When You Are Facing a Tsunami of Barriers, Surf Like a Woman
All entrepreneurs face roadblocks when they are starting up. It’s part of the job. For Surbhi Sarna, who founded of nVision Medical in 2012, things are more intense. NVision Medical is an early stage women’s health business focused building medical devices that help detect ovarian cancer and infertility. It recently raised over $4 million in a hard-fought Series A funding round.
“She isn’t facing a tidal wave of barriers. She is facing a tsunami,” says Anula Jayasuriya, co-founder and managing director at private equity firm Evolvence India Life Science Fund. Jayasuriya and I sit together on the Astia board of trustees and she is a founding member of its strategic partner, Astia Angel. (Astia is a 14-year old global non-profit organization dedicated to the success of women-led, high-growth ventures; Astia Angel is an affiliated global angel investor network of female and male investors focused on women-led, high-growth ventures in technology, life science and consumer industries.)
To begin with, women’s healthcare is an under-invested space that lags behind other life sciences businesses with direct user investment. “Many entrepreneurs who have tried to do women’s health have been frustrated,” says Jayasuriya. “The perception is that women’s health is a niche, that there are no good exits.”
On top of that, “you don’t see a lot of female faces,” says Jayasuriya, who describes the typical profile of a life sciences startup founder as “a white male, over 40 years old, and with a lot of degrees.”
Sarna is a 27-year-old first-generation Indian-American who holds an undergraduate degree from University of California at Berkeley. Comparing herself to the other founder CEOs in her industry, Sarna says “I am young. I am darker. I am a woman. I do not have a long life experience with regulations.” Because there are so many factors playing against her, it’s hard for Sarna to understand which barriers mean the most to potential funders.
What Sarna does understand is audience reaction as an indicator of what in her pitch is connecting with her audience and what is not. “When I put up the first slide about women’s health, I read the audience to see if the immediate response is emotional and personally relatable,” she says.
Sometimes, It’s Okay To Bring Your Personal Life into the Pitch
Sarna was diagnosed with ovarian cysts at the age of thirteen, with no options other than invasive, life altering surgery—a procedure that has not been updated since 1914—or living with the unknown. She chose to live with the pain and wait. By the time she was 18 years old, her cysts had dissolved and new ones stopped developing. The first slide in her pitch deck is a picture of her mother walking Sarna down the aisle on her wedding day.
Sarna’s passion to replace an entrenched procedure that is extremely painful and significantly flawed is clear. Her belief that it doesn’t have to be this way fuels her passion. NVision Medical is currently developing two catheter-based diagnostic devices. Both products are easy enough to be administered at the patient’s obstetrician/gynecologist office. The first device extracts cells from the reproductive track in order to determine if cancer is present in the ovaries. The second device, used for infertility testing, can detect blockages in the fallopian tubes. Both products are under review by the Food and Drug Administration.
Sarna says it was Tim Draper, founder of Draper University, who recently encouraged her to incorporate her personal story into her pitch. And he was was right. Male investors (and most are male) connect on an emotional level with Sarna’s vision for nVision Medical and share her passion.
While some men have women in their lives touched by ovarian cancer, many more have direct or second-hand experience with various infertility treatments. The reaction from investors with these experiences is always personal. Interested investors understand that it’s her long and painful experience that will enable Sarna to stay in her business for the long haul.
Funding Can Come from Where You Least Expect It
Considering that investors tend to shy away from women’s health businesses, I couldn’t help but wonder why Astia Angel chose nVision Medical as their first investment. Jayasuriya says she sees in Sarna the potential for long-term investment: “Surbhi is a surreal innovator and entrepreneur. I am immediately drawn to all the future years we can work together.” Aside from that, Jayasuriya believes that women’s health should be an area of investment due to need and to economics. She’s not just a convert, she’s a leader.
But, what about the other Astia Angels? After all, half of them are men from the technology industry. Jayasuriya predicted that investors who will be attracted to nVision Medical won’t have the extra baggage that comes with being a veteran life sciences investor. “People who will embrace this will be from consumer-facing industries because they get that women have the economic power. They are not as daunted by regulatory issues, the physician community, and reimbursements.”
Marrying for More than the Money
Meeting Jayasuriya, a well-respected life sciences industry veteran, was a turning point for Sarna. “She understands the market, the investor community, and the medical community,” Sarna says. Jayasuriya learned a lot about nVision Medical and Sarna by grilling her with really hard, rapid-fire questions. She joined the nVision Medical board and became Sarna’s first professional female role model and an early investor.
Sarna believes that her startup has attracted what she calls “the good ones.” Using marriage as a metaphor for the investor-founder relationship, Sarna demands more than funding from her investors; she places significant value on the relationship. “You first date someone because you find him or her attractive. It’s what draws you to them. It’s superficial. What keeps you in that relationship is the belief that he or she will be there for you.”
Sarna knows that her product could create a fundamental shift in the market and recognizes that women are important health care consumers. Despite her lack of industry tenure, she is a sequential planner and consistently delivers on milestones. Instead of drowning, it seems that Sarna just may have figured out how to surf the tsunami facing her.