Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. They’re names that are all too familiar, each seeming to exemplify the magical combination of brains, home garages and dropping out of college. Now they’re the idolized founders of tech giants that rule over Silicon Valley.
It’s hard not to imagine yourself in that same position: a bright, upcoming entrepreneur (this time, with a college degree), ready to take over the tech industry one innovation at a time. It’s a tempting daydream that seems all the more possible with the rapidly increasing amount of the media hype surrounding startup culture.
You’re not the only entrepreneur with big dreams of switching out a boring, corporate office chair for bouncy balls and hipster office decorum. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) US Report in 2016, there are more than 25 million Americans starting or running new businesses in the US. And a Harvard Business School study from 2012 found that 75 percent of venture-backed startups fail, a rate that only further demonstrates the risks inherent to the industry.
In this post, we wanted to share some insights from our CEO on what it’s really like to found a tech company, including the difficulties and rewards that come with the journey.
Another Origin Story: How it all started
Jennifer Fried, who goes by Jenn, never really envisioned that she would become the founder of a healthcare tech company located in the heart of River North Chicago. But as a former healthcare venture capitalist, she was always passionate about finding ways to improve the industry.
“We want it [healthcare] to be efficient and effective and have well-organized data out there for providers to be able to make decisions. And it just wasn’t there,” Fried said.
That’s when she met co-founder Dr. Alex Langerman in 2013, who founded a research lab two years prior to their meeting at the University of Chicago Hospital. Dr. Langerman, a head and neck surgeon at Vanderbilt University, was studying operating room workflows and efficiency. As the trends in inefficiencies became more and more apparent, he began searching for a solution that could best optimize workflows and procedures.
When Dr. Langerman invited Fried to observe the actual operating room in use, she saw these problems first-hand and knew she had found an opportunity to make a difference in the healthcare industry.
“As an outsider, you imagine surgery to be this perfect, well-oiled machine. And in reality, just like everything else, these are people. A lot of problems that you see out there don’t have severe consequences. But in surgery, everything is really serious. And as a person, I want there to be a solution,” Fried said.
Along with a small team, they soon began writing business plans, competing in venture challenges, and developing the software that would grow to become ExplORer Surgical. Fried knew there was a place for the company in the market, but the true question was whether they would stay afloat long enough to become a success.
Taking the Plunge
After years of working on ExplORer Surgical during her free time, the company was close to running out of financial resources. It was at that point when Fried chose to leave her stable career and begin working full-time on expanding the small company. We asked her how her family reacted to the life-changing decision.
“What took you so long? That’s what my husband said,” Fried said, laughing.
But shifting to a full-time position at ExplORer Surgical didn’t mean things would get any easier. After all, startups don’t provide stability or guarantees of success.
“Every day of it is a challenge. There have been multiple points along the company’s growth trajectory that I was personally writing checks into the business to keep it afloat, which as a twenty-something, there aren’t a lot of deep pockets to dig into to do that,” Fried said.
Fried also acknowledged that ExplORer Surgical is able to continue running after finally reaching financial stability through its expanding client base.
“We are in one of the biggest industries, within healthcare but also within the economy. We’re solving a really big problem and have a huge white space to really create a new market and new opportunity,” she said excitedly.
The impact that ExplORer technology hopes to have on the healthcare industry isn’t limited either, thanks to its ability to scale quickly and address multiple use cases within the surgical industry.
“Technology is inherently more scalable than a physical product or a service. You can write a software tool and that software tool can be used by hundreds, thousands, millions of people in a very short time period,” Fried said.
Chicago: An Unlikely Match for Healthcare Startups
Most people tend to see Silicon Valley as the hub of innovation and creativity, churning out ideas, startups and capital annually in a variety of industries. But being a healthcare tech company in Chicago, the third largest city in the nation, has its benefits as well.
Surrounded by prestigious universities like Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, there is no shortage of graduates eager to enter the workforce. Major healthcare corporations such as AbbVie and Abbott Laboratories are also based in Chicago and surrounding areas, including numerous reputable hospitals.
“Healthcare is really centered in the middle of the country,” Fried said.
Not to mention, the living costs of Chicago are significantly lower than Silicon Valley, where affordable housing remains scarce and monthly average housing costs exceed $2,000, making the city much more accessible to young innovators.
Chicago is also home to great resources for startups looking to take the next steps to get their business off the ground and running. MATTER, a healthcare startup incubator, has helped to connect thousands of startups with active investors while providing mentorship from other entrepreneurs. With resources like MATTER just within hands reach, it’s no surprise that the Chicago healthcare tech industry is a force to be reckoned with.
What lies ahead?
Despite the fast pace of the growing tech industry in Chicago, there is no doubt that working at a tech startup can feel like a gamble. Choosing to enter the space means being prepared to play the high-risk game. And talking to Fried made it all the more clear that in this game, the odds can definitely be stacked against you.
“I think there can be romanticized viewpoints of what it means to start a company. The grass is always greener on the other side. It’s very hard, but for me, the positives outweigh the negatives many times over,” Fried said.
For ExplORer Surgical, this is only the beginning. With a growing team of innovators right behind her, Fried has her eyes set on not only being a huge success from a business perspective, but also driving an impact on healthcare throughout the nation.
As the conversation came to an end, Fried gave one last parting piece of advice for people looking to find their way into the industry.
“Entrepreneurship is a long and hard road. It’s a financial investment, it’s a time investment and it’s an emotional investment. And those things aren’t worth it unless what you’re working on is going to be something that you’re so passionate and excited about. Go after the vision that you really believe in that gets you up in the morning.”
This post was written by Sarah Han. Sarah is a content and digital marketing intern at ExplORer Surgical and a student at Northwestern University where she studies journalism, history and integrated marketing communications.