Switching Gears and Saving Lives: How Instapath Pivoted and Built a Business
“We need to do a biopsy” – Words that can cause a patient’s hear to skip a beat. A biopsy removes cells or tissue from a suspicious area of the body. Doctor’s then study these cells to see if a
disease – such as cancer – is present. Patients wait with hope and trepidation for their biopsies to return either “positive” or “negative.”
However, few people realize the first biopsy may not provide doctors with the desired information. Of the 5 million biopsies performed in the United States to diagnose cancer, 1 million must be re-done. This can cause more stress, and potentially delay a patient’s treatment by months.
When Mei Wang was a Ph.D. student in biomedical/medical engineering at Tulane University, she was astounded to learn that biopsies are unsuccessful so often. She and a group of fellow Ph.D. students looked into the problem.
The reason, she concluded, was the way in which these tests are done. Most biopsies use an imaging technique known as a rapid on-site evaluation (ROSE). The problem with this technique is that it captures only 1 percent of a total biopsy. This small percentage is what typically leads to the inaccuracy. An inaccuracy that can necessitate the uncomfortable and costly procedure being repeated.
A Microscopic View
Wang and her colleagues came up with a new approach. They use a digital microscope that takes a picture of the whole biopsy at subcellular resolution within seconds of removal, improving the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis. Wang believed it could also increase the likelihood the patient would return for treatment. When they presented their data at different medical conferences around the world, physicians and the medical community took immediate interest.
“Everyone said we should push forward because this was a significant clinical issue,” Wang says. “A few people from the industry approach us during the conference and said they were interested in what we were doing.”
With that motivation, Wang and her colleagues founded a company call Instapath, which is now based in Austin, Texas, to turn their idea into a product. Quickly, Instapath won several pitch contests for their concept, including an international pitch competition, receiving $30,000. The company also received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant for $225,000 to perform their R&D.
Overcoming Negative Feedback
All this would make Instapath seem like a slam-dunk. After all, they had come up with a solution to an urgent medical issue. However, Wang found a great idea does not necessarily make for a great business. This is especially true in an industry as complex as healthcare. While the need and the solution were apparent to her, the business did not come into focus. So she set about interviewing more than 200 physicians and health industry participants.
Surprisingly, many of the first doctors she approached were downbeat about the idea. Many different kinds of doctors are involved in treating cancer. As a result, the need for better and faster biopsies was not of equal importance to all of them.
Trudging forward after a string of negative feedback, finally, she found the medical personnel most interested in her technology: interventional radiologists. These are sub-specialists of radiology who use minimally invasive image-guided procedures to diagnose and treat diseases.
“When we started, they were pretty low on our list,” she says. “We started targeting neurologists and breast cancer surgeons.”
While the latter thought her technology was a “nice to have,” it was the interventional radiologists who felt their work was most impacted by frustrating delays in biopsy quality.
New Business Model
There was another surprise, though. While healthcare providers were interested in improving the diagnosis, the institutions that would pay for the technology – insurance companies and
hospitals – had other concerns. They wanted a procedure that was more efficient and could be performed with fewer personnel. Wang, like many entrepreneurs, had to appease different constituents: the medical personnel who would influence the purchase decision, and the hospital administrators who would have to sign off on the sale.
“Without those interviews, we wouldn’t have a product that would sell and we wouldn’t have known who we were selling to,” she says.
Once the issues and concerns came into sharp focus, she changed her pricing plan and business model. Now, when pitching Instapath, Weng focuses on the fact that the technology “increases the throughput of biopsy procedures and allows more patients to be treated per biopsy suite per day.”
It is a subtle, but critical difference. A difference that made the difference between having a great idea and having a great business.
“When you start a business, you often find yourself in the valley of despair,” she says. “But you quickly learn how to pivot, because you need to understand what your customer cares about and appeal to them.”
Editor’s Note: Lauren’s story is one of an ongoing series celebrating women business owners. Take a look at some of the other inspiring stories in this series: How I Built My Own Business After Cancer and Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom