Three Alumni Discuss The World Of Health/Tech Startups


The state of the U.S. healthcare industry is in such flux that it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen in the next few years. It’s not the easiest terrain for a new business, but three recent Yale alumni are making a go of it, and talked about their experiences Friday at the Yale Technology Summit.

The talk, “Innovative Startups at the Intersection of Healthcare and Technology,” was moderated by Richard Foster, director emeritus of McKinsey and Co. Panelists were Elizabeth Asai ‘13, chef executive officer for 3Derm Systems; Ellen Su ‘13, co-founder and chief creative officer of Wellinks; and Paul Fletcher-Hill ’15, co-founder and CEO of PatientBank.

“Right now, we’re going through more change in healthcare than we’ve seen than in the last 50 years, so you have to make sure your business model is really forward thinking,” said Asai, adding that the payment model for patients could change significantly in the near future. “I think the main challenge for someone who’s entering today is not knowing how this is going to play out in the next three to five years - it’s guesswork.”

Asai, who majored in biomedical engineering, started the company while she and the company's other co-founders were students at Yale. It’s based on a device that allows trained technicians at the primary care level to take stereoscopic images of skin. These images are then sent to in-network dermatologists for examination. Clinical trials have shown that the accuracy of detecting skin cancers compares favorably to an in-person visit with a dermatologist.

Foster expressed his admiration for the panelists for navigating their way through the healthcare system. “They start out with this device and they end up right in the middle of this morass of this enormous system that doesn’t seem to have any leader to it,” he said. “And it’s very hard to figure out, other than having the experiences that these amazing people have gone through for the last few years.”

Su, of Wellinks, said that one of the big differences between a tech startup in healthcare compared to other industries is the level of customer satisfaction required.

“In healthcare, you’re working with people who are on the margins - the people who aren’t doing so well, who aren’t healthy - so the conseques of not being able to adequately serve them... the stakes are much higher,” said Su, who was a design fellow at the Center of Engineering Innovation and Design when she was at Yale.

Her company, founded in 2013, specializes in wearable health technology and is currently focusing on devices designed for patients with scoliosis. For patients who have to wear a brace to treat their scoliosis, the company developed a strap that keeps track of how long the brace is being worn. This data is then sent to patients and their healthcare providers. Because doctors are so inundated with information – leading to what’s known as “notification fatigue” – Su said the system is set up so that doctors only receive information when something needs to be addressed.

“If the patients aren’t wearing the brace, doctors want to be able to do something about it,” Su said. “Doctors don’t have this information, and they really need it.”

Fletcher-Hill co-founded PatientBank while a student at Yale, where he majored in Computer Science and Economics. The company is based on a platform designed to make gathering and sharing medical records easier for patients and providers. He said that one thing fledgling entrepreneurs in tech startups should know is that they’re going to need a lot of non-technical skills to get their companies off the ground.

“There’s a sentiment early on that if you build a product and put it on the web, things happen and you succeed," he said. "But, especially in healthcare and especially if you’re doing something that you have to sell to hospitals or insurance companies or other complex entities, what matters - sometimes even more than the product you’re building - is how you sell it and how you deliver it to the system. Before you enter that space, think critically about how you do that.”

The panel discussion was one of several at the all-day event, which was coordinated by Yale Information Technology Services. Keynote speaker was Computer Science Prof. Brian Scasellati, who spoke about using robots for teaching.