Hubly Surgical, Inc. Founder, CEO, & Product Engineer
Northwestern University Bachelor's degree, Neuroscience (B.A.) Science in Human Culture (B.A.) Computation & Systems Modeling (Concentration)
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How did you get to where you are today? What incidents and experiences shaped your career path? What inspired you to work on this startup idea?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
Yes. So I started this company out of an innovation class that I took in my undergrad at Northwestern. It it was an MBA / engineering / med school / law school cross-listed class. And it was all about medical innovation. Essentially, I took that class — that's where I met some of my founding team members. It was Amit the neurosurgeon who was getting his MBA at night, who said, "You know, the way that neurosurgeons drill holes into skulls today is really antiquated and dangerous, and I think there's something we can do about it." And so I said, "Okay, I can work with that." And a patent lawyer (Oh, he was a law student — now he's a patent lawyer) and I worked on inventing this new product. From there it was a class project for a while, and then it became kind of a fun extracurricular activity, and then it just became more and more of a real company. And now it's what I do full time!

Can you walk us through your first few weeks when you started working on this project? How did things change over the next few months?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
Yes. So, in the first few weeks, I had no idea what I was doing. I was googling everything. I was totally lost. I didn't know how to use SolidWorks. So my training is that I have a background in neuroscience and bioengineering. We ultimately decided to invent a drill for use in this procedure, which requires all mechanical engineering experience, which I did not know. And so the first few weeks were very stressful. I was, you know, thrown in with being the head engineer of this project and not knowing anything about engineering. Over the next few months, I guess I just got more comfortable. I learned how to do all these things, and I fell more into the groove of saying "Okay. No, I can engineer this project."

What were the challenges in building the initial team and how did you overcome them? How did the team's composition, dynamics, time, and resource commitment evolve?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
In the beginning, we had six different team members. We all met in this class and we said, "You know, we have all these different elements and all these different background experiences that we offer, and we'll all do this together." And we actually did write a founder's agreement at the beginning and we said we're all super into this. We all like, maybe would quit our current jobs or, you know, do this full time... if it's really promising. "So you know, we're all kind of the same place and we'll split it equally." What ended up happening is that, you know, years later I'm working at JP Morgan. The surgeons, they're working a different hospitals, and it became time. We said, "Okay, now is the time to jump." And I said, "I'm quitting JP Morgan. I'm going to do this full time," you know, "Was anyone else with me?" And basically, once it was a 1.5 to 2 years later, once it was time to actually make that decision, our opinions had changed from before. Where? Some of us were saying, "No, we definitely wanna put in a lot of time to this willing to leave our jobs." And other people said, "You know, I really actually, I'm not gonna do that." Based on... some of them had children and couldn't take the risk. And so we had to do some restructuring of our cap table and had a lot of kind of awkward conversations. But yeah, we figured it out!

How did your venture get its first professional funding? What were the challenges and how were they overcome? How'd your fundraising efforts change in subsequent rounds?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
Our very first funding was through Alchemist accelerator. I'm not sure if your students know what business accelerators are. But essentially, they're like mini MBA's but they're for people who already have startups. You apply, and then they invest in your company and also give you training over the course of 3 to 6 months, or however long the program is. So anyway, we applied to a whole bunch of different accelerators. We got into Alchemist Accelerator in the Bay Area. That was our very first funding. And when we got into Alchemist, that's when I said, "Okay, now I'm gonna go full time," now that we have funding. We have a professional organization whose job it is to recognize potential in early stage start ups. And they recognized us as one. So there weren't many challenges to that. We just applied to a bunch of accelerators. After that, we raised a friend's, family, angels round. Challenges with that are mostly that — you know, everyone says this — but in your very early stages of funding, it's less about the company and more about you, the people. So for me, as a very young entrepreneur, it more boiled down to people saying "Okay, how can I trust you? You're very young, But, you know, how do I know you're not gonna change your mind? How do I know that I can believe in you?" So it was just going through a lot of contacts. Contacts of contacts who had known me for a really long time. Who said "No. You can actually trust her and believe in her." So it really came down to, maybe professors that I had been really close with throughout all of college or family who obviously have known me my whole life and then told their friends about me.

How did you set the scope for your minimal viable product? How did you get to product-market fit? How did your product evolve over time?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
We started off with interviewing basically every single one of Amit's neurosurgeon friends. We were trying to figure out what exactly are the problems they have with the current procedure. And based on those problems, we came up with a list of features that could address those problems. We went back to those people we interviewed and said, "Would this do it?" Then we took this list of, let's say, 10 features that would be really, really useful and that surgeons want, and we think would fix the problem. And we actually sat down with SolidWorks in the engineering workshop. And we tried to fit them all in. And we realized over time, as we went through prototype development, we cut off more and more features because, realistically, you can't have all of the features to fix a procedure in one. Some of the features we realized wouldn't actually fix the problem. So we narrowed down right away from 10 to about 5 features. Then maybe 6 months later, after a couple iterations of prototypes, we cut off another one. So now we have four features, and then we, might be adding another one that's physically easy to add. So that's how our product has evolved — it's basically based on feasibility and verification testing.

Who were your early users? What marketing channels, approaches, and marketing tools did you use to contact users? What worked and what didn't?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
This is an easy one. It was all through the neurosurgeons on our team. It just was through their connections. There's only 3500 neurosurgeons in the U.S., so they all know each other. We have university partnerships, and so going through university hospitals is a lot of word of mouth. I did go to a couple trade shows — neurosurgeon conferences — and those were helpful too, but honestly, not as helpful as just our our team members, who are actually surgeons, or contacts we've met who worked with a lot of surgeons.

What changes would you attempt in customer targeting, acquisition process, and marketing tools in the later growth phase? Why?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
We're going to have to do a lot more with research publications, journals, conferences, conference presentations. Right now, we can really focus on word of mouth because we're really early stage. But as we have clinical data, as we have studies, as we're publishing papers... that is gonna be more about proving the efficacy of our product and not just not just one doctor talking another doctor saying, "Hey, there's this really cool company."

How'd you hire, incentivize, and track the progress of your marketing team including agencies and part-time workers to scale user base?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
I like to hire people who have a strong interest in our mission. So anyone who has a background in medicine, public health, neurotech... And then on top of that... they are a graphic designer. Something like that. And the reason for that is because I really just want people who actually care about, have fun, and are excited toe work on this. And that's pretty much the most important thing. And then obviously, I can look at, graphic designers portfolios and see if they're good at it. But yeah, for the most part, it's really making sure that people are actually just excited about what we do. And, um, that makes it really easy to incentivize. I don't really have to do any work then to incentivize them, because they're excited to work on the project.

Who were your competitors when you started and how did the competition evolve? How did you create a competitive advantage and a unique selling proposition?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
Our competitors when we started were just the main, Medtronic, Integra, J&J... the super large medical device companies. Competition involved in that is there is another early stage start up called Phasor Drill, who is slightly ahead of us in terms of regulatory pathway, but they have a worse product than us. In terms of creating competitive advantage and unique selling proposition from the beginning, we just invented our product based off of what the current products are lacking. And then with this other start up, I guess, you know, combination of luck and skill in that they they addressed some of the needs, but not all of the needs that we address.

What were the major exciting and memorable moments? Were there also any moments that almost got you to quit? How did you get past them?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
Major exciting moments... I would say... Yeah, I mean, the big milestones are when we filed our first patent, provisional non provisional patents. Getting into Alchemist Accelerator, getting our first check from an angel investor. Seeing our first operational prototype for the first time. You know, kind of those big milestones, those are all really exciting. Also, I would say any time that I speak to someone in the field who says, "Thank God you're inventing this product and building his company, we so need this change in surgery." That is so exciting. And, obviously the higher up that person is — if they're high up in Johnson and Johnson, which is a potential acquirer of ours, or if they're head of neurosurgery at some hospital — then that's always really, really validating. And then, of course, I've also spoken with some patients as well, who would be recipients of this procedure, And that's always very memorable and makes me excited to do what I do.  Moments that almost got me to quit. Um, I don't think I've ever been close to quitting, but I would say... — and this is kind of more of a broad thing — but, I mean, the con of doing a startup is, while it's so unbelievably rewarding, and there are ups and downs which are super exciting at the end of the day... When you're in early stages, you're working like twice as hard as all your friends but making like half as much money. And so I would say when COVID hit, and this whole uncertain period is happening. That's the only time that I've ever thought "Wow, I can't believe that I left my six figure salary." I really wasn't working that hard there. It was a pretty easy job that I was making a lot of money at. And I really did quit that! But I've never regretted it. Um, so I don't know. I guess I just focus on the exciting, memorable moments.

How did the school prepare you for your career? Think about faculty, resources, alumni, exposure & networking. What were the best parts?

Based on experience at: Bachelor's degree, Neuroscience (B.A.) Science in Human Culture (B.A.) Computation & Systems Modeling (Concentration), Northwestern University
Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
Yeah, I would say one of the most important parts of Northwestern was working in a neuroscience lab the entire time. I was basically treated like a grad student in that lab. I was completely independent. I never did grunt work for anyone else. I only ever did grunt work for myself, and I designed my own experiments. That was a fantastic experience. That was important, because I had always wanted to get a Ph.D in neuroscience. And I actually still do, you know, depending on how long Hubly goes and seeing how the future goes. But basically, the lab showed me that I absolutely love academic research. But it showed me that I didn't want to do it right away. And so that's where this NUvention class (that's where I met my co founders) — that's where that NUvention class came in, where I learned about what it'd be like to have your own start up and that whole process. And I said, "Okay, so this is actually what I'd really like to do right now."  And then the third thing is, I had the opportunity to go to the Grace Hopper Conference, which is for women in computer science. And Northwestern sent me for free, which was awesome. And that's actually where I got my very first job as a software engineer. It was through interviews at that conference. And I learned a lot about, again, these careers. I'm not talking about, like, soft skills —not even skills. I'm just talking about learning what it's like to be in different careers. And so I learned what it's like to be a software engineer at all these different companies by talking to all of these different people. What the chain of promotion is like at these companies. Obviously, I got my job, my first job, at that conference. So those were the 3 biggest things: the lab and NUvention and that Grace Hopper conference.

What three life lessons have you learned over your career? Please discuss the stories behind these lessons, if possible. Stories could be yours or observed.

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
First life lesson is to ask for criticism. Ask for hard truths. Because it's very easy to gravitate toward people who tell you what you want to hear. But that's not how you grow. And so I've learned that. Because after having you know, a million and one meetings with all these different people asking about my company, asking about these different things, um, I absolutely love when people tell me that my company is perfect and I'm doing everything right and we're good. But at the end of the day, I look at my notes from those meetings and I'm like, "Okay, honestly, that made me feel good, but it was a little bit a waste of time because, you know, I'm not gonna improve from that." But the interviews or calls I have with people (in person meetings back when we could do that) where people say, "OK, here's what you're doing Wrong: X, Y and Z," those are the meetings that end up being the most valuable. So that's Lesson 1.  Lesson 2. I guess I could talk about my decision to leave JP Morgan. I absolutely loved my job as a J. P. Morgan software engineer. My team and my boss were awesome. My boss's boss was awesome. But ultimately, I spent a lot of time talking to people who were high up the chain of command. And I was learning about the career trajectory there. And I realized that while I loved my job, this wasn't the end goal for me. You know what I mean? I said, "Okay, I don't think I want to work in a big company for my entire life. I don't want to be at J. P. Morgan for 10, 15 years. So I was learning a lot about software development, and, you know, it was a good time there. But ultimately, I had this decision to do Hubly. And with Hubly, I knew that this is something that I would want to be doing in 10, 15 years. And I obviously decided to do it, and I don't regret it. So I'd say, just making sure that if you know what— if you figure out definitely what you do or don't want to do... Then I think it's always better to go toward the path that gets you closer to what you want to do. And then obviously, if you have no idea what you want to do in 10 years, then just do whatever job makes you happy, because it doesn't matter! Okay, that's number two.  Number three. This is more specific, and this is an actual story. But there was one time that I was part of this pre-accelerator. There are so many business terms, but basically that's like a nonprofit that teaches super super early stage start ups how to be a start up. One of the volunteers at this non profit was a seasoned businessman and CTO. He took a very strong interest in my company. And he was very helpful, but he was also very... he wanted equity. Basically, I'll say that. And he was very much, you know, kind of pushing the dialogue, and this was after, like, a week or two. It was very early. And I ultimately had to say no to his mentor. I had to say, "I'm sorry, but, you know, it's only been like two weeks. And we're super early. I'm not in the position to be giving out a ton of equity right now." And so I had to fire him from being a mentor through this nonprofit. I didn't want to. I just said, "Oh, by the way, I am sorry, but I'd maybe want to give you equity in the future. But right now, we're just part of this nonprofit. I'm just meeting different people and exploring it." And then he said, "Okay, then I'm not going to help you anymore." I would say the only reason that I was able to recognize what was happening was because I had a lot of really great other mentors around me who said that's not normal. Someone like a mentor in this program should not be asking you for equity in such a short period of time. And so because I had those mentors... That's how I knew to basically put my foot down and say "No, I'm not going to give you equity right now. You are volunteering through this program, and I have a lot of mentors and we'll see how it how this relationship progresses. But, you know, I'm putting my foot down right now." And again, that's only because I had other mentors telling me, advising me to do that. So I'd say the lesson from the story is basically to recognize that when that happens. That is the first time that happened to me, but it wasn't the last. So recognizing the difference between people being helpful and asking for something in return in a very equitable way vs. being helpful and expecting too much in return.

What starting job (after internship) would you recommend to students who hope to grow professionally like you? What other parting advice, dos, and don'ts would you give?

Summarized By: Casey Grage on Thu Jul 30 2020
So let's say that you want to go into medical device startups. The absolute best thing you can do is either work for the potential acquirer or try to get startup experience. Regardless of whether you are neuroscience, or in engineering, any kind of engineering background, or humanities, or whatever it is... If you can either work for, you know, Medtronic, J&J and one of the big names so that you know what the ultimate goal is. This getting that experience behind your belt is really good and knowing what that's like from the kind of big company group... OR just getting entrepreneurship experience in general by finding a really small, kind of promising company and trying to work for them. And so that's very specialized to med devices. But I guess it applies to if you are interested in any kind of specific entrepreneurship. If you're interested in, I don't know, clean tech, like environmental sustainability. Then again, finding one of those really big name companies and working for them or finding a startup.  Um, okay. What other parting advice? Dos and Don'ts. I would say don't set on one path in particular. Because it could change. Yeah, it can. It can change. My example is that I always, my entire life from the time I was 10, had planned to go to college for neuroscience, and then get a PhD in neuroscience, and then start a company. And now I'm kind of doing that out of order! Because what happened was I just came across this opportunity. I met my team. The timing was right. In terms of ability to start a company and take on that kind of financial risk. And having to, in the last year, I've moved to a completely different state like once every three months. It just made sense. I realized I was graduating college. I worked for J. P. Morgan because I wanted to... I basically I worked for JP Morgan instead of going to a PhD because I well, I mean, I got offered the job. And it was a really good opportunity in a good way to learn software engineering. But it also gave me more flexibility to do Hubly. I thought I was just going to be at JP Morgan for two years, and then do my company. That would be easier than a PhD, which you can't leave for the entire time. You know, 5, 6 years you're doing it. Anyways, that's why did J. P. Morgan with the intention of doing my start up full time at some point. And then the time was right to just do it sooner rather than later! And I realized that, you know, this is really what I want to be doing. So why delay? I still think that I can get a PhD if I'd like in the future. So yeah, basically, I didn't need a PhD before starting a neurotech company. I could do neuroscience college, neurotech startup, and then neurotech PhD.