Interview by Howie Rhee '04 on August 27, 2012
Tell us about your time at Duke. What did you study and what were you involved in?
Ralph Snyderman and Sandy Williams regarding Personalized Medicine, and the entrepreneurial spirit of DukeMed. An entrepreneurial spirit colored my entire experience.
Creating a unique entrepreneurial path was not always straightforward, but, the leadership was always open to letting me prove that I could do well academically and by patients, and also pursue my passions. The medical education dean gave me about a week to study for the Comprehensive Basic Science Exam (like the board exams), and do alternative work on classes I scored well on and had already taken at Cambridge University. I used my time to create & launch Fitness Forward and its Coach K Drive 2 Fitness program with Durham Public Schools, with the support of many mentors and people at Duke, like Bill Kraus, MD/ Center for Living and Coach K/ the Basketball office.
Looking back, I'd say that I was 'over-involved' while at Duke, initially, which simultaneously exposed me to a number of rich experiences, and taught me the importance of focus to be able to scale great results (the hard way). I was head of the local Duke AMA, an AMA regional delegate, student rep for the AAMC and on the AAMC executive board one year, and I started into my PhD in neurobiology/ concentration in Bioinformatics with a Howard Hughes mentor, while also going down the AOA route academically for medical training.
I wouldn't trade any of the amazing experiences I had at DukeMed, though I admit part of me wishes I'd had a tech startup mentor to guide me down a more focused path, earlier, regarding FitNet (now Zipongo). I had created FitNet as a prototype application for personalized healthy meal and exercise planning the summer between Boston Medical Center and DukeMed, but, not knowing anything about for-profit tech entrepreneurship at the time, and feeling committed to getting my clinical training, I focused on all things medical training, community/ children's/ community health (Fitness Forward) and neurobiology/ bioinformatics. We were a runner up for the Duke Start-up Challenge social track, which was a great experience, but was still in the early days of that program, and did not provide great exposure to potential entrepreneurial mentors back then (we were also runner up at the Harvard competition, but they didn't have a mentor pathway either, at the time). It's been really fun to see the focus you've brought to entrepreneurship and true mentorship at Duke since then...
I had originally approached Ralph Snyderman, MD, to see if he could help me, in support of both Fitness Forward AND FitNet (again, being naive about what it really took, in terms of focus, to build out one, let alone two startups). Ralph was retiring, and began to mentor me in my work. When he retired, he asked if I would co-found Proventys with him, to focus on the prediction & risk assessment side of personalization, for which I left my PhD program. Ralph also supported me in my spending some time to grow Fitness Forward to Boston and other states, and continuing my medical training in biostats/ epidemiology/ decision sciences at Harvard School of Public Health and Clinical Research at UCSF.
The path I made for myself was not always easy and straightforward, but, it was incredibly rich. I cannot imagine meeting a more amazing set of mentors, researchers, clinicians and classmates who continually supported my creative and entrepreneurial endeavors, while still fostering top learning as a physician. And, I cannot imagine a more well-rounded graduate education.
You did a Fellowship at UCSF. Tell us a little bit about what you learned doing that fellowship. Did you get exposed to the entrepreneurial culture of San Francisco / Silicon Valley?
I was a Doris Duke clinical research fellow, and focused on clinical research/ epidemiology, particularly as it related to pediatric obesity, environmental/ geolocation tools and predictive analytics. I did get some exposure to entrepreneurship in SF--definitely. I went to the very first Health 2.0 Conference, and met Adam Bosworth there. He recruited me to be the first employee of Keas, but I didn't do that, so I could finish my MD, and continue my support of Proventys (I was still their part-time CTO at the time). But, I learned a ton from my conversations with entrepreneurs like Adam, as to how they think about building start-up cultures.
While you were in school, you co-founded Proventys with Ralph Snyderman. What was that experience like, getting something off the ground while you were still in school?
Simultaneous with your degree and Proventys, you founded and led Fitness Forward. Tell us about that.
In 2010, you started Zipongo. What is Zipongo?
From our site: http://www.zipongo.com/whats-zipongo
Healthy foods recommendations and deals, personalized for you.
If you’re like us, you want you and your family to eat healthy. But it’s hard! We don’t have time to decipher confusing nutritional labels at the store, or to learn quick and tasty ways to cook healthy foods.
That’s why there’s Zipongo - to make it faster, easier, and less costly for us. Zipongo rewards us with discounts and special deals when we buy healthy foods at the store, when we “Share the Health™” and pass Healthy Deals onto our friends, and when we stay loyal to our healthy food choices.
Coming soon, Zipongo’s deals, recipes, and healthy meal plans will be available in most regions, and personalized based on your and your family’s health needs, lifestyles, and food preferences. Don’t like to cook? We’ll give you quick and easy recipes. Parent of a fourth-grader? We’ll send you deals and tips for packing healthy school lunches. Watching your cholesterol? Zipongo helps you identify heart healthy items, based on guidance from expert physicians, nutritionists, and trainers, as well as national health organizations.
How did you decide to start Zipongo?
From our site: http://www.zipongo.com/background
Be Active. Eat Smart. Sleep Well. Stress Less. Be Present.
It sounds simple, but following through is not easy - especially for a family, when resources are tight. My sisters and I grew up in Buffalo. We cut coupons for processed products, and we ate fast food. Thankfully, my mom did three key things to help me maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
- She dragged me to her dieting workshops, where I witnessed the real-life struggles of moms trying to lose weight.
- She drove me far and wide to every athletic endeavor imaginable.
- She chose a home for the family in an area with easy access to the outdoors.
I later learned that most people are not so lucky. In 2001, I worked with physicians at Boston Medical Center to launch a lifestyle-based child weight management clinic. I witnessed that we can successfully address adult and child obesity by improving unhealthy lifestyles and environments, rather than simply relying on drugs.
My patients were children who ranged from slightly overweight to severely obese and diabetic. We put together personalized health plans for them. We asked them, what physical activities do you like, or dislike? What foods do you like, or hate?
With their individual plans for healthy eating and exercise, our patients' weight levels decreased. I wondered why primary care doctors didn't create personalized, contextual healthy plans for their patients; the answer: no training, no time, no reimbursement. They wanted a tool that they could prescribe to families, to create individualized healthy living plans.
So the idea for Zipongo was born. Our big vision is to create personalized healthy plans for you, make healthy eating and exercise more affordable for you and your family, and make it fun and rewarding to reach your health goals.
You pitched at the first DukeGEN Angel Pitch Event in May 2010, to a panel of angel investors. Was that experience helpful to you? Would you recommend it to others?
I will admit some disappointment that the community of successful Duke entrepreneurs and investors that I know have shown less commitment to investments in health and social ventures compared to investors I've known from my Williams network, for example. But, it's hard to say that's a quantitative assessment-- so much of early fundraising is circumstantial. And, this has nothing to do with DukeGEN.
In fact, I think DukeGEN is the best entrepreneurial alumni community of any academic alumni group I'm part of (Williams, Harvard, Cambridge, UCSF), and I think you, Matt, Michael and Basil deserve a ton of credit for that. I encourage any Dukies I know to consider getting involved and pitching at DukeGEN, and am looking forward to take part in the events. I hope it will continue to evolve even more, in terms of helping Duke entrepreneurs find top talent, investors (especially for health, ed-tech, clean energy), etc.
Tell us about Zipongo. You are two years in since you started. How are things going?
Check out this TechCrunch article from July 25, 2012 "With $1M+ From Guitar Hero Co-founder & Others, Zipongo Is Building The Mint.com For Healthy Living"
As you reflect back on the years since you've started, what are some of the things you've learned that you wished you'd known when you were starting.
Thinking back to when you were a medical student, were there things you wished you'd done differently to prepare for being an entrepreneur?
And what did you do as a student that you are glad you did?
You worked at Mercer Management Consulting before starting your medical degree program. For students that are thinking of starting a company, but thinking about getting work experience first, how would you help them analyze that decision?
I worked at Mercer for one main purpose: My younger sister was impregnated by one of my best friends when she was 15, and, she and my family were having trouble paying the bills. I got a job to help earn some money sooner (Good news: They later got married, have 4 beautiful kids, and she has her own wellness business as an RD and yoga instructor). But, I will say this. For someone like me, heads down on a path in medicine and research, consulting opened my eyes to the power and influence of business and organizations on society-- both good and bad. Consulting also taught me hard skills that were invaluable-- Excel, PPT, writing, speaking, selling, interviewing, recruiting... So, I think it depends on your situation. If you have some breathing room, if you have the entrepreneurial itch, if you have some skills (like software engineering), and you have a window of youthful financial freedom-- go find a true mentor and a co-founder, and get after building your company! But, if you need to earn some money, build the thought process behind your idea or build your confidence, or learn a new hard skill, then a job or school is a smart way to go.
A lot of students get stuck on the idea they need to do something incredibly high tech like create the next Google or Facebook. And a lot of them think they need to keep their idea a secret. They might look at a business like yours and say "it's not a technology innovation" and say "if I tell someone my idea, why don't they just steal it and do it themselves?". How do you advise students that are thinking in this way?
Google-- amazing simple high tech innovation, scaled with lots of money for servers and engineers-- definitely. I would not consider Facebook incredibly high tech when it first started (-: There was very little defensible about Facebook-- I think it actually showed how execution and speed was everything.
I think it's less about being "high tech", and more about bringing an 'automation' (where possible), 'end user' and 'measurement/ experimentalist' mentality to everything you build that is in fact important in any new undertaking. In terms of being a BIG company or becoming rich, that's a social-psychological issue for sure, that unfortunately I think drives the paranoia, and litigiousness, of some. The main thing I can say is that authenticity and mission orientation (even if not a social impact venture, still critical to have a mission/ purpose) will help to ward off the anxiety that some entrepreneurs, business people and academics suffer with. I think this anxiety greatly diminishes with experience and the following realizations: The part that's important about IP is respect of one another's work and inventions, not stealing from people, and appropriate attribution. Some people are happy to take advantage of others--indeed. But, in the modern era, investing a lot of money in patents, or a lot of communication barriers in trade secrets in the early days of a startup is just not worth it, compared to the time lost in executing (and the good mood being open and transparent brings). Most good ideas cannot be captured in a 30 min conversation anyway. Further, it's not like a ton of different sites weren't already doing Search or Social before Google and Facebook; they just executed better and faster. And when they got bigger, they use IP like patents as chips that they banter with back and forth.
On the other hand, I don't think it's that useful to talk to a million different prospective investors, etc, because then you're just flirting with the probability that you'll run into a less than ethical person, and even worse, you're probably wasting too much time talking to too many people and not building your product or talking to users/ customers. In that way, what's worse than risking your "IP", is not being intentional about how you allocated your time. And, you do have to say no to taking some meetings...
Tell us what types of things your current role, as CEO, entails. What are you responsible for?
It varies by stage. At the very beginning, I did everything: product, from wireframes to implementation, fundraising, biz dev with customers and partners and recruiting/ leading a burgeoning team. Since then, I've floated wherever I think I've been needed most, to achieve the milestones defined in our strategic plan each quarter. We've chosen to tackle a particularly thorny problem, because we're a highly mission and social impact driven organization, rather than a monetarily opportunistic VC driven organization. So, if something stands in the way of actually engaging a shopper in buying a healthy food, we have to go to the drawing board--even if we see we could have engaged them in buying an unhealthy food that might have gotten us the same revenue jolt. As such, I might be product oriented one quarter, and then find myself headlong in business development with retailers another quarter (getting discounts on healthy foods or data to drive personalization). And, fundraising often takes more time than you'd expect or like it to, so you find that you need to block off a quarter where that may end up taking 30% of your time, instead of the 10% you'd hoped.
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, is a fan of people working at startups, gaining operational experience, and then launching their own startup. Thoughts on this?
Having started three companies without ever having worked at a startup before that, I'd say that it's not so much that you need to work for another startup first, but rather, that you need to EITHER work at another startup first, OR, find an amazing and true mentor on your first one, OR, make some mistakes and learn from those in your first couple startups. I think choosing when you start a company is a mix of trusting your experience and unique knowledge to "Win" at what you're doing, your support network/ mentor(s), your safety net to buffer your risk and seeing the white space in the market to deliver against a clear pain-point unfold in real-time or the near-future.
Tell us what it’s like to live in the Bay Area / Silicon Valley. What’s the vibe like out there for a young alum?
Awesome. I truly believe it's grown into the new epicenter of the US over the last 15 years. I've heard more top college grads are coming to SF than NY now, and the average age of the city has dropped, and that more people report wanting to work for a tech company than working for a i-bank or consulting firm now.
The vibe is one of curiosity, embracing risk, and loving arts, uniqueness and the outdoors. It's a fantastic mix. The only darkside of the Bay Area is that some investors and entrepreneurs have become a bit short-sighted about the kind of companies they try to build and 'flip'. It's inappropriately teaching people to focus on gaming the system instead of working to create long-term value, and it's clogging investor pipelines with 'competition lacking purpose.' But, the people who are gems outweigh the people who seem a bit lost in the game.
Anything else you would like to share with students?
Focus less on "What" you will be in life or your career, and more on "Who" you will be in terms of your ethic and values, building an empathy for those around you and your own true motivations, "How" you will approach solving problems and fun challenges with creativity and integrity, and the "Why" you are choosing to work on certain problems. Then, the "What" becomes obvious--not "Doctor" or "Lawyer", but "Help more poor children receive a quality Education" through the different phases of your life as a teacher, tech entrepreneur, lawyer, policy maker, etc.... Budget out enough income for yourself to take care of you and your future family in a modest and comfortable way of life, save a little bit for inspiring surprise gifts for the people you care most about, and reinvest/ donate the rest in solutions that make you feel good about the reasons you wake up each day.