How one digital health startup got its product on The Colbert Report

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood, eMed Editor, MedCity News

Amy Sheng worked for two years at the University of California - Berkeley building simple tools to remotely diagnose diseases in developing countries. In 2011, Sheng and her team decided the technology also had interesting applications in the United States. They spun out a San Francisco-based company to build a digital, smart phone-enabled first aid kit.

CellScope creates tools for consumers to use at home to remotely diagnose common ailments. The company's otoscope, used to check for an ear infection, attaches to a cell phone and links to an app. The tool can be used at home with results sent to a physician -- potentially saving a trip to the doctor's office. Sheng offered entrepreneurial insights on selling the vision, finding the right funding fit, and not being afraid to ask.

Don't be afraid to ask -- When the CellScope team read that television personality Stephen Colbert punctured his eardrum -- and that doctor and Medscape editor Eric Topol would be appearing on his show to discuss digital health -- they devised a plan. "We had to try to see if we could get our prototype on the show," Sheng said. Topol, who was bringing several medical devices on the show, was game and Sheng overnighted him the company's only working prototype. "Be scrappy and don't be afraid to ask and go for it," she said. "Our prototype made it onto primetime television."

Sell the vision to potential team members -- Being based in the Bay Area makes it difficult to hire software developers with specific expertise, Sheng said. "There's so much demand where we're located," she said, and early-stage companies like CellScope can't compete with Facebook and Google in terms of salary and perks. "The key for CellScope has been selling the vision to interested candidates," Sheng said. "[They'll be] part of this mobile health movement that's really taking off."

Find the right funding fit -- For CellScope, fundraising at a time when the digital health space was so new proved daunting, Sheng said. "If we pitched to med tech investors," she said, "they were skittish about investing in our company because the business models are unproven." And traditional technology investors were nervous about regulatory implications, Sheng added. Rather than trying to convince hesitant investors, the CellScope team searched for an investor who understood the vision. "It's all about finding the right fit between the startup and the founders and the investor," she said.

Don't fret the regulatory process -- For most entrepreneurs who haven't previously worked in a regulated environment, Sheng said, the regulatory process can be daunting. But it isn't as overwhelming as it might seem, she said. "It's a lot of work, but it's not rocket science, Sheng said. "It's about following procedures and making sure there's a process in place."

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