To Gain Startup Support, You HAVE to Connect and Relate with People: With Avner Halperin
By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
“The partner turned, looked at me very sternly and asked if I had done some investigating about him personally. I honestly replied that I hadn’t…He explained that a very similar event had just happened in his family…This obviously made our company story much more relatable for that investor, and less than eight weeks later, a $15 million investment round led by that partner was successfully completed and EarlySense was saved.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Avner, Halperin, Co-founder and CEO of EarlySense. Avner is a physicist and entrepreneur, inventor of 25 U.S. patents, and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He founded EarlySense in 2004 to develop a smart contact-free health monitoring system that could help parents and doctors identify deterioration in a child’s condition, such as his daughter’s asthma, to prevent / minimize attacks before they occur. Thirteen years later, EarlySense’s big data health analytics platform is used around the world — in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, and at home via a consumer solution for proactive health monitoring.
Avner previously served in several senior management positions, including CEO of Emmunet, VP Marketing at Radcom (NASDAQ: RDCM), and VP Business Development at Lenslet. He also worked as the Head of R&D at Eldat Communications (acquired by Pricer AB) and was the Department Head of an R&D Unit in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Intelligence Corps.
Avner holds an M.Sc. in Applied Physics from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from the MIT Sloan Fellows Executive MBA Program.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
My childhood spanned two continents and gave me an international perspective. I was born in Jerusalem, but spent my last six years of school in the U.S. before returning to serve in the Israeli army. In an American school, as an Israeli teenager, I spoke the language but didn’t feel like I truly belonged. Not being invited to parties or participating in sports teams, I learned what it was like to be an outsider, someone who watches all the action but cannot find the right way to jump in and participate. This allowed me to develop a strong sense of independence, but also a deep appreciation for the foreigner and being “different”. I learned that for every “majority held” point of view there is almost always a viable position from the other side. After graduation, coming back to Israel and becoming part of the “majority”, I tried to keep that feeling alive in me, striving to be inclusive in the company that I manage. I also bring that experience to an inner-city school, where I lead an action committee to provide the opportunity to every student, to build his or her own path to belonging and success.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2008, EarlySense was on the verge of closing the biggest deal in its history when the subprime crisis erupted and all bets were off. As a result, the company nearly went bankrupt. Through a personal connection, I was introduced to a large investment fund and given the opportunity to make an introduction presentation to one of the managing partners.
Based on all the information I had about the fund and its history, I knew that the chances of them investing in us were slim to none. Regardless, I went. As an entrepreneur, you never say no to such meetings.
I went through our presentation deck and explained how our system can provide early warning of patient deterioration for hospitalized patients. To make this more understandable for non-clinicians, I gave a standard example of a patient in a hospital who has internal bleeding, but the doctors and nurses don’t see it. As a result, they are likely to miss the event, and the patient may die.
As I often did, I mentioned that this could, for example, happen to young mothers just after delivering a baby. The partner turned, looked at me very sternly and asked if I had done some investigating about him personally. I honestly replied that I hadn’t, but my heart literally almost stopped beating as I was afraid that I had touched a tragic note. He explained that a very similar event had just happened in his family, though luckily only ended with a near-death situation. This obviously made our company story much more relatable for that investor, and less than eight weeks later, a $15 million investment round led by that partner was successfully completed and EarlySense was saved.
After dozens of unsuccessful investment pitches, this personal connection with a real-life experience related to the potential value of our technology (thankfully with a non-tragic result), gave this investment pitch a happy ending. As I often tell our employees, “You get lucky by working very hard and trying many times.”
So what exactly does your company do?
EarlySense improves health outcomes through advanced analytics and contact-free sensors. We developed a unique ability to comfortably and accurately measure vital signs, without wearing any devices or wires on the body, and with no need for any setup by the patient or user.
By simply putting a sensor under a bed mattress or a chair cushion, we detect every heartbeat, breath, and motion, to build an accurate health picture including cardiac, respiratory, sleep, and stress analysis. This “no strings attached” collection of health data allows doctors and nurses in hospitals and nursing homes to get continuous data and early warning alerts.
Prior to EarlySense, 80 to 90 percent of patients typically received a manual vital sign reading every four to eight hours, risking overlooking subtle changes in patient status. Our advanced analytics build a personalized health picture of the patient and highlight any health changes in order to facilitate timely intervention by clinicians. More than 500,000 patients have already been safeguarded with our solutions. Clinicians have used our system to save more than 1,000 lives and prevent over 100,000 unnecessary hospital days, and we’ve helped save health institutions tens of millions of dollars.
This year, we took our solutions one step further and brought them to the home, as part of the digital health revolution. Now, people can leverage the same monitoring technology that doctors use in hospitals, just by downloading an app and making a one-time connection to a sensor that is placed under their bed mattress. This allows them to get an accurate daily health report and alerts when something begins to go wrong, allowing people to age gracefully at home, and/or enables others to take better care of senior parents or children, either locally or remotely.
EarlySense brings the power of top hospital-level health sensing and care to skilled nursing facilities and homes. All of us at EarlySense feel fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver better health to these areas, which previously didn’t have access to such advanced technology.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As business leaders, we strive to make the world a better place, and I view this in three layers.
First the company, in its core activity, brings real long term benefits with its product or service. At EarlySense, we highlight and take pride in each report of a life being saved with our technology. Thankfully, these successes are becoming more and more frequent as the number of people using our technology is growing exponentially.
Second, the way our company conducts its everyday activities is aimed to bring value to those around it. Most importantly is our contribution to our employees’ overall quality of life. As large employers, we have the ability to profoundly affect people’s lives. I am especially proud of the many cases in which we provide an opportunity to excel for people who may otherwise have not had that chance. In our case, we employ a very diverse group. Our employees speak 12 native languages and range in age from 15 to 77. We provide an opportunity to grow for high school students who want to experience the high tech world, as well as seniors who bring a mature perspective and outlook. We make sure all of our employees learn something new and broaden their horizons every year. At the same time, while working very hard for the company’s success, they also have the flexibility to build, grow and care for their families. We are excited to see that though we are still a young company, a significant number of our team members have been with us for more than 10 years, and have grown from entry level associates to project leaders and VPs.
Third, on the personal level, in my spare non-work time, I strive to bring value from my experience. I volunteer as chairman of an action committee supporting an inner city school. I work with the principal of the school to build a “support group” of business and academic leaders who volunteer with children, raise donations, and help with budgetary and work planning to help the school achieve its academic targets. Volunteering with the young school children and seeing their growth at the end of every year, including a visit to EarlySense as a target place they may want to work in the future, is one of the most rewarding things I do.
What are five things you wish someone told you before you became CEO, and why?
- Share the bad news quickly, and the good news slowly. As a freshman CEO, I would share the smallest hint of good news with investors and “sit” on the bad news until sadly signed and sealed. This created cases when the good news disappeared before it became a reality, leading to disappointments of a ‘promised’ deal that hadn’t happened or early technology breakthrough signs that never materialized. Of course, the board/investors were always on the lookout for bad news that may surprise them. Now that I quickly share the bad new and wait to be sure about the good, all stakeholders are confident that they have a realistic picture of what’s going on. But, a corollary to the above is that bad news should be shared quickly, but not too quickly. It should be shared after you, as CEO, have had a chance to prepare an initial action plan to deal with that negative event. When following the above rule, I shared news literally within minutes (e.g. a business deal that went sour and was heading towards a real conflict), and was asked by board members, “What’s the plan?” I didn’t have a plan yet. So taking one night to sleep on it and have the elements of an action plan is the right compromise—fast enough to be transparent, yet slow enough to lead thoughtfully.
- You are not the customer. I approved the design of the first product we developed because the management team and I felt we would buy such a product ourselves. We learned the hard way that we do not represent the typical target customer, and you can’t trust your own consumer preferences. In most cases, the leadership team, and even the employee base, don’t accurately represent the preference of the customer base. You have to do the leg work of talking to the typical customers.
- Hire creatively. Every CEO knows that the number one key success factor is hiring the best people and keeping them positively engaged. One method that worked for me is to hire ‘creatively’, including the very young and inexperienced and the very experienced and possibly over-qualified. We employ talented people aged 15 to 76, and giving people who may not have been hired by other companies a chance always carries a little risk. However, overall, this strategy has proven incredibly effective in expanding our talent pool and making the people who receive this opportunity incredibly motivated to prove that they are worthy of our trust.
- Present risks and alternatives. I initially put together plans that were “too perfect” with no alternatives. I learned that including honest and realistic risks in a plan and full and alternative options that you reviewed in a favorable way, helps builds trust by those around you. When the team has openly discussed what will happen in case a product launch fails, and develops a plan B and a plan C, the chances of plan A becoming a reality (possibly with minor real time modifications) increases considerably.
- Share the credit. As CEO, much of the credit for success naturally goes to you. So actively and selflessly communicating that somebody else deserves the acclaim for any success is incredibly effective — honestly even when only partially deserved. We make sure to highlight every time a junior team member or a senior management member has initiated a new idea or led to a business success. I am always reminded how important and appreciated that is at all levels of the organization. It significantly contributes to motivation and engagement when people know that if they come to you with something new, the credit in success will be totally theirs, but that if it fails, it will go back to the CEO.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
There are two people I would like to meet. First, I’d love to meet Bill Gates because of his long-term innovation success, but more importantly his literally world-changing philanthropic initiatives.
I’d also love to meet Professor Daniel Kahneman. He is one of the most creative and thoughtful economists I have had the privilege of reading, with the deepest understanding of the combination of psychology and economics.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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