BOOST Thyroid has set off to create a healthy life for patients of Hashimoto using modern technology
In her endeavor to create a better life for Hashimoto’s patients, Vedrana created BOOST Thyroid, a solution that continuously gives patients insights about Hashimoto and their thyroid health.
Thyroid conditions affect millions of people worldwide, predominantly women. What is tricky about this condition is that it is difficult to diagnose early on and therefore it is hard to prevent health complications coming from late diagnosis and poor disease management. Thyroid hormones control how our body uses energy. They affect nearly every organ in our body and without enough thyroid hormones, many of our body’s functions slow down. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune condition in which our body destroys the thyroid gland. Dr. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, co-founder, and CEO of Boost Thyroid, is a Hashimoto’s patient herself.
Vedrana and her team designed a digital solution with a scientific and at the same time community-focused approach to personal well-being for Hashimoto’s patients across the world. We spoke to Vedrana about how she started to build BOOST Thyroid, what her key challenges are and how she sees her role as a female founder and a role model.
If you had to describe yourself in 3 words, what would you say?
Vedrana: Passionate, curious, and determined.
How did you come up with the idea, what was the inspiration that let you become a founder and start a business?
Vedrana: It was a mix of a few different things. I am a person that follows her passion and tries to do things that are valuable in life. That is why I started studying biology to pursue that career. In 2012, I saw that there was a shift in healthcare, which was augmented by emerging digital technologies and wearable sensors. It got me very interested in data and how it can capture and help in a patient’s everyday life. That was an initial spark that I felt toward digital technologies.
Two years later, in 2014, I was working at Karolinska Institute as a researcher. A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer too late and the doctors couldn’t save her. I think at that point I lost a bit of faith in classic academic science and that it can bring solutions for people’s health today. I left academia and decided to start projects and companies in digital health that will help people understand if they have a health complication or a risk for it and offer them a solution for preventive disease management.
I started BOOST Thyroid because I am a Hashimoto’s patient myself. This company came from my own experience as a patient, my struggle as a patient and then my realization that there are millions of people around the globe that have the same condition, the same problem, the same health risk complications. That’s in a nutshell how it came to what I am doing today.
What were the first steps you took to build your actual company?
Vedrana: I think that the very first step was talking to my partner saying that I want to do this. Then the second step was quitting my job and at the same time looking for likeminded people who would be interested in joining me. Moreover, interviewing patients that I knew from my social circles.
After that I started writing about the condition, I started pulling data from scientific research papers, because I saw there is a lot of information online that is not coming from scientifically proven sources. I felt that maybe people need that. These were the first steps, quitting my job, starting to write and interviewing patients.
Looking back at being brave enough to quit your job and start your own company, something that is especially hard as a woman: What is your biggest learning from that phase, is there something you would recommend other women in that situation?
Vedrana: That is a very valid problem, because it is hard if you don’t have resources. If you have resources, being money and time, maybe then take time off your job or quit your job and give it a few months and see if your idea can be validated or not. If you are more limited in resources, find a different way to start. That’s what I did for a year when I worked at Karolinska Institute. I was spending my nights and weekends studying entrepreneurship – not that I am saying that entrepreneurship is something that entirely needs to be studied – but I’ve been exposed to a lot of people who could become my potential co-founders, who could validate my ideas or assumptions – or disprove them.
In any case, it is very important to get out there, talk to people about your idea, about what you want to do, about your values. It is not only the idea that you have but also what values are important to you. Of course, the monetary aspect is equally important unless you are sure that you can pull yourself through at least six months of unemployment, so don’t quit your job because it will take more than six months before you start getting your first investments or revenues, it will probably be at least a year.
If you don’t have that buffer maybe start working on your project in the evenings, spend weekends interviewing people, try to develop your solution, find a co-founder. It’s 2019, there are a lot of meetups and a lot of social events for women where you can find a co-founder and share your idea. It is a bit easier than five, six years ago and a little bit more versatile in a way.
What were the first challenges that you faced and how did you manage them? Was there a moment where you thought: “This is it”?
Vedrana: That is an everyday challenge that is not going to stop: This struggle or feeling that it could be better. There are great days and there are bad days, but the struggle always stays the same. I think this is also what very successful people would say.
Personally, I think my biggest challenges and struggles were fundraising as a first-time entrepreneur. I am an unusual founder and I am not talking just about being a woman, but also about being a little bit older – I am now in my 40s and it is not something that is usually seen, a woman doing an impact-driven health-tech startup, a woman that is not native to Germany where I started my company and started to fundraise. That all made it significantly harder, and of course these are the things that could have been easier by having a local co-founder, someone who has already a proven track record. I think that fundraising was one of the bigger struggles.
But also building awareness around what we are doing. There is a difference in how I had to talk to people in 2016 about Hashimoto and an underactive thyroid and how I am talking to them today. This awareness is not there thanks to me only, it’s a constellation of different events and of course, there are also other people who have contributed to the awareness of female diseases, so the entire field is shifting. However, what I see as the biggest challenge will always be raising funds and getting validation for your company to the appropriate level when you raise funds.
Looking at the positive aspects of being a founder: Are there some amazing moments along your journey that you will definitely never forget and you look back to when you have a bad day?
Vedrana: There is a combination of more than one. When I have a bad day, first I look at emails of our users who write how we’ve transformed their lives and helped them have better health and life quality. That is very moving and very powerful and it’s the best payment for everything we’ve been doing so far. Reading these messages took me out of some very desperate and dark times. That is one thing that really helps.
In addition to that, of course, finding amazing team members. Whenever I look at our team – and we are a small team – each person is tremendously amazing and I am so happy that they chose to work with us. That is something that I am continuously happy and thankful for. Meeting other founders and getting great investors, these are all super positive things, which I am always reminding myself of if things don’t go well. That we have accomplished a lot, that we have backing from amazing people, amazing users, that we have wonderful scientific collaborations. I am looking back to where we were in 2016 and where we are now. This leap that we have made is something that makes me really happy.
What is your vision for BOOST Thyroid in five years?
Vedrana: I think in five years’ time we will be able to help more people. Now we have a relatively small user base compared to 350 million people who have this condition. We would be able to capture and help more people, we are going to be able to help them get an earlier and appropriate diagnosis, and avoid health complications through personalized disease management. That is where I see the value we will bring to people.
I also think that we will bring value to society in general. There is going to be a healthier group of people that are currently struggling, but I think also the awareness that female conditions and female complex diseases are equally important and deserve to be worked on by both research and health care professionals. We should bring female diseases to the level where they are equal, equally researched, equally paid attention to, equally diagnosed early on and equally treated with different types of preventive individualized treatments.
Looking short term, what are the next three steps for you?
Vedrana: The next few steps for us are collaborating with the doctor side of the coin, helping improve conversations between patients and doctors as well as improved shared decision-making. That is one short-term goal. Moreover, helping doctors by doing research to understand and know what the appropriate treatment for each patient is.
For example, this is something that is ongoing; we are presenting our research work in two weeks at the American Thyroid Association, the biggest North American conference for medical doctors, regarding thyroid health. We have presented at the biggest European and German ones as well.
This way we can empower the doctors as well, because doctors, physicians, medical healthcare professionals they are not the enemy. They are put in an equally bad position because there is a lack of research. That’s basically how in the short term run we plan to bring equality to this conversation, so there is no more frustration and patients and doctors can push together towards better health for everyone.
You mentioned that as a female founder you have a few struggles that male founders potentially don’t have. How do you see your role in the female founder and tech landscape?
Vedrana: This is a tough one. It is not something I never think about, but it is a complex one to answer. Yes of course, you can be a role model. For example, yesterday a VC approached me and they sent me their webpage. When I checked their portfolio, they only had male founders. I was thinking about how I don’t want to be a part of that. Maybe they are nice people, but they are not nice enough for me to actually engage with them. And I wrote to them: “I am a female founder, you have only male ones, I don’t see an alignment there.”
I think that on the one side – calling the bias out, which is very hard as you are fundraising and you need money and you are ready to make compromises, but I think these types of compromises per se are bad. Calling out investors that are only investing in men and don’t see that as a problem, asking each investor who they are investing in and trying to push the female agenda with them. Investors have a lot of power, they have money, they can enable each of the female founders, each of the unusual or unconventional founders to do wonderful things. However, money is necessary for that at a certain point. I personally try to engage with investors and try to make them realize that it is important to invest in women for many different reasons, but also because they are going to miss on great opportunities if they don’t.
The second thing is helping women. Even though that is not enough, I would even say “unusual founders”, so someone who is elderly, from a different country, or with a different stage of abilities. I identify with all of them, they don’t need to be a woman per se, but they mostly are. Helping them with my advice, connections, and network. I think that expanding someone’s network is really beneficial.
Then the third thing I think would be helpful is for all female founders with successful exits to become investors. Because I have seen that this works really nicely in the Nordics. There are more female investors that are investing in specific, also female-related causes, not only but they really pay attention to that. That really helps. In addition, having a founder or having an investor that is a former founder also really helps in multiple ways, not only with money, but also with networking, connections, experience etc.
I think this is not a simple answer but in conclusion I would say helping with network and experience, helping raise awareness with VCs and investors who usually don’t invest in women explaining why they should invest in women, and being able – maybe in the future – to become an investor myself and help the community.