June 23, 2021
Sanjula Jain 0:03
Women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce but only 20% of its leadership. On Her Story, we’ll explore the careers of bold and influential women from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill and learn how they’ve overcome the odds. I’m your host, Sanjula Jain and this is Her Story, a program where we explore what’s beyond the glass ceiling.
Sanjula Jain 0:26
I’m excited to introduce you to Jane Chao, Co-founder and CEO of Ceribell. Ceribell is a medical device company that focuses on real-time diagnosis and treatment of patients with seizures. Jane, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jane Chao 0:41
Thank you for having me, Sanjula.
Sanjula Jain 0:42
Your background is quite extraordinary. You trained as a scientist, went to film school, worked in a variety of different healthcare and non-healthcare companies, now founding your own company. As you think about your foray into healthcare leadership, would you consider yourself to be an accidental or intentional leader?
Jane Chao 1:03
I think I started as an accidental leader, and I’d like to think I’m an intentional leader now, but not everything went with the plan for sure. There was a lot of exploration and a big dose of luck.
Sanjula Jain 1:17
You’re in good company there with a lot of our leaders on Her Story. Let’s start with the origin story. You grew up in a small town in China. How did that shape your professional and personal ambitions as a young child?
Jane Chao 1:31
In a very significant way. Growing up, I always loved science, even when I was a little girl. This is back in the early 90s, before China opened up, so it was still very “old fashioned.” When I was just 10 years old, I remember vividly being told that I can’t be good in science because I’m a girl. Because of that, I have developed probably the biggest imposter syndrome you can think of. I always think I will not make it, so I worked really, really hard because I loved science. That taught me early on that it is less about what I can win or not. I asked myself, “What do I really, really like?” I love the discoveries, the nature of science, and that has been my North Star for many years. That’s why I came to the US, did my Ph.D., at the time thinking I would just do research and be on faculty somewhere where I am pursuing science.
Sanjula Jain 2:34
For those of us who are less familiar with all the different science disciplines, you went to Cornell for your Ph.D., why did you decide biophysics?
Jane Chao 2:45
I really liked math. It was mostly math when I grew up, but then when I went to high school and college, I thought, “Oh, I’m a girl. I was told I will never be good at it, so maybe I can choose something softer. Maybe chemistry,” so I did chemistry for my undergrad. Then I realized in grad school, “Maybe I can take a risk. Maybe I can go back to physics, and go to a field that’s really rising.” When I was in graduate school about 15 years ago, bio from chemistry to physics all goes to the molecular mechanism, a lot of discovery in science and life science. That’s what I got into, so my Ph.D. was about protein structure, the molecular level of structure that leads to different mechanisms and drug discovery and functions we have. I find that to be a fascinating topic, and it has a sense of beauty in it as well, as you look at the molecules and proteins.
Sanjula Jain 3:43
It sounds like one of the themes in your life, where you started early on being one of the only girls or told girls can’t do this. How many women were in your Ph.D. program?
Jane Chao 3:53
I don’t know the exact number, but there were a few. I was not the only one. Probably 10%. I was in a special science program in high school. I had 25 classmates, there were two girls, I was one of them, so I’m used to being the minority in the room.
Sanjula Jain 4:12
I’m sure we could have a whole segment just on stories that we share. I know when I was getting my Ph.D. there were you know, even though there were other women, there were always comments made around if we needed to take breaks or certain things different from our male counterparts.
Jane Chao 4:25
Like we’re delicate flowers.
Sanjula Jain 4:33
As I reflect on my Ph.D. experience,—I’m curious how you would view it—there are a lot of parallels between doctoral research, training, and being an entrepreneur. How have you thought about some of those translatable lessons from those early days to what you’re doing today in building Ceribell?
Jane Chao 4:51
One is this open-mindedness because, as a scientist, you have a hypothesis, but you’re completely open. When you go in, you say, “I design an experiment to prove it wrong or to prove it right.” As you build up a business, especially when you build up a company and business model product from ground zero, there are so many directions you can go so you must have that open-mindedness and solving problems and be open to see failures and success and detect early signals, fail early pilot early. That’s one of the biggest skill sets I developed as a scientist and was able to use that. Another part of it is probably more psychological readiness. When you were doing science, 99% of the time is a failure when experiments don’t work. I got so used to things not working and took that as an opportunity of discovery, instead of being discouraged. When you’re an entrepreneur and building things from ground zero, that’s a helpful and positive mental readiness.
Sanjula Jain 6:08
That ground zero point really resonates, at least with me. My first day of my Ph.D. program, our program director said, “Your job while you’re here is to create something that expands the realm of knowledge just a little bit.” If you think about building companies, it’s right, you have to create something that doesn’t exist but is adding value to what is beyond what is already there, so that speaks a lot to lessons learned. I’ll go off on a limb here and say you’re very unique, not only for having scientific training, but then after getting your Ph.D., instead of taking a traditional academic job or going to work in a biophysics industry area, you went to film school. Tell us about that decision.
Jane Chao 6:55
It was my early middle-age crisis because for decades I loved science. I always thought I was going to be on faculty and doing research somewhere. Towards the end of my Ph.D., I felt like something was missing for me. I wanted closer human interactions. Maybe I wanted more direct social impact. I’m not saying an academic job doesn’t offer that, it just wasn’t enough for me. I got so lost. Go back to the North Star. I thought, “What is the one thing, besides science, I’m really passionate about?” Believe it or not, at the time, I decided it was film. I always loved movies. I came from a very humble family, so I actually borrowed $6,000 from a friend. At the time, China was still very cheap, so I went to the Beijing Film Academy and did one year of cinematography. Growing up in China, I was never given the opportunity to explore the artistic side. What if that is my call? So I did that and quickly found out no, it’s not, but it was such a precious gift I gave to myself. It didn’t work out. I came back to the US for my postdoc, but I would absolutely do it again, even now knowing the result. One thing I learned that was not so much in the scientific training is the connection with people because filmmaking is all about seeing people in the most humanistic way. Of course, empathy and vulnerability are the buzzwords these days, and I believe in them. 15 years ago, when I was in graduate school, there were no buzz words. In film school, I was able to do documentaries with immigrant workers in Beijing who just had so little. It was a documentary talking to kids who have a mental illness that was not fully recognized, even by the family. It helped me look at people in a very different way that I still benefit from today.
Sanjula Jain 9:05
That’s remarkable. I’m more on the scientist track, so I forget whether it’s the right brain or left brain, but you kind of have strengths in both the left and right side of your creative juices on the more structure inside. What was it like transitioning back? After film school, you went back into a “structured environment” but in more of a big corporate setting, McKinsey and Novartis. Tell us a little bit about the work you were doing there and what that experience was like.
Jane Chao 9:32
McKinsey was actually a continuation of me trying to figure out what I wanted to do. McKinsey has this beautiful, fantastic program for Ph.D.s—not just for MBAs, like many other consulting firms—so I was in their open house. The McKinsey employee at the time, who did his Ph.D. in theoretical physics, told me, “If you don’t know what to do, this is a fantastic place to be,” so I joined and I’ve learned so much about business. It was my paid MBA and beyond that. Through my McKinsey period, I pretty much did projects in every single industry. That’s how I discovered that my passion and where I want to be is in healthcare because I love the social impact and how I know my work would help people. I also realized my strength is to bridge technology and commercialization because I speak both languages very fluently and intuitively. That’s how I transitioned from academia to industry and I am so grateful for my experience there. Then I realized, at McKinsey I was too far from technology and innovation, so that’s why I moved to Novartis in Basel, Switzerland, and had the opportunity to work closer to the late-stage portfolio and drug discovery more directly. After I figured out where I wanted to be, that became a no-brainer.
Sanjula Jain 10:59
Wow. Sounds like a lot of different puzzle pieces coming together from all these different stints in your career. As you think about those pieces coming together, up until that point, you had been working in pretty large organizations and companies with a lot of structure and a very defined path. At what point did you decide to make the pivot to building and co-founding your own company? What was that shift like?
Jane Chao 11:25
I always knew I wanted to work in a startup, as a founding member, team member, or founder. I have probably accumulated 20 or 30 ideas and none of them worked. I love the creative process. I love to see how my impact can translate to a bigger impact, which was why I left academia and it’s harder to have that in big companies. In terms of how I made that transition, I have to say it was quite natural for me because I’m always a door. I always want to get things done. I was actually less comfortable in a big company. When I got to build my own company with the other two co-founders, everything came pretty naturally because I got the luxury to work with the co-founders to define the product, to define the strategy. It all comes from me. I don’t have 10 other stakeholders to please. The most arduous thing is I got to choose who would be on my team. Once I got that right, the rest of the job became so easy.
Sanjula Jain 12:37
Let’s take a step back then. I know you have a couple of co-founders. Where did the idea for Ceribell actually come from?
Jane Chao 12:43
The other two co-founders, one is Dr. Josef Parvizi. He’s a neurologist at Stanford. The other is Professor Chris Chafe. He is a musician/computer scientist professor at Stanford. They’re both faculties at Stanford. The idea came from Josef almost 10 years ago. He was in a concert hearing this music generated by the signals NASA’s spaceship collected from the universe. They turned the signals into music and he thought, “If we can turn that signal into music, what about the other universe?” Meaning the brain, which we knew so little about. The first idea came from turning brain signals into music, then he found Chris Chafe who’s a musician, and turned anything signal into music, so they started as an art project. Then Josef realized there is a big difference between the normal brain and a seizure brain, which he sees often. He often sees, when patients are transferred from other hospitals outside of Stanford, the patient has been seizing for many, many hours. Then he started thinking, can this be translated into a medical device and help patients? That’s when I got to know them about seven years ago. There were 10 different directions we could go with that idea, so we defined our North Star of the company: Where are patients dying because of this? Where can we make the biggest difference? What are the bottlenecks now? We can remove every single bottleneck. I scanned all the markets and talk to 10s of physicians, read hundreds of papers, and realized, “Okay, it’s the ICU patients who are dying. We can make the biggest difference there.” Besides the brain sound, which helps with diagnosis, we needed the hardware. In the early days, there was an AI place where I was very optimistic we could use a cloud-based platform so we can have the data and use machine learning to further augment diagnosis. In hindsight, everything’s like, “of course,” but at the time, very few people were talking about AI, and taking the company data to cloud was a big risk. In hindsight, everything worked out, but honestly, at the time, to be data-driven, you had to have the gut to take the risk if you wanted to do something big. I can’t take full credit. It’s really the team effort, and there’s a big dose of luck in it as well.
Sanjula Jain 15:18
It sounds like your co-founder team has a lot of complementary strengths, which is so important when building a company, so I can see how that all comes together. For the non-technical/scientific me, simplify it a little bit further. Ceribell focuses on patients with seizures, but specifically, what do you all do? What does your technology do for this patient population?
Jane Chao 15:43
Often when we think about seizures, we think about epilepsy patients. The seizures are transient, they are benign. The patient can live with seizures for years and they are visible. Usually, you see convulsion. When you move to the ICU and acute care patient population, the seizures are the complete opposite. They are usually not visible and the patient can be in a coma or just confused. They are not transient. The patient can seize for hours or days, and therefore they’re not benign, which can lead to very high mortality and morbidity. It’s very similar to a stroke. We say time is the brain. The early detection of a stroke is arguably the biggest driver for the best outcome. It’s exactly the same with seizures in ICU patients. An EEG is the main tool you can use to diagnose seizures, especially when a patient is convulsing, which is the majority of patients in the ICU. In an ideal world, the guidelines require you get that diagnosis within an hour. Not a single hospital on the planet can be compliant with that guideline. The best hospital will take four or five hours, a very good hospital will sometimes take a day, and small hospitals simply don’t have EEG, so you see patients acquire secondary brain injury (which is long term memory loss), IQ drop, or even die just because their seizure was not detected. I remember a video about an elderly patient. He was in a nonconvulsive status, which is a very urgent neurological condition. He was in a coma and probably his daughter was sitting right next to him, not knowing her dad is going through a neurological urgency because there was no tool to diagnose it because conventional EEG is very cumbersome to set up. Very few people know how to set it up and it takes hours. Our system has hardware anybody can set up in a few minutes. Then we have a machine learning algorithm that can perform as a well-trained neurologist and will tell the bedside physician (who usually does not know how to interpret EEG data) the instant result. Is the patient in status or not? It completely transforms how seizures are not only detected but also how these patients are managed because you can see how a patient can respond to the medication and whether or not you need to increase the dose or add a second medication to the patient.
Sanjula Jain 18:16
That’s incredible. You talked earlier about how it felt natural building this company and the ideas and having more creativity in building your team. There are a lot of steps involved in building a company from the original idea to fundraising to scaling, building a product. There are a lot of steps. What was the most challenging part?
Jane Chao 18:50
Every year, every phase there are different challenges. Maybe the most emotional episode was about fundraising. This was exactly four and a half years ago. We had a prototype, but we did not have FDA approval yet, so we didn’t have any product to sell. This is often when the industry could cause Death Valley for the company. We raised the seed round, we used up the money, and we didn’t have a product to show yet. We needed another $10 million. I was pregnant at the time. I was one month pregnant, so my goal was to raise the next round in five months so hopefully nobody would see. What happened was, when I was still breastfeeding my son, he was four months old, and finally, I closed that round. I remember so many meetings where I would walk into the room with my big belly, with my accent, as a first time CEO who has never worked in MedTech before, have a product that’s not ready commercially, and tell the investor, “Please, just write me a $10 million check. I promise you, we’re going to succeed.” Understandably, most investors said no. I am just so grateful we had one investor who saw the potential in me, in the other founding team and wrote us that check. I’m also very proud that we’re going to give him a very good return, but that was probably the hardest time. When I delivered my son, Aiden, we were about to fire FDA. I was on bedside. I was 37 when I delivered Aiden. He was a big baby, so it was a very difficult procedure, but I remember checking the FDA material and went back to work two weeks after I delivered, after surgery. I would do it again.
Sanjula Jain 20:50
Oh my goodness! Okay, wow. That is incredible. Clearly, the theme in your life is beating the odds and doing a lot of the unexpected. I want to come back to a couple of points you made there, but let’s go back to fundraising. The company is just over six years now. You recently raised a series C, congratulations, so you have come a long way. To your point, first-time CEO. The CEO role has to wear a lot of different hats, especially along different stages of the company’s growth from those early days to probably what you’re focused on now. Tell us a little bit about your priorities personally as CEO and then how some of your leadership skills have had to adapt and evolve from year one to where you are now.
Jane Chao 21:36
Just as the challenge each year at each phase is different, the requirement and what the CEO’s leadership scale says also changes every year. The first couple of years was a lot about being highly strategic and making sure the product definition and the direction I’m pointing the company to go is the right direction. Then a lot of it is to bring the best R&D team and to translate what the product needs, the market needs very clearly to the technical terms and brainstorm with the team and find the technical solutions. The first couple of years was very, very clinical, product, and R&D focused. Then we went through this one or two-year phase of launching the product. That’s when it’s a lot about figuring out the puzzle, figuring out what needs to change. What is needed to change physician and nurse behaviors because they have been doing this for 10, 20 years? We’re introducing something completely new and disruptive. How do we generate enough and more evidence to make that change? How do we refine our messaging? Most importantly, how do we find the right marketing, sales, and commercial talents to do it? I was the sales member, as many founders do. I never thought I would be a salesperson, but then I realized sales is actually the same as being a consultant. You understand your customer’s needs, and you provide the solutions. That was a lot of learning about how to launch a product. Those two are naturally in my core competence, so I did a really good job. It didn’t challenge me on the leadership front. The growth or challenge (they always come together) is in the past 18 months as we grow the organization very rapidly and deal with COVID. It’s about (A) finding the right people, and that’s a skill set and art that is hard to articulate. Also, (B) looking around the corner at the leadership and talent pool we need. More importantly, how do I switch from being the problem solver (which I was for the longest time) to empowering the team, to bringing the best people and bringing the best out of the team? How can I step back and let the team shine and bring people who are better than me and have years of expertise in the domains we need? Learning how to let go, finding the best talent, and then bringing them together and bringing the best out of them is probably the biggest growth and absolute need for a good leader.
Sanjula Jain 24:40
Absolutely. It’s easier said than done, but it definitely is always about the people, for sure. I want to go back to a point you mentioned earlier. Early on in life, as a child, you were basically told your path was going to be different because you’re a female. They said that you couldn’t do science. Then you mentioned you were trying to fundraise and make sure people didn’t really know you were pregnant. From a professional career point of view, particularly in the recent years in your journey as a CEO, how has the female lens seen things? Was it harder to raise money? Were there any instances where you were treated differently when you were trying to fundraise while being pregnant? Anything to that effect?
Jane Chao 25:25
The fact is, I will never know whether or not the fact I’m a female or I have an accent, I’m Asian is a factor. If I think about it rationally, yes, it probably has been and will always be a factor. Sometimes the bias is conscious, sometimes not conscious. That was not a factor for the investors and partners who believed in me. They see through what’s on the surface. They see the mission, they see what we created together as a team, and they see me as who I am as a leader. I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors and investors who believed in me and supported me. For the past two years, I have been getting out of the imposter syndrome and getting to a place where I’m confident but still humble and open-minded. I can’t tell you how good that feels to go through that transformation. Again, it’s easier said than done, but I feel like I can do that because of all the mentors I’ve had.
Sanjula Jain 26:36
To that point, it always takes a village on the personal side and professional side. Finding that community and network of support systems is really important. We can plan all we want, but personal and professional don’t always align. Back to the story about delivering your son as a single mom while you’re also going through FDA approval, you just can’t time those things. A lot of founders are similarly going through experiences where they’re either planning for maternity leave, but how do you leave your own company? How do you talk to your investors about it? What advice do you have for other women generally but also other women founders who are in this senior role and juggling the two? Maybe the timing isn’t ideal, whether you just raised a fund or you’re at a certain function point in the growth journey. What advice would you have?
Jane Chao 27:28
Don’t overthink it because you will be overwhelmed. At the very beginning when I started fundraising, I was still married at the time. I didn’t know all the obstacles. I didn’t count all the no’s I would have gotten. In hindsight, I didn’t know all the challenges I will have. All I focused on there is the next step, “I need to get this done,” and do it. It might be risky. If we start to think about the perfect timing, we probably won’t make the first step. When I was thinking about whether or not to have a second child, I realized there’s never going to be a time when I feel ready. I might not have had my son, which would be the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life. If I thought rationally at the time, I might get to the conclusion that there would be no way I could do both. When you are in that position, many of us underestimate what we’re capable of doing. You will rise to the occasion and you will have people around you support you and get you there, so don’t overthink it and lean in before you step back. If you really truly believe that’s something you want, go for it. You’ll manage childcare. I managed that and, as a single mom, I’m still managing thanks to the financial resource I have, but I know we can all do it.
Sanjula Jain 29:02
That’s great advice and a great perspective to keep in mind. I always struggle with the personal/professional because it’s really not a balance. We’re always kind of just making the best of what we can, but we all have things, personal outlays, routines that we have that make the most of every day. What’s your outlet?
Jane Chao 29:21
I’m quite clique. I still watch a lot of movies. I like more entertaining movies now than our three movies back in film school. I exercise. I do weightlifting with my trainer. I also go for runs. I read a lot. The silver lining of being a single mom is I have alone time when my son is with his dad, so I actually get to read a lot. Hopefully, after COVID, I can spend more time with my friends, so nothing that different. I did pick up meditation last year thanks to a dear friend. It has been one of the best things I’m doing to myself.
Sanjula Jain 29:59
You’ll have to give me some pointers on that. I feel like meditation is the one thing I’ve always wanted to get into but it just never quite happens.
Jane Chao 30:06
That’s what I thought because I was like, “My mind is way too busy to do meditation.” My friend suggested doing meditation after exercise because your brain is more relaxed. You have all these neurotransmitters that are favorable for you to meditate and calm down. Even though I have a big list, one thing I—like many of us—started doing differently during COVID is this whole concept of self-care. I started to be more mindful. I literally block my calendar or I track my meditation time, I track my exercise time as me time and make sure I’m doing self-care as the top priority, even before my son and before the company because that’s the foundation of everything.
Sanjula Jain 30:59
Absolutely. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. Being a scientist, you mentioned reading and you’re constantly reflecting on different capabilities and skills you need to build as a leader. As you reflect on your experiences thus far, is there something you believed early on in your career that you no longer believe?
Jane Chao 31:21
I used to think, as a CEO, as a leader you have to be a very charismatic person who gets on stage. You can give these super inspiring, motivational talks just on spot. Because of that, I always thought I could never be an inspiring leader. I thought I can just be a manager and manage things because I solve problems. Over the years, I realized there are different leaders. The bigger my responsibility becomes, the more I realize being a leader is a reflection of being who we are. When I’m positive and supportive as a person, it will come out as leadership that’s positive and supportive, so I started to realize I don’t have to be this charismatic person and give motivational speeches. I can build leadership based on who I am, so what are my strengths? My strength is I can create a clear vision. That comes relatively easy for me, but might be very hard for other people to see. I’m really passionate about that vision. I can motivate people and help them see that vision. I can see a path to get there, so that’s how I lead my team. The other part is I value everyone, I want everyone to succeed. It’s not about me. It’s about all of us getting to that goal together. That makes the leader because that’s who I am. That’s probably the biggest myth I’ve overcome over the years.
Sanjula Jain 33:06
That’s so powerful. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to create Her Story because there is no best practice for what makes a good leader. We all have our individual strengths and styles and getting to learn from different people and different vantage points helps. Hopefully you can help change that perception that you don’t have to be the most charismatic or you don’t have to do this or do that. You can embrace your own individuality with that. Looking back to the origin story, to young Jane growing up in this small town in China, what advice would you give your younger self?
Jane Chao 33:39
Stop being so harsh on yourself. Stop criticizing yourself. Just stop that and, of course, my younger self would not listen. In hindsight, it’s really true. The younger version was so much about having this check box, “I have to check every single box.” The moment I achieved something is was like, “what’s next?” It was very anxiety-driven and so much about proving myself to others without really knowing my own strengths. In hindsight, I would advise myself and the people who are younger than me to focus on your strengths, stop being too critical to yourself and build on your strengths because that’s how we become excellent in something. The best we can do to fix our weakness is to just become okay. We’re never going to shine by fixing our weaknesses. We need to do that, but who we are, what we want to do, and the kind of leader we want to be will be based on our strength. Be really clear about your strengths.
Sanjula Jain 34:50
That is very well said. We like to ask all of our guests, if they were to write their autobiography, what would be the title of their book, but I think I’ll modify that for you being the filmmaker and say, if you were to name your own documentary or film about Jane, what would be the title of it?
Jane Chao 35:07
Oh, gosh. Part of the reason I quit film school is because I realized I’m so bad with wording. Coming up with a film name is not my strength. Maybe something like How I Overcame the Biggest Imposter Syndrome and Benefited From It. See, it’s not a good title.
Sanjula Jain 35:27
No, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Jane Chao 35:32
That’s the theme. I’m sure someone who’s good with words would come up with something, but I think that summarizes my journey.
Sanjula Jain 35:41
We have so much to learn from you, Jane. Thank you for spending the time to share with us. You’ve had an extraordinary career thus far and you’re in a really interesting inflection point in the growth of Ceribell. We’re all really excited to continue to track your progress and see what else is in store, so thank you for your contributions to the industry.
Jane Chao 35:58
Thank you for having me. It’s really fun. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Sanjula Jain 39:42
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