Making space for the female founders of healthcare

The number of women leading start-ups in healthcare is few but flourishing. Microsoft is supporting these women to transform the industry

Sally Frank
By Sally Frank on 30 July 2021
Making space for the female founders of healthcare

Women account for over 70 per cent of the health and social sector workforce, according to the World Health Organization. However, in the USA, only seven per cent of the leading health and life science start-ups were founded by women, based on data gleaned from Crunchbase.  

However, that seven per cent and their colleagues from around the world are a tenacious, talented and gifted group of innovators. In my role at Microsoft, I have the pleasure of working with a cohort of female founders that are changing how healthcare services are delivered.

Hila Friedmann and Dr Liz O’Day are working to improve how diseases are diagnosed and treated. Friedmann established Gynisus after a misdiagnosis resulted in a serious complication for her co-founder. Her mission now is to empower healthcare stakeholders to save lives, money and time by predicting clinical implications and associate those outcomes with financial impacts. She has built a series of artificial intelligence (AI) models, called the SPAI platform, with the goal of reducing misdiagnoses. To her, being a founder is challenging, but she is clear on her mission to save lives and money while improving patient outcomes. 

O’Day was motivated to action by the experience of watching her brother go through cancer treatment as a child. While earning her PhD at Harvard, she created a technology platform that combined genomics, metabolomics and machine learning to identify signatures that differentiate patients who benefit from a drug and those that do not. O’Day knew this technology had real-world application and could help patients like her brother. While it wasn’t easy, she took the plunge and started Olaris. For O’Day, the biggest challenges involve fundraising. As a female scientist and CEO, she has had to overcome biases and work incredibly hard to demonstrate the value of her work. 

Rebecca Owens is also on a mission to change how cancer patients receive care. Her company, Swellter, is designed to transform the physician-patient interaction through dynamic consent, disease-specific education and data sharing in real time. She feels strongly that today’s technological advancements and her solution can dynamically present information on potentially life-saving testing and treatments to both patients and physicians in real time. Owens echoes O’Day’s sentiments, as she too struggled with breaking into healthcare investment circles.  

Other women are also leading the change in healthcare innovation. Julia Regan, founder of RxLightning, is working to ensure that every patient gets accelerated access to the therapies they need by automating manual and arduous processes for prescribing and managing speciality medications. Since the firm’s inception in early 2020, Regan and her team have built and launched their software product, closed a funding round and built out their team, enabling them to deliver to key enterprise customers in the USA. However, starting her company on the cusp of the Covid-19 pandemic was her biggest challenge. “At times, it was hard to stay focused on building RxLightning, while the pandemic spiralled out of control and more responsibilities, like home-schooling, were thrusted upon working parents,” said Regan. Today, she marvels at the growth during this most challenging time and looks forward to reaching her goal of positively impacting one million patients through accelerated access to speciality medication. 

Kitty Kolding and her team at Raisonance are focused on bringing AI and machine learning tools to market that address current challenges in health, safety and wellness, from the comfort of users’ own devices. The company received a grant in 2020 from the National Science Foundation to support its primary research and development that led to the creation of its first two products. The first, called SoundPass, is a trio of AI applications that transforms forced cough vocalisations into biometric signal data signatures used to detect changes in a person’s sound signature. Its second product under development is an AI software-as-a-medical device (SaMD) diagnostic for a range of respiratory conditions. Kolding cites her biggest obstacle as developing the solutions themselves.  

“Producing AI-based medical diagnostic and biometric safety products that scale and provide high-quality care to anyone who has a phone and two minutes has huge potential, and the market is responding,” said Kolding. “With interested customers from all over the world, I am excited about the potential of Raisonance.” 

While women only account for a small proportion of those leading healthcare innovation from the top, their numbers are flourishing and, at Microsoft, we look forward to continuing to support their efforts and create more opportunities for success.  

Sally Frank is the worldwide lead for health and life sciences at Microsoft for Startups 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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