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2023-10-13 07:58:49

How I built a $275 million biotech company from nothing

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When I found it in vision , I just did not look like the typical biotech or health care founder .

I'm a brown woman .

I'm a woman of color and I didn't have any one of the many higher degrees that they like , you know , MB A phd MD .

So there I am with my little , you know , bachelor's degree trying to go out and start a company .

I sometimes just felt like I wasn't good enough .

But even though there were so many opportunities to quit , I never gave up an unexpected health scare , motivated a young Bay area entrepreneur to start our own company , a company that you started and eventually sold to Boston Scientific for $275 million .

My name is Serby Cerna and this is my back story .

Oh OK .

Here's a picture of me on the basketball team .

I mentioned I wasn't 100% nerd though .

Close to it .

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Here's a picture of my mom and I in Mexico together .

Little .

Did we know that soon after this trip is when the ovarian cyst would hit , you know , so I'm in high school , enjoying high school things and I'm writing a paper in my bedroom when all of a sudden I feel such a sharp pain in my side that I can barely make it to my mom and say my side hurts before blacking out .

That first night that I was in the hospital , they almost made me undergo surgery for appendicitis .

But luckily , the surgeon last minute realized that wasn't the issue .

And so it took them about a week to do the ultrasound and determine that I was suffering from repeat complex ovarian cysts .

What they couldn't tell me was whether or not those cysts were cancerous .

An ultrasound only tells you that a mass exists .

It doesn't tell you whether or not that mass is cancerous and the blood test they have is no better than a coin toss .

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When it comes to its accuracy , you can't biopsy the cyst because if it is cancerous , you risk spreading cancerous cells all over the body .

If you do decide to operate , you often have to remove entire ovary .

So the decision that my family was facing was do we potentially do this very invasive surgery where it would have an impact on not just my fertility but anything that involves ovarian function or do we wait and see if I have one of the most lethal cancers impacting women .

And we thought about it quite a bit and we thought about the statistical probability of it being cancer .

And then we did decide to wait .

So we figured out how to control my pain a little bit .

And I went back to school and , you know , high school is tough and young kids are tough without having to explain that there's something wrong with your ovaries .

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But in one way that I feel especially blessed was that I just had amazing teachers who really helped me through this tough time .

So eventually , after months of waiting , you could say we were one of the lucky families and the cyst turned out not to be cancerous .

But at that point , I had seen just how antiquated thing to do with women's health was .

And so I wrote in my personal statement as a senior in high school that I one day wanted to start a company in women's health , so that other families did not have to go through what we did from all of that eventually was born in vision medical .

So I worked as an engineer first at a large company called Abbot Vascular and then for another smaller device start up .

And I think at that moment , things were going well .

I was actually enjoying my job .

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I was engaged to my best friend now husband , but there was just something in me that did not feel satisfied , there was this energy that I couldn't contain .

And so even though my original plan was to get a little bit more experience in industry , I jumped feet first into starting a company at 24 .

After going through what I did in high school with the health scare , I decided that I wanted to be part of the effort to find an early detection mechanism for ovarian cancer .

Here's some early prototypes of the device and you can see the type of metal we used here .

Um And how flexible it is .

So I thought it was a really good problem to work on , but that's the downfall of a lot of founders , right ?

They think that an idea is great to work on .

They don't talk to their customer .

And then of course , the company dies .

I sort of intuitively felt like I needed to talk to some gynecologist to better sort of validate the concept .

I was thinking about making .

And so I was sitting there scratching my head .

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What gynecologist do I know when I realized that I didn't know what my own .

So I called her office pretended to have a stomach ache , asked to see her as soon as possible .

And in the middle of a pelvic exam said , hey , I have this new catheter concept .

I wanted to talk to you about .

Doctor Cook was quite uh taken back and startled but did kindly suggest that she would meet me in a cafe in Saratoga to talk about it more later .

And after she did that , she liked the concept , she introduced me to another physician out at UC Davis and one at Stanford .

So it really blossomed from there .

Look right .

When you graduate from college or even a few years out , no one's expecting you to have a sh huge rolodex .

Instead focus on the personal network that you've already built and just ask for introductions to people who are in the industry that you're trying to do something in .

If you try hard enough and you do it for long enough , you will get to the right people to talk to .

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So , after I had talked to Doctor Cook and she introduced me to all these other physicians , I sort of sketched out a concept I thought might work .

But in order to test it , I really needed a little bit of seed funding .

Once I decided to fundraise , it was really , really tough .

I was rejected at least 50 times by investors .

And it's very hard to know .

Was it hard for me to fundraise because I was a brown woman without a higher degree or I just didn't have any progress yet at all .

So one thing that made , I should not have been quite as surprised by it , but I was , was the investors reaction to women's health in general saying things like , oh , women's health isn't a big enough market , I guess 50% of the population isn't big enough for you .

Huh ?

Buddy .

And then also calling women's health things like bikini medicine .

I mean , things that just blew my mind .

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Finally , two women believed enough of the concept and they had each told me if you find one other person to invest that they would come in , it's hard to be a founder no matter who you are .

But I would be lying .

I wouldn't be honest with you if I said , oh , it's equally challenging for a woman .

No , of course , you're going to encounter all sorts of bias .

But what I can tell you is that these days I sincerely believe that there are enough people who believe in your potential that you can just ignore the folks who are being , you know , biased for whatever reason , ignore them .

Don't let it impact your confidence and find the right people to work with the right people to hire and the right people to fund your company .

They're out there .

So we raised our scene rod and we're off to the races and I was so lucky to attract a world class team .

At that point , we went on to raise about 20 million more in venture capital .

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And we took the device through the prototype stage into several clinical studies and then FDA clearance becoming the first and only device cleared to collect cells from the fallopian tube , which you can then evaluate for malignant features .

I hope that one day if there is a woman who has a complex cyst , this device will give her answers about whether or not this cyst she has is cancerous so that she can get the type of treatment she needs as quickly as possible , but also avoid unnecessary intervention if it in fact , isn't cancerous .

At that point in time , my goal was always to build this company to get the product to patients as quickly as possible .

So I really truly had no interest in an acquisition .

But several companies including Boston Scientific , read about the clinical data that we were gathering and wanted to have a conversation .

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It was a normal day .

I was working , I was on my laptop when I heard a time of an email go off and I opened it up and there it was uh it was an offer from Boston Scientific to buy the company for $275 million .

And I cannot describe just the pure disbelief that I felt in that moment .

Can you imagine just being rejected over and over again , struggling to raise any amount of money to push this life saving device forward ?

And then all of a sudden having that much validation from a company that knows the industry so well .

Eventually , you know , we decided that we were gonna take the offer from Boston Scientific and what it all comes down to years of work .

Years of dedication is a piece of paper and a pen .

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So I remember having , you know , my mom to one side of me and my husband at the other and I was holding my son on his first birthday when I leaned over and put my signature on that piece of paper to sell the company .

Oh , crazy .

It still , it still gives me goose bumps .

And it's been like six years .

I felt like at that moment , the future of the product was secure and that we were going to leave a meaningful mark on women's health .

Right after I sold , I was introduced to Jared Friedman at YC .

And we had this great conversation and he was talking about how they wanted to have their very first YC health care and bio partner .

He invited me to speak at an event in front of maybe 60 to 100 founders .

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It was the first time that I had relayed my story and the energy in the room was electrifying , talking to the founders after and realizing that everything I went through , all of the struggle , all the failures , all the mistakes that I made could actually be put in a productive place that I could help other people .

It was just an opportunity that I couldn't say no to .

It's all about thinking about what your strengths are , what the story looks like .

What is your network look like ?

I am hoping that people apply to YC who are working on a real need as long as you really know your stuff .

I am not going to look at whether or not you have an MD or phd and make my decision exclusively on that .

I want to know that there's a big problem that needs solving and you are the founder to do it because no one believes in the solution as much as you do .

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Everything that's happened in my life has led me to this moment of being a group partner at YC .

The amount of joy I feel when I help founders work through their most difficult problems so that they can get their incredible technologies to market faster .

So we can have better , safer , cleaner agriculture , food to eat or better medicines for cancer patients or early detection of cancers .

I cannot imagine anything more rewarding than that .


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