Lucia Huang and Jimmy Qian, Osmind — Founder Story
Especially for first-time founders, there’s a lot that we’re learning. At the same time, it’s important to stay true to yourself and your leadership style and lead with authenticity.
When Lucia Huang and Jimmy Qian met each other while studying at Stanford University, it didn’t take long before they realized they had met a kindred spirit.
The two both come from healthcare backgrounds. Huang’s mother was a biomedical engineer while Huang herself started as an investor specializing in healthcare and then joined startup Verge Genomics before matriculating at Stanford’s business school. Qian was in medical school at Stanford. Equally important, each was frustrated with the health system’s repeated failure to come up with better treatments to help the millions of people who suffer from mental health conditions.
The conventional approach to treatment wasn’t working — not the least because the profession was still stuck using old health IT software, with some mental health clinicians even using pen and paper. Huang and Qian saw an opportunity to equip clinicians with better, more modern tools that would improve their ability to help people.
In 2020, they founded Osmind, where Huang (CEO) and Qian (COO) created the platform for advancing new life-saving mental health treatments. The company’s core electronic health record (EHR) software is a boon for clinicians and researchers, who can more accurately measure a myriad of data streams about treatment responses. With better data in hand, they can then develop more effective interventions to improve the chances of patients having better outcomes.
Osmind has also built applications that help clinicians monitor their patients’ progress on the platform and parse this data to come up with better, more personalized treatment options. Further, Osmind’s software and data also assists researchers as they search for better treatment options for specific conditions.
Q: When you thought about what needed fixing in healthcare, what did you think needed to change?
Huang: Everything. This goes back to our backgrounds in science, medicine, and healthcare. We’ve been passionate about it for a very long time, both for our own reasons as well as for personal reasons.
Q: How did you meet?
Huang: We were both at Stanford when we met. I was in the business school and Jimmy was in the med school. We met through a healthcare IT class, and we stayed friends. Then, while hanging out and talking about all the things that were wrong with the healthcare system, we bonded over our shared interests and mental health and frustration with the healthcare system.
Q: What drew your attention to the topic?
Huang: In middle and high school, I had close friends and team members from my swim team who chose to end their lives. That was traumatizing, and while I couldn’t really talk about it in my household growing up, it stayed in the back of my mind. Then, as my career got underway in healthcare, I realized that mental health was still an area that hadn’t been addressed. When I met Jimmy, we found that we had very similar stories and agreed that nobody’s really done anything about it. We saw this as the last area of medicine that hasn’t innovated and wanted to do something about that.
Q: When most people think about what needs fixing in healthcare, something like EHR doesn’t usually jump to mind.
Qian: We didn’t start by saying, ‘Hey, there’s a technology problem’ or ‘Here’s a product problem. Let’s do that.’ We thought a lot about the root cause of who’s not being helped and saw a real need out there because people were ending their lives. And then layer by layer, we did more research into why so many people weren’t being helped sufficiently. That’s when we saw a real lack of innovation for the actual treatments that are available for people suffering from moderate to severe mental health conditions. There weren’t good solutions.
Q: Why do you think that was the case?
Qian: It’s because we don’t have a good understanding of the biology or the science of how to match people to the right treatments. That was the core problem we set out to solve. And then the way we eventually did that was by building EHR software to help scientists and doctors make better data-informed decisions and develop better treatments. This EHR software is the anchor for how we can change how mental healthcare is delivered.
Q: Compared with other sectors, I think it’s fair to say that healthcare’s adoption of technology has lagged. What’s been your experience?
Huang: It’s pretty astounding. Clinicians have totally been left behind. And a lot of this is due to historical reasons. In 2009, as part of the HITECH (The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act), there was a big initiative around getting clinicians to adopt technology. That sounds good on the surface, but it introduced several perverse incentives to use, in our opinion, inferior software vendors that popped up to take advantage of this government regulation and get products out there that didn’t help clinicians do their jobs or just slowed them down.
Q: What happened after that?
Huang: Burnout. There’s a lot of legacy software from the 2000s that’s still around and some clinicians are using it for 8 to 12 hours a day. The clinicians have really fallen behind, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the help. They need it more than ever because of all the difficulties they’re facing right now in clinical practice. And I think now is a really great time to build better technology.
Q: Is the challenge exacerbated because the healthcare system in the US remains fragmented where there are big differences between one city and the next, and one state and the next?
Qian: That’s a big part of what we consider when we’re building a product. It’s not a simple case of ‘OK, we’re just going to build modern software and make things that people want.’ We’ve also got to connect to the payers, and they’re different in every region. You need to connect to the existing healthcare system, and there’s this whole web that’s very, very difficult to piece together. That’s why sometimes it’s difficult to build in this space.
Q: What do you think your platform can do? Where do you think it’ll be of most help to clinicians and to the people they treat?
Qian: We empower clinicians to treat mental health the way it should be treated and give them the tools they need to practice in the 21st century. That means a few different things. We want to advance the field and innovate on what mental healthcare means. That includes getting data from people between visits, so we know how they have been sleeping and how they’ve been feeling. We know what side effects they might have and what medications they may or may not have taken. All that helps the clinician make a more informed decision and contributes to the advancement of the entire field.
Q: How does that work in practice?
Qian: We’re really trying to push a boundary in the mental health space, doing data science and machine learning. So, we could say that based on things that we’ve detected in your patient, X percent of patients tend to respond better to this while Y percent respond better to that. It extends the realm of what’s possible. And then obviously, we’re saving clinicians’ time, making it simple for them to do the things they want to do within the EHR instead of having to click through 20 times to take one action on legacy systems.
Q: Not everybody’s going to be an early adopter. Where do you think the healthcare profession is in terms of being open to integrating this into their work routine?
Qian: Everyone recognizes that the tools that psychiatrists and other mental healthcare clinicians have are behind others if we compare with what’s happening in oncology or cardiology. When we talk to clinicians who have been practicing for a long time, a lot of them are very excited about our work because they all understand the need. Also, we’re collaborating with leading academic institutions on research to validate that our work is making a difference. For example, we worked together with some faculty members at Stanford to publish a peer-reviewed paper that was the largest retrospective, real-world analysis of ketamine outcomes. And data like that really helps people see the opportunities at scale and will eventually improve access for the people who need it most.
Q: Let me change gears here. Lucia, before co-founding Osmind, you oversaw business and operations at Verge Genomics. Why did you decide to move to a startup?
Huang: I’ll admit that it was a bit of a surprise. I’ve always wanted to do something in healthcare and make an impact. I had considered going to med school but wasn’t as brave as Jimmy was. Before moving into the startup world, I had been working in private equity, investing in healthcare IT. I quit my job, took a 70% pay cut, and moved back to the Bay Area to join what was then a 10-person neurosciences biotech company. Moving into an operating role was my chance to make a bigger impact and be closer to supporting new therapies that were being developed.
Q: At what point did the entrepreneurial bug bite?
Huang: I started to get really excited about all the changes that were happening in neuroscience. Verge was using AI to find better drug targets for things like ALS and Parkinson’s disease, and there was this whole movement around using computational genomics and bioinformatics to find better drugs. It really was exciting to see data being harnessed to drive new treatments. And then getting to work with Alice Zhang, the CEO, was so inspiring. I saw a lot of amazing things. I saw the challenges of entrepreneurship, and I think I developed a balanced view of all the trials and tribulations that entrepreneurs face. But I think what clinched it for me was meeting Jimmy and really bonding over our passions around mental health.
Q: Sounds like the more mental preparation one can do, the better their odds for what lies ahead?
Huang: A lot of people want to start companies and I think that’s great. But you really need to have a passion for the mission. You really need to love your team because it’s hard sometimes. And you’re going to need to have those two things to carry you through.
Q: Jimmy, you were studying to be a doctor. Did you also have an ambition to one day start your own company?
Qian: No. I was not entrepreneurial. I didn’t even know what a startup was until near the end of college. But I became fascinated by digital health before starting medical school. That’s when I met Lucia.
Q: Can you talk about some of the adjustments you needed to make to deal with all the challenges that go into running a startup operation?
Huang: You must constantly change and get used to the changes. That may sound very contradictory, but in the beginning the job changes every two months, if not even more frequently. First, it’s a research job where you’re talking to hundreds of doctors and other people to get advice and think about what you’re going to build. Then you’re hiring your first team members. Then you’re selling your product and it becomes a sales job. Then it becomes a fundraising job. There are so many different facets that you must learn quickly. It just pushes you to your limits.
Qian: You need to be able to handle everything, everywhere, all at once. Just like the movie title. When there’s an existing structure, such as within big tech or academia, even if there’s a lot going on it’s not as uncomfortable because you can prioritize. It’s all laid out. But in startup life, everything hits all at once. No one’s going to prioritize for me. No one’s going to tell me what I’m supposed to do. I have to figure it out.
Q: That aside, what’s been the hardest part of the job, and what’s been the most fun?
Qian: I think the most fun is the people part of the job. As a team, we’re able to get together and work on something that we all care about. It is a very magical feeling. I have lots of gratitude for these wonderful people. And then, of course, the people who we’re serving — the patients and the clinicians.
Q: What do you think are the most important lessons you’ve gathered as you’ve learned how to be entrepreneurs and better leaders?
Huang: I think a big lesson and area of growth for me has been figuring out how to define my leadership style. Especially for first-time founders, there’s a lot that we’re learning. At the same time, it’s important to stay true to yourself and your leadership style and lead with authenticity. One value that’s important to me is empathy. And I think that again comes back to being a mental health company and to how Jimmy and I work together and want to lead our team. It’s easy to be upset with some deliverable that wasn’t done well, or about some other problem. But maybe there was something going on beneath the surface and we need to have some level of empathy. It doesn’t mean that we excuse problems, but it helps us collaborate when we’re trying to understand where someone is coming from. We want to lead in a way that’s more about empowering than it is about scaring people or ruling with an iron fist. We want to lead the team and be motivating and do it in a way that respects our mission of mental health.
Q: Let’s chat briefly about your early years. You’re both local kids, right?
Huang: Yeah, I grew up in the Bay Area and went to the East Coast for college, just like Jimmy did. Both of my parents are immigrants from China, and I think being an immigrant to this country is not to be underestimated. Not really knowing English and having to come from a country that’s so different in every single way to trying to establish your life here on pennies. Both my parents were eventually able to achieve higher education and become engineers. It was just incredibly inspirational to see how far they would go for their family and for their children and do it in a way that’s entirely selfless.
Q: How do you think that example influenced you?
Huang: They really instilled the value of hard work as well as the value of humility. I credit my mom for doing that. She’s just a total badass woman, who was able to rise through the ranks of a large medical device company. It was inspirational to see her tackle all the difficulties around being a woman in science and still be able to lead and influence and ultimately help patients.
Q: Sounds like a great role model. Jimmy, what about you?
Qian: I also grew up in the Bay Area and went to college on the East Coast and then returned here. And my role model is my mom, who is also an immigrant. She’s gone through a lot of tough things in her life and has been extremely resilient. Everything I’ve learned is from her.
Q: Sounds like you guys are running full steam most of the time. How do you blow off steam, if at all?
Huang: I really enjoy being outside. I took up surfing a couple of years ago. So, I try to do that once or twice a week. My brother lives out in Santa Cruz and it’s nice to have a place to crash there on the weekends and just think about waves. I find it’s the one thing that’s best for my mental health, too. It’s the one thing where you need a hundred percent focus when you’re doing it. Otherwise, you’re going to wipe out or miss out on a wave. It’s sort of a form of meditation at this point.
Q: Jimmy, what about you?
Qian: I have a Golden State Warriors obsession. I watch every game — even summer league and pre-season. I deeply love the team. Elsewhere, I run a lot and am trying to diversify to learn new sports, like pickleball.
Q: Time for the getaway questions. What’s your favorite book?
Qian: For me, it’s When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s also about being mortal, but obviously a different story.
Q: Favorite movie?
Qian: Everything Everywhere All at Once has rapidly risen on my list. I have to mention 2001, A Space Odyssey, and 3 Idiots — a four-hour movie from Bollywood that I liked a lot.
Huang: Oh my god, Jimmy. I didn’t know you liked 3 Idiots. I love that movie too.
Qian: I’ve watched it eight times.
Q: Glad to see that the interview helped you learn something new about each other. Lucia, what about your favorite movie?
Huang: 3 Idiots was on my list too. I guess I like Bollywood movies.
Q: Finally, who is the one person who’s had the most influence on your professional career?
Huang: I’d have to say Alice Zhang from Verge. I think she must have been 26 or 27 when we were working together but that did not get in her way. It was impressive to see how she took every single punch to the gut that came our way in stride. It was super inspiring to see her do that.
Qian: I am thankful for many people who have influenced and taught me professionally. I don’t have one specific person who has influenced me most. But I would like to take this opportunity to give Justin Kao, a partner at DFJ Growth and one of our board members, a shoutout for being a believer in us. Justin is a really smart, tactical, kind, ethical board director, advisor, and founder whisperer.