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Health Tech: Liz Tang On How Mediminder’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact In Our Overall Wellness

An Interview With Dave Philistin

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Tang.

Liz Tang is the founder of Mediminder, Inc., a company dedicated to ensuring life-saving medications are never left behind. Liz is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis’ McKelvey School of Engineering and University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She’s the mom of two young children, one with life-threatening food allergies that require constant access to epinephrine in case of unintentional exposure to his allergens.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up outside of Denver, Colorado. My parents had successful careers yet also valued family time — especially sports. They were also fantastic career role models — an industrious working mom and a dad that pulled his weight around the house and family beyond his work. One of the activities I participated most passionately in as a child was Odyssey of the Mind where my love for engineering and technology blossomed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

During one of my first real jobs out of college, I was an environmental consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. During my time in this job, I primarily worked on a project with data from the small town of Davis, California. I made two trips to this small town and if not for this project I would never have known the town existed. In the early days of our graduate school and careers, my husband and I tended to take turns moving us from one location to another — St. Louis, Bay Area, Charlottesville, DC. After our time in DC, it was my husband’s turn and he was on the job market for law school faculty positions. And guess where we ended up? University of California, Davis. My kids have now been raised in this small town I happened to work for during my first job. There may not be a big a-ha about this story beyond the coincidence it brought my family, but to me, it reiterates the connectedness of all we do. Networking should sometimes be intentional. Other times — it just takes noticing and letting life happen to connect the dots in this bigger world we work in.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many — but first and foremost, is my husband. We are approaching a point where we’ve been together half our lives and will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary this Fall. Aaron has made very deliberate career moves in support of our family and was always a cheerleader for my career, even when it meant spending money on something that didn’t exist yet.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson, wrote “Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story.” I spent so much of my 20s worrying about myself — my jobs, my looks, my fitness, my nutrition, my vacations. Having kids was a shock to my psyche — there was zero time to worry about any of that. Five years later, my patience is tested daily, even hourly. Most days I’m counting down the minutes until the kids are in bed. It’s hard to quantify all that we parents sacrifice and yet we wouldn’t want it any other way. I was crippled by perfectionism growing up — but having children has a way of erasing those tendencies. It’s impossible to parent the “best” way, the “perfect” way. There is no such thing and the number of variables at hand is uncountable. Humility is especially gained during the second child — because surprise, everything you thought you “did right” with the first kid is sure to go wrong with the second. Humility is carrying a child for 9+ months, birthing them, feeding them from your body, and then having them favor your life partner as a playmate. So now, in my 30s, I try to be patient and certainly am extremely humbled. But mostly I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile the idea that I might be a blip in my children’s lives, and yet they are my everything. The “very best thing about [my] life is just a short stage in” my kids’ story.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Sure, I think the following characteristics have helped in my journey to where I am today career-wise. I’m:

  1. Unphased by “status”: Unlike my business school peers — I never really joined the ranks of corporate America. Being a banker or consultant at a prestigious firm didn’t give me the same excitement that it did others. Because of that I never wrestled with golden shackles and was always able to focus on what I thought could bring the most positive impact to our world given my skills — instead of focusing on what my boss thought would help him/her best get promoted.
  2. Able to de-escalate tough conversations — In business, so many conversations become a competition about who can sneak more value for themselves out of a negotiation. People are often on-guard about being sold to — so whether you are talking to a vendor or a potential customer someone is always on the hot seat. One thing I’ve always had a knack for is finding common ground in conversations so that everyone is on an equal playing field. To me, this yields the best, fairest conversations that are able to extract the most value for both parties.
  3. Knowledgeable in a diverse set of skills: Another consequence of not focusing on the corporate career ladder is the diversity of experiences I’ve had. I’ve worked as a food manufacturing engineer, with lawyers and conservationists as an environmental consultant, in the finance department at a Fortune 500 company, as owner and operator of a granite countertop company, and advising undergraduate entrepreneurs at a large, research university. Because of this breadth of experiences, I will NEVER be a superb engineer, I’ll never be a top strategy consultant — instead, I’m able to identify the most important issues of each part of a business. After all, starting a company like mine isn’t just about the software, it’s not just the hardware, it’s not just the marketing or operations — each of these roles is critical to getting the business off the ground. I can see the big picture — start each piece of the business, then know what questions to ask to find the appropriate person to hand off to for help.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

Over 30 million Americans have food allergies. Each year, 200,000 of them are hospitalized for emergency care. Using epinephrine within minutes of exposure to an allergen is crucial to reducing the risk of death. I want to change the way people with epinephrine auto-injectors (EpiPen®, Auvi-Q®, or generic) manage their conditions and handle emergencies.

Statistics can help to show the scope of the problem, but I sometimes find that it’s a story that best drives the problem home. Emma Pfouts was 16-years-old when she went to her high school homecoming dance and accidentally left her EpiPen in her car. Emma had eaten at an Olive Garden before the dance and twice told the restaurant about her chicken and egg allergies. Yet while at the dance, she suddenly started to feel sick. By the time she made it to her car, it was too late: her body was already going into anaphylactic shock. Although 911 responded quickly and paramedics rushed her to the hospital. In the year and a half since this incident, Emma has made some miraculous strides — moving her legs after 72 days in the PICU and starting to talk after 100 days. Nevertheless, she suffered cardiac arrest and an anoxic brain injury, has been hospitalized for over 600 days and her life has been severly altered. Parents like Emma’s need a way to know if even the most responsible of adolescents — like Emma herself — accidentally get too far away from their life-saving medication.

How do you think your technology can address this?

I’ve created a tag that can be stored with the epipen. It’s device agnostic. It’s case agnostic. Whatever epinephrine you carry, however you carry it, the tag can be added. The accompanying app for this tag will do 3 things: (1) it will alert you when you (or your child) are too far from your (their) epi, (2) it will notify you if your epi is too hot or too cold, and (3) eventually, it will network our EpiPens. In a life-threatening emergency where epinephrine is not available you’d be able to locate the nearest epireminder carrier for help (not all paramedics carry EpiPens). 32 million Americans are prescribed EpiPens.

There are a lot of customized use cases that I’ve built into the technology. It needs to work for adults and young adults that manage their medications on their own. It needs to work for middle and high schoolers that are doing this on their own — but should also alert their parents (like Emma’s) when it has been left behind for an additional safety net. Finally, it needs to work for parents of young children — me! I need the ability to hand off the responsibility of my son’s epi to additional caregivers — his Dad, his teacher, his grandparents, and his babysitters. All of this is incorporated into the app.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

It’s been exactly 5 years since my son was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies. Everything about my parenting journey has been different than I expected. I wanted to be a cool Mom — instead, I’m an overbearing, helicopter mom. And I’m not alone. 1 in 13 children has a severe food allergy and this number is rising. The thing about food allergies is every single immune system is different — so the experience is different for every patient. There’s one thing that’s universal for all families: the need to keep life-saving epinephrine nearby at all times. It may sound simple — but every time my kid goes to the park, to a grandparent’s, to school, to a museum, etc. we have one additional thing to remember. And, if you’re thinking — just get a bunch and put them in different places, there are problems with that plan too: (1) they are expensive, and (2) they need to stay room-temperature. Stashing in your car to have them everywhere doesn’t work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rushed kids inside for lunch and not realized until the next day I left the epi in the car overnight. Many people can’t afford to replace them and have to carry ineffective medication, hoping it will save their child’s life if needed. The Food Allergy Moms of the internet have all kinds of creative solutions — phone reminders, sticky notes, special hooks — but none of them work in every situation.

How do you think this might change the world?

No child should ever die in densely populated Brooklyn, NY due to cooking fumes when EpiPens and asthma inhalers are so widely prescribed. No child should go into cardiac arrest at a high school dance like Emma Pfouts, when 1 in 13 children is prescribed an epipen. No mother should have to leave her dying daughter’s side to beg a nearby pharmacist for an epipen. Many have advocated for more stock epinephrine at schools and restaurants and I absolutely support this endeavor. Truth is though, it’s not quite as simple as sticking an AED on the wall and calling it a day — because as mentioned these medications expire annually and need to be kept at room temperature. If we can use crowdsourcing to help people find their lost keys, identify adverse traffic conditions, or get rides to the airport, surely we can use these tools to save each others’ lives.

And because the technology is so universal — food allergies are just the start. Other urgently-needed, life-saving medications can use the same technology: insulin, glucagon, Narcan, epilepsy rescue drugs, asthma rescue inhalers, etc.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Sure, people may — and should! — worry about privacy and information security. I am working to ensure all security protocols are up-to-date. Currently, users are given the ability to opt-in to help in nearby emergencies — otherwise, their medication and location data will only be shared with specific users they allow.

People may also worry about the misuse of medications. To start, I am much more worried about the other misuse of epinephrine — namely the failure to use it to save someone’s life when it is needed. Giving someone epinephrine as a good samaritan is always at the discretion of the prescription holder. While every allergic reaction is different — there are typically obvious, striking symptoms that suggest epinephrine is necessary.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  1. Have a critical problem worth solving. Technology for technology’s sake is rarely worth the work it takes to make a viable solution. Previous ideas I wanted to implement and start — algorithms to identify individuals to be part of a personal board of directors — e.g. online dating for mentors. Gift ideas for loved ones via artificial intelligence. A Rent the Runway type of subscription for maternity clothes. These are admirable goals and likely have a real market — but these are also “nice-to-haves” rather than “must-haves.” Ensuring epinephrine is effective and nearby is a need-to-have for millions of Americans. The above problem is also broad and generalized, which brings me to…
  2. Start small. When you have a vision it’s easy to try and implement it all, all at once. As mentioned, the same technology I’m using can be applied to many medications beyond epinephrine. However, gaining awareness from potential users will always be a challenge for beginning businesses. Never discount how hard it is to get attention & eyeballs in this highly distracted world — regardless of how needed your solution is. Instead, I chose to focus specifically on the food allergy community, make the app super relevant to our particular use cases and expand from there.
  3. Get help. As I talked about earlier in the article, my general approach has been to attempt things myself until I get stuck — this applies to all facets of the business — design, software, hardware, marketing, website building, etc. “Getting stuck” can take different forms — it could be not knowing what to do next or wondering whether my time is worth more on other pieces of the business puzzle. Or it could be deciding whether to pay someone to do a certain task, or whether it’s worthwhile to level up to a more professional look. Depending on the task and the situation, who to get help from will be different — maybe you ask someone for ideas or hire someone full time. I’ve personally had a lot of success making connections through freelance websites like Upwork. I’ve also had some less than satisfactory experiences, so I suggest working with freelancers in small, manageable bites and moving quickly to the next if it’s not working.
  4. Focus on access. Positive social impact can only happen if the people that need the technology can get it and afford it. I am hyper-focused on keeping costs reasonable for our product — instead, I’ll focus on scaling the business through getting it into as many people’s hands as possible instead of maximizing profit from any one given family. I’m also exploring programs that would allow users with the means to purchase the products for those who cannot afford them.
  5. Assess current options and don’t reinvent the wheel. Before moving forward with product development, I purchased dozens of similar tools — Bluetooth thermometers and location beacons like Tile. I stuffed all of these in our epipen bag and used them for many months documenting what worked, what didn’t, and what needed to be added to create a fully functional solution for this use case. When it was time to create the product and hire engineers, I was able to put together a product brief using the existing technologies as examples. This way, instead of me just describing my needs loosely, I was able to give specific technology components and protocols for inclusion.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

In my experience, young people rarely need to be told why it’s important to make a positive impact on society. Every college student I interacted with during my time teaching entrepreneurship at UC Davis was heavily invested in changing the world. Instead, I would remind them to keep working with their original vision long after the temptations of high-paying, prestigious job offers. There’s no higher reward than individually making a difference in people’s lives.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would love the ability to meet Sara Blakely. I love that Sara is family & philanthropy-focused despite her huge success. She worked as a stand-up comedian and sold office supplies — she got such a bad score on her LSATs she didn’t get into law school. Notably, her dad regularly asked about daily failures and celebrated them as part of dinner table conversation. This shaped her ability to use these setbacks to work hard and create Spanx. As I try to think of ways to pass this mindset to my children — I’d love to pick her brain on how she’s seen these concepts passed to hers.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat. Would love anyone interested to reach out to me on any of the following:

Instagram: @epireminder

Facebook: EpiReminder

LinkedIn: Liz Tang

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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Dave Philistin, CEO of Candor

Dave Philistin Played Professional Football in the NFL for 3 years. Dave is currently the CEO of the cloud solutions provider Candor