Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

The Ride of the Venture Valkyrie

From printed skin to augmented reality, Lisa Suennen channels her inner goddess to divine which health technologies people will actually use.

I’m expecting corporate formalities when I arrive at Lisa Suennen’s office in Mill Valley, California, just a few miles north of the Golden Gate. After all, she’s senior managing director of GE Ventures, the venture capital arm of General Electric. In health care and health technology investments, that’s a big deal: the firm has funded more than two dozen health tech companies. Among her recent moves: leading a $10.8 million round in an analytics company, HealthReveal, and joining a $30 million investment in Syapse, which uses data to improve cancer treatment.

So I think I’ll open the door to a receptionist at a glass desk, or a PR person ready to pounce. Instead I just barge right into her private office — and it doesn’t seem to faze her in the least.

A veteran VC, Suennen is as well known for her sense of humor as she is for her acumen in the overlapping realms of health care, tech, and biotech. Venture capital can be pretentious and stuffy. Not Suennen, who goes by “Venture Valkyrie” on her long-running blog. She’s down to earth and forthright — a small woman with a huge, hearty laugh who likes to talk. Appropriately, she’s also a frequent speaker at health care tech events, and cohosts Tech Tonics, a podcast that focuses on the people of technology and health.

As dusk approaches on a fall evening, we can see the birds skate across the inlet of San Francisco Bay through her office’s big picture windows as we talk about what’s coming next in health technology.

Even though you specialize in the intersection of health and technology, you’re not dazzled by tech for the sake of tech.

Technology is nice. But if you’re not solving a problem, it’s just cute. I’m interested in solving actual problems that patients, providers, and payers have. Technology is a path to that.

It’s hard to build a company in health care, it always has been, and always will be. It’s regulated, it’s complicated, and there are no shortcuts.

A few years ago we got an explosion of digital health apps for fitness, sleep monitoring, and so forth. What came of that?

By and large, those things were nice for a little while, but people didn’t keep using them. Or they didn’t produce significant reductions in weight or blood pressure or whatever, because they didn’t materially impact people’s motivations. Most of these products were not aligned with the level of personalization that is necessary to make a difference. And even with that, it’s hard. Few have cracked that nut. It’s a challenge, getting consumers to make changes for their health.

So is the onslaught over?

I wish! There’s thousands of thousands of companies on the [Apple] app store alone. The vast majority have no value. It muddies the market so nobody can get successful. The ones that have scientific rigor, that demonstrate with real evidence that their products are useful— those are the ones who are going to make it.

OK, so where is tech actually beginning to make a difference?

Unfortunately, a lot of the health care analytics so far produce lists of people that might be sick one day with certain things. They don’t produce the exact path for one person, that can be tied to a real change in outcome. But we’re starting to see that. There’s a company called HealthReveal that I’ve invested in and really like. They take all the disparate sources of data and normalize them to individuals.

They have also codified the best practices in medicine. Best practices don’t proliferate quickly. The estimate is that it takes 17 years between the time something appears in a journal like the New England Journal of Medicine to being broadly used in practice. That’s a long freaking time. If you can eliminate the lag time by using algorithms and codification, and present it to physicians in a way that’s meaningful and helpful to them to make decisions at point of care, that’s great.

What about artificial intelligence in medicine — is that just hype?

First, everybody uses those buzzwords, but most people don’t actually have that stuff. It’s just big data with hand-waving.

Second, AI should probably be called augmented intelligence. For the most part, it’s not going to replace human engagement. And it probably shouldn’t. It should give the clinician or whomever enough information to be quick in acting, but not supplant what they need to add to it as a human.

We have an investment in company called Arterys, which takes analysis for diagnostic radiology from 18 hours down to minutes. No doubt that’s a better output than a human could create. But there’s still professional judgment required. Will it reduce the number of radiologists over time? Probably. Will it eliminate the field? Probably not.

Speaking of trends, what about virtual reality?

There are lots of interesting things going on, all experimentally. Brennan Spiegel at Cedars-Sinai is using VR and augmented reality for really cool patient applications, to help people manage pain from surgery or reduce blood pressure. The blood pressure one I love. They use people’s pastors and ministers to educate them about the importance of blood pressure. They take them on a virtual walk through the kitchen, to see what they’d eat, and recommend other things. It’s really effective.

I think augmented reality in particular will be the standard in physician training, where you won’t need cadavers. That’s probably within 10 years.

What are you keeping an eye on — not actively investing in yet, but monitoring?

There are a lot of interesting things going on in 3-D printing, everything from printing skin, printing bones, to printing surgical implants on the spot that fit patients properly. It’s still really early and mostly experimental, but I think over time, that’ll become a big deal.

What’s this idea of precision health, rather than precision medicine?

It’s a much broader concept. Because if you actually get down to it, most patients’ illnesses are not about genomics. They’re about: They don’t go to their doctor’s appointment, because frankly they can’t get there. Or: “I have trouble managing my diabetes because I don’t have access to good food.” Those social determinants are as much a part of precision health as anything else.

If 50 percent of people who are given medicines that would solve their health problem don’t even take them, that’s not a genomics problem.

But how can that be a business opportunity?

Health systems and payers are beginning to recognize for real that this stuff matters to the cost of care.

There are really interesting companies emerging in that area. There’s a company called Consejo Sano that focuses on culturally appropriate care for people of Latin descent. A couple of companies such as Healthify or NowPow help providers match patients to food, housing, social support services, but in a closed-loop, thoughtful way, rather than: “Here’s a piece of paper that’s been Xeroxed several hundred times with a few food bank names, good luck to you.”

Venture capital is dominated by men, and so is health tech. How do you deal with that?

Something like seven or eight percent of partners in VC funds are women. Something between six and 10 percent of venture money overall goes to women-run companies. It’s particularly shocking to me in health care because women make 85 percent of the buying decisions. Plus, there’s massive amounts of research that companies with diverse male/female workforces are far more profitable. Even if you don’t care about the social justice issue, you should care about the returns issue. To me it’s just insanity.

I started a company called CSweetener, which effectively is a to match women executives in health care with mentors, both male and female, to help them prosper. People can sign up individually to be mentored at $250 a year. Mentors join for free. It’s been incredibly successful.

You hear pitches from companies all day long. How do you avoid becoming cynical — or being dazzled by smoke and mirrors?

That is so hard!

I’ve been doing this venture thing for 20 years. It’s so easy to become cynical. I see thousands of businesses a year, and on average invest in four or five. The vast majority of the stuff is truly not good.

Why not?

Bad ideas, bad management. Or it’s not thought through. I had a conversation today with a company doing a product for patients. I asked how many patients he’d talked to, and he said, none. Dude, seriously? You might think about walking downstairs to the lobby of the hospital you’re in and talking to some patients.

Why do you call yourself the Venture Valkyrie?

It started as the name of my blog, which I’ve been writing for close to 10 years. The Valkyries were Norse goddesses whose job it was to ride over the soldiers of war and decide who lives and dies. I thought it was a great analogy for what I did for a living. You help carry some to the promised land, and you drop the rest off. I have a sick sense of humor, so I thought that was funny.

You seem to be having a lot of fun.

My job is to listen to smart people with wild ideas all day long, and help some of them build amazing things that weren’t here before. That sense of accomplishment when you participate in building something that really makes a difference is pretty cool. To hang out with unbelievably creative people who just can’t imagine failing, and they just make shit happen, is really inspiring.