Female Disruptors: Jennifer Ernst of Tivic Health On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Curiosity — the sense of openness and wonder that leads to continuous learning. Curiosity matters whether talking about scientific exploration or how a team can more effectively work together. Encourage your teams to say more! Explore, find out more and learn.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Ernst.
Jennifer Ernst is CEO and co-founder of Tivic Health, a commercial phase bioelectronic company that is developing microcurrent therapy solutions to treat chronic diseases and conditions. She has more than 20 years’ experience developing markets from new technologies. As CEO of the US subsidiary and chief strategy officer at Thin Film Electronics, Jennifer grew the company from eight to 130 people, achieved a $480M market cap in five years and launched international award-winning products.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career at Xerox PARC, a world-leading technology research lab. I spent most of my early years focused in the white space where new technologies were developed, and markets are created.
I worked in a variety of positions while at Xerox PARC and that involved getting emerging science and technologies out of the lab and into commercial applications. Importantly, PARC was the home of many technologies we associate with modern computing, including the Ethernet and other advances in networking.
In 2011, I joined Thin Film Electronics ASA, a Norwegian company, that was fundamentally redefining the way electronics are manufactured. As part of the international management team, I helped successfully build the company to a half billion market cap through a combination of organic growth, licensing and acquisition.
It was in 2016, that I first came across the field of electronic medicine. It was in the form of a unique approach for sinus treatment. During this time I was looking for something I could sink my teeth into and build from the ground up into a substantial company. The potential for the emerging area of bioelectronic medicine enthralled me.
Using tiny electrical signals to positively influence the body’s electrical signaling patterns and molecular functions was fascinating. It aligned with my prior experience in computation networking, taken to the highest levels. The area is so nascent and has so much potential in both the application space and scientific space.
In other words, it’s a field dominated by white space where disruptive solutions can be developed.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Tivic Health is part of a wave of companies harnessing the power of body’s electrical network to provide safe, non-drug options for patients with a variety of medical conditions.
Scientific research on the use of electrical stimulation of the nervous system has accelerated in the last 15 years. One of the biggest advantages of these new device therapies is their safety profile, which, when compared with pharmaceuticals, is excellent. They are also often able to address conditions where pharmaceuticals have had limited impact because bioelectronic medicine is using a different part of the biological system to target disease pathways.
Our focus at Tivic Health is non-invasive uses of bioelectronic medicine.
Bioelectronic medicine is part of the larger neuromodulation market and one of the fastest growing segments. According to TIME, bioelectronic medicine is, “The remarkable convergence of advances in bioengineering and neurology that has resulted in a fast-developing way to treat chronic diseases.” McKinsey & Company calls it an under-recognized, multi-billion-dollar opportunity.
For decades, medicine has focused on drug therapies. But the body is an electrochemical system (i.e. electrical and chemical). We’ve largely ignored the “electro” part of the system until fairly recently.
Bioelectronic therapies are available for (or are being developed for) conditions like Parkinson’s, Crohn’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, sinus pain, nausea, and more. Results indicate that bioelectronic medicine treatments may become as important and effective as drug therapies as the field continues to progress.
There are many companies using cutting edge bioelectronics to create next generation microcurrent devices for the mainstream market and are led by innovative entrepreneurs from Cala Health, Galvani Bioelectronics, Setpoint and Theranica.
Our first product, ClearUP Sinus Pain Relief, is part of the $130 billion category for over-the-counter sinus, cold, cough and allergy — a field dominated by drugs and sorely lacking in innovation. ClearUP is a game-changer and is poised to disrupt allergy-related sinus pain relief.
We developed ClearUP out of robust scientific and consumer research. We profiled and segmented our target, conducted multiple designs and tests, and conducted two robust clinical studies published in leading peer-reviewed journals. We believe in evidence-based products that are evaluated using rigorous methods. ClearUP has been thoroughly tested and designed to meet all medical device standards for safety and efficacy, from both the FDA and international regulatory bodies.
Our team is committed to bringing innovation to consumers via well-designed, safe and effective medical devices that improve their quality of life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This one is less a mistake, and more an example of the extreme lengths an entrepreneur needs to go to in pursuit of their dream.
When we started working on ClearUP, we saw that the device was having some pretty profound effects, but we didn’t know exactly why. One theory was that the microcurrent might be liquifying the mucus through an electrical interaction.
John Claude, the inventor, and I joked that if only we had some “snot,” we could run some bench tests. Wouldn’t you know, the next day my son woke up with a head cold. We had our samples and I had the dubious distinction of electrocuting “snot” on video.
There were a few takeaways, though:
- First… be careful what you ask for. Seriously.
- Second,… uncontrolled experiments generate more questions than answers.
- Third,… as a human being and as an entrepreneur, it’s important to maintain both a sense of humor and a dose of humility. Successfully navigating the entrepreneurial path requires appreciating what you don’t yet know.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
There have been so many people who have influenced my career over the years.
Early in my career I met a human relations consultant Jack Lawrence whom I greatly admired. I learned so much from Jack as a first-time manager. He was the not stereotype of an HR person. When he saw potential and real willingness to learn, he invested in you. With coaching, would help you discover your own ways to teams, build relationships and think about how people inter-relate to each other and to you. He taught me to think in systems.
From Jack I got an appreciation about what may work for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. There is no one size fits all when it comes to managing a team. Working with him was a very formative experience.
An important mentor on the company-building journey has been Karen Drexler and the entire Astia community. The non-profit organization provides capital and guidance to ventures led by women and under-represented entrepreneurs. When I was considering founding Tivic Health I had a lot of questions — in particular whether or not I could succeed at this challenge.
I began to attend Astia events and met other female entrepreneurs. Some were starting out and others were building their second and third companies. Others were taking companies down the IPO path. The Astia community and its environment was incredibly supportive and gave me the courage to start and build Tivic Health.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I love this question. First, disruption is not a universally positive adjective. Many investors would prefer to see incremental advances for which the exit paths are tried and true. Disruptive is an overused term. Coming from a research lab early in my career, I would hear all the time about disruptive technology. There is no such thing.
Technology itself is never the disruption. It’s how you apply it, how you use it, what it enables and how a consumer, a buyer or the world at large embraces what you’ve done.
Speaking more directly to the idea of systems or structures that have withstood the test of time… any system that has withstood the test of time is a system that has evolved and adapted.
Any system that gets locked into a status quo, believes that the way it’s currently done is (a) the way it’s always been done and (b) the way it must be done — is a system that will break.
When a company, and especially an industry, becomes internally focused on preserving the status quo, competition within the industry and advancement of individual careers — rather than focusing on the people it serves — the space is ripe for disruption.
I’d argue that the pharmaceutical industry is ripe for disruption.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
How do we net all the valuable advice down to three words?
- Intention — work, act and speak with a sense of purpose
- Service — When I polled my team about the values they’d like instilled in Tivic Health, service appeared on several lists. It made me ask who is our company in service of? We are in service to our customers and to our community. People can lose sight of the fact that small companies are the engine of job creation. Demonizing companies discounts the role, particularly small companies, of creating new jobs. Almost all new jobs created in last eight years are from small companies.
- Curiosity — the sense of openness and wonder that leads to continuous learning. Curiosity matters whether talking about scientific exploration or how a team can more effectively work together. Encourage your teams to say more! Explore, find out more and learn.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
There is so much more to be done in the field of non-invasive neuromodulation. We started with a simple product, ClearUP, that directly solved allergy-related sinus pain for more than 50 million Americans suffering from seasonal and year-round allergies. We were able to obtain FDA clearance and bring ClearUP to market quickly.
We know that using electrical stimulation in select ways to target the body’s cellular mechanisms can provide a therapeutic benefit in a non-pharmaceutical and highly targeted fashion. There is a rich territory particularly around inflammation that extends from inflammation of the sinus membranes through to the systemic inflammation of the entire body. There’s also much opportunity in pain conditions linked to hypersensitization of the nerves, from migraine to fibromyalgia.
I see Tivic Health becoming a significant contributor to delivering non-invasive electronic medicine to the health care marketplace.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The Harvard Business Review has published some interesting research studies on women entrepreneurs and the funding gap.
Research on how women and men are questioned when looking to secure capital funding for their companies showed key differences. The authors of Male and Female Entrepreneurs get asked Different Questions by VCs and it Affects how much Funding They Get, cite question orientation. For example, “promotion” questions were directed to male entrepreneurs and focused on hopes, achievements, advancements, and ideals. “Prevention” questions were directed to female entrepreneurs and focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance.
I’ve seen this in sessions I’ve participated in where I’m much more frequently asked, “What is the minimum you need,” and the male entrepreneurs are more frequently asked, “What could you do with more?”
Women historically have to defend their ideas much more aggressively with data. In another study published in the Harvard Business Review, Women and the Vision Thing, addressed women leaders being told that they have don’t have “vision,” because they rely on data. (Well worth a read for anyone, male or female, looking to instill more parity in promotion and evaluations.)
So it’s the combination of what kinds of questions are asked of women as they present their ideas, what kind of encouragement is given and how it’s perceived downstream when it comes to be given real power to execute on a business. Are the questions being posed designed to enhance and be informative or are the questions directed at paring down or homing in on an idea.
Many women sense that when presenting ourselves and our business, every line item on the spreadsheet must be perfect.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
There’s one talk I can say had a profound effect on my thinking, not the usual innovation talk.
It was a presentation from a statewide regional planner who was responsible for long-term planning. When he talked about 20-year plans, they included moving freeways and major thoroughfares, moving cities, redirecting rivers, and, in general, changing things that fundamentally seemed permanent and immutable.
What stuck with me was that profound difference in perspective… between what he considered “permanent and immutable” and what I did. To him, a skyscraper could be moved from one location to another if it allowed a more effective train route. Historic districts could be uprooted and replanted 10 miles away. A river could be forced to flow north instead of south if it created a more efficient flow of water over a dam and opened up arable land.
The ah-ha moment: where you sit gives you a whole different perspective on what can be changed.
Many years ago, I was in a meeting with two engineers arguing about an exchange voltage issue. One argued that a specific voltage had to be used because that was the standard in conventional electronics.
The second engineer pointed out that our electronics were anything but conventional and we were, in fact, in the position to define new standards. His comment: “That’s not a law of physics. It’s just convention.”
The difference between convention and the laws of physics is a pretty profound thing to contemplate when you are looking at the question of what is possible, whether talking about technical innovation or societal change.
On the point of societal change, we’ve all heard some phrase about “leveling the playing field.” Those on the playing field are no more able to level the field while playing the game than the commuter sitting on a congested freeway can pick it up and move it. But someone can. We each have a responsibility in our lives to understand what we can change to make the whole better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorites is a quote from Amelia Earhart: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It’s not a new movement I’d focus on, but one that is underway and needs to accelerate at 10–100x the current rate of change.
Creating and GROWING new businesses is essential to economic growth. Now more than ever, as we as a country claw our way out of COVID-19’s impact, growth-oriented companies will be essential to rebuilding jobs.
Data has shown time and again that diversity and inclusivity are determinative factors in company performance, enough so that Wall Street investors have put down mandates for publicly listed companies. Nothing even remotely similar to EOE or shareholder activism exists in the world of venture capital.
The inequities in representation and investment have been well documented by others, so here I prefer to focus on actionable solutions.
- Activation of new pools of capital. Women are often generous philanthropic donors, but very few have been exposed to the high-reward world of angel investing. Several of our angel investor groups are focused on activating capital in support of women and under-represented entrepreneurs. And they earn exceptional returns, better than top VCs. To learn more: Astia.org, GoldenSeeds.org, Portfolia.org. If you are new to angel investing, Portfolia offers a good learn-as-you-invest model.
- Activation of larger pools of capital. Funds focused on women and under-represented entrepreneurs tend to be much smaller than general venture funds. With venture capital extremely biased to investing in White and, to a lesser degree, Asian males, securing growth capital remains a challenge. Yet there is capital to be activated. Every venture fund that wants to raise capital will approach Stanford’s endowment fund. George Washington Carver University’s endowment fund not so often. Every endowment fund for institutions focused on historically female or minority education should get involved with National Venture Capital Association. Putting money to work can drive change and net exceptional returns.
- Limited partners in venture funds. The need to become activist shareholders. If the funds you’ve invested in are not investing in gender and ethnically diverse teams, you are missing out on the best investments. The data is clear, and if you don’t advocate, you are letting venture funds squander your money. Want to learn more: contact Astia.org for the data.
There are lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs to inspire individuals to activate their capital and create the world they want. You’ll see that you can make a return on your investment as well as help build to a better world.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!