.

But as we went deeper into this space, we found that the labeling piece is actually at the very end of a long and arduous problem. We spoke to more than 100 medical AI companies and learned that the pain actually starts from the first moment that the company needs to get access to a data set.

A company would need to make legal agreements with hospitals, which could take six months to a year. Then, the company would need to work with the IT department to figure out how to extract the data that you want from old, legacy software systems, usually with little bandwidth. Once you finally get it, you have to ensure that all the data is anonymized and finally get to the labelling process.

We figured that we could tackle not just the labeling piece but go after the whole series of events. That’s how Segmed was born. We wanted to take away this huge barrier to medical AI development and democratize the field.

But as we went deeper into this space, we found that the labeling piece is actually at the very end of a long and arduous problem.

Our team got super lucky. Throughout the Ignite program, which was 10 weeks, it became very apparent that we had very complementary skill sets. All of us had a different perspective, and we spent every night of those 10 weeks working until midnight and bouncing ideas off of one another. I really enjoyed the process, and it just seemed like a natural next step for us to work on Segmed. We were all at the point in our lives where we were ready to make the leap.

We wanted to take away this huge barrier to medical AI development and democratize the field.

What advice do you have to share to aspiring founders who are looking for the right co-founders?

Another piece of advice is to keep persevering even if you feel discouraged. Just keep going and eventually, things will work out.

It is important to divide out roles early. Make it clear who owns what and what each person’s responsibilities are. We initially hadn’t done it at the beginning and only divided out roles when it started to become a problem. Looking back, it’s definitely something that would have been helpful to have started out with.

Another piece of advice is to keep persevering even if you feel discouraged. Just keep going and eventually, things will work out.

Did Segmed make any pivots? Can you discuss that evolution, and what that decision-making process looked like?

Talking to as many people as you can in your target market and selling something before you actually have it is a great way to de-risk the pivot.

We’ve always tried to make decisions, to the extent that we can, based on data. We made the decision to tackle the larger data problem rather than just the labeling piece after speaking with hundreds of medical AI companies. We realized that labeling was a need for them, but as we spoke more to them, it became very obvious that the process of acquiring data was a very big pain point.

As we were exploring the pivot, we spoke to our lawyers and thought through the legal aspects of getting access to patient data, making sure it’s secure, and then being able to redistribute it. Once we had done a bunch of due diligence, we pivoted into that space.

We started selling before we even had any data. We kept talking to customers and compiled a huge list of requests from companies to validate that people actually wanted to buy this product. Talking to as many people as you can in your target market and selling something before you actually have it is a great way to de-risk the pivot.

How did you convince the team to make the pivot? Were there any disagreements on this process?

It was almost a softer transition for us because at first we just added the data on to the labeling service that we had spent a few months building up. My team is all rational and data-driven, just like I am. As we’ve been serving customers over the last year and gathering data requests, the need to pivot seemed glaringly obvious.

As we’ve been serving customers over the last year and gathering data requests, the need to pivot seemed glaringly obvious.

Luckily for us, this decision to pivot was not irreversible because we had the infrastructure in place for both the labeling service and the data acquisition service. I think if you were pivoting something super technical and had to kill something in order to do a pivot, it would have been a harder decision for us. But because we were in the fortunate position of being able to test one out while still continuing the other, the pivot wasn’t really painful. We were able to let both lines play out because they didn’t take too much bandwidth.

How does your team handle disagreements?

We have a relatively complex situation because our team is four cofounders. We came out of an academic program, where we were all teammates. Switching from an academic program into a corporation isn’t painless, particularly as we’ve scaled. Even bringing on interns over the summer has been a learning process for us because it has necessitated that we break out into more decisive roles. But I believe we have built up enough of a framework of trusting one another and respecting each other’s choices, even if we don’t always agree.

What has the fundraising process been like for you?

We did a pre-seed in the summer of 2019, and then we raised our seed right when Covid-19 shelter-in-place restrictions kicked off. For anybody trying to raise in the near term when everything is still very remote, video calls are much better than phone calls. You just feel more connected to the person.

I prefer having one-on-one conversations without slides, especially during an intro call, because you can convey that you’re really excited to have the conversation. You can keep the investor engaged while checking in to see if there are any questions.

For anybody trying to raise in the near term when everything is still very remote, video calls are much better than phone calls.

There’s definitely a place for slides in subsequent calls and to use for follow-ups, but I think it is more engaging to try to structure the meeting as a conversation because you are missing the human-to-human element during virtual meetings.

What was the biggest challenge that you faced as a founder.?

The biggest challenge for me was confidence because I had never been a CEO before. My cofounders are all men who are significantly older than me. I hadn’t done enterprise sales, and radiology, which is our beachhead market, is very male-dominated. I would spend my morning pitching to old, white VCs and then spend the afternoons talking to CIOs at hospitals who are also old white dudes.

Really owning what you know and advocating for yourself is the best that you can do for yourself. Don’t stereotype yourself before anybody else has a chance to stereotype you.

I would be nervous, thinking who am I even to do this. But I quickly found that people will respect you when you know what you’re talking about. I suspect that they even find it relatively refreshing to talk to somebody who is different than who they usually speak to.

Being super prepared helped me feel more confident. I was super nervous during the first couple of sales calls, but after six weeks into the process, I felt like I could do it all day long without even looking at my notes. Experience may be the biggest confidence booster, and you can’t get that without going out and doing it for the first time.

Really owning what you know and advocating for yourself is the best that you can do for yourself. Don’t stereotype yourself before anybody else has a chance to stereotype you.

What advice do you have for aspiring founders?

There have been so many instances that we had our doubts. We’ve had setbacks and didn’t know if Segmed would work out at all. But we kept persevering and have made it to a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue within a year, which I don’t think any of us had expected to do at this time last year.

There have been days where I woke up and didn’t want to do this anymore because it was hard and I didn’t know what I was doing. But it’s important on those days that you show up for yourself and show up for your team. It’s easier to show up for yourself when you tie your motivations to working on the startup to something other than fiscal success. Tap into intrinsic motivations like learning, leading a team, or working on something you care about. You’ll find that you’ll feel differently than when you felt down because startups are really a rollercoaster.

There have been days where I woke up and didn’t want to do this anymore because it was hard and I didn’t know what I was doing. But it’s important on those days that you show up for yourself and show up for your team.

Anything else to add?

I’ll add that we’re hiring and will be starting to fundraise soon!

Sri Muppidi is a Contributing Writer at All Raise. She’s an investor at Sierra Ventures and focuses on early-stage investments in enterprise and emerging tech. During quarantine, Sri has been spending her time writing, camping, and teaching design thinking to womxn at The Loop. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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