SEAS Entrepreneur Q&A: Ellen Su '13 on Launching a Start-up

Ellen Su ’13 was still a Yale student when she founded Wellinks with Levi Deluke ’14. The startup focused on “Cinch,” a smart strap for scoliosis braces aimed at giving its users, especially children, a greater sense of independence. With a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone app, the strap collects data for the patients, their guardians, and their doctors on how the brace is being worn and whether it’s adjusted correctly. In early 2020, Fairfield-based Convexity Scientific acquired Wellinks and hired Su as its Chief Product Officer. Convexity, now known as Wellinks, created a portable nebulizer that aerosolizes medication for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. 

“For the past year, I've been working on taking the device they have and adding Bluetooth to it, and then also dramatically expanding the scope, because the market has really accelerated in the world of digital health,” she said. For now, Cinch is on the back burner, although Su said they’re looking into working with other companies in the field about potentially licensing the technology. 

As part of our SEAS-to-Entrepreneur series, we spoke with Su about her time at Yale, launching a start-up company, and her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Did you come to Yale with the idea of creating a startup?

Oh no, I specifically intended not to. I grew up in the Bay area, where I was surrounded by startups. My parents were civil engineers, my brother was a software developer and an electrical engineer. They were like ‘Don’t be an engineer, you’ll be stuck working for someone else - you should go do art, do something creative - you’ll enjoy what you do.’ But I always did love math and science, so it was hard for me to give that up. It was choosing between art school and Yale. And Yale seemed for me a really good choice because you didn’t have to decide what you were right away and you could take classes in various departments. It’s not a huge school where it was impossible to consider taking engineering classes as an art major. My brother founded his own startup so, for me, it was ‘I don't want to be surrounded by tech, so I'm going to run off to the East coast and be an art major and be a painter.’ We saw how that worked out [laughs]. 

What changed your mind?

I discovered product design as a field and a career in sophomore year and started taking a lot of engineering classes, mostly to get exposure to the tools and the skills. That’s when I got engaged with the engineering department and got involved with some of the labs in the engineering department. I then got involved with the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID) as one of the student workers the first year it opened. I essentially lived there my senior year, and after graduating, started working there as a design fellow. It was there that I got involved with Design for America (DFA) and started learning about human-centered design. I co-founded the Yale chapter of DFA. We applied for the CEID Summer Fellowship to see how far we could get with a dedicated team working full-time over the summer - and that formed the genesis of the company that became Wellinks. 

We started looking at scoliosis and trying to understand what the pain points are and what opportunities were there. We spent a lot of time doing research and ended up developing a concept and device out of that and prototyping it. Over the next year, while working at the CEID, I spent part of the time developing and designing a device. Next year, we were in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) fellowship (now the Tsai CITY Summer Fellowship), where we had the opportunity to see what it takes to turn this prototype into a business. 

Looking back, what were some key decisions that you made?

I would say one of the biggest influences was getting involved with DFA, cofounding the Yale chapter of DFA, and learning more about human-centered design. That really inspired all the work that came after that - learning about the design process, about human-centered empathy processes, and it really spoke to me in terms of how I approach problem solving and how I approach the world. Also, the fact that you could use a very broad skill set. Understanding technology is great, but it's not the same as being able to think creatively and make creative applications from those things. 

The second thing that really helped us was the CEID Summer Fellowship - that opportunity to spend 10 weeks over the summer full-time on a self-directed project - that was something we just didn’t have the luxury to do during the school year. I’m also just a big proponent of people being in New Haven over the summer - I think it’s a very different learning experience. 

What advice do you give undergraduates considering a startup?

My general advice for any student I talk to is to reach out to people. Just go and spend as much time as you can learning from people in the field. People are very willing to help and are open to sharing what they do. For me, that was incredibly valuable. Send emails, talk to people, reach out on LinkedIn - the worst thing that can happen is that people don't respond to you. 

The second bit of advice is to take advantage of the Yale resources as much as you can. A lot of people are open to help as long as you ask and as long as you keep up with them - things like getting a mentor at TSAI City, going to specific talks. I never did as much of that as I could have, and that's one of the things that does go away - you don’t have a second chance to do those things once you graduate, so take advantage of those resources while you can. 

It seems one of your strengths was being open to going in entirely new directions.

I was never one who had a career planned out and it was always very stressful to me when someone asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ That was never a question I knew how to answer. I still don't have a good answer for that. The answer I found is more about “What kind of work do I want to do and what environment do I want to work in?” That’s more important than the title or specific place where I end up.