Alysse Soll interviews Meridith Cass for WiST
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory, LLC and WiST Board Advisor
How a Runner’s Struggles With Hydration Inspired a Wearable Tech Breakthrough
Hubris and Humility
A favorite book of Meridith’s is Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. Scott defines Radical Candor as the ability to “care personally and challenge directly.” The book, a boss bible to many, focuses on how good bosses strike the delicate balance of being direct and being discreet. For Meridith, this is the balance of hubris and humility. “The importance of being confident, almost arrogant, is called for in many circumstances, but so is the importance of being humble and empathetic. You need to have the confidence to move forward, to push through and have your team follow. As well, you need to have the humility to recognize when you need help moving forward.”
For Meridith, this balance of hubris and humility is rooted in the need to be authentic. “High achievers are driven to succeed, and often ignore that they can be fallible. I have learned to allow myself to be human. Humans have flaws, we make mistakes. Authentic humans recognize their flaws and give themselves permission to move forward, regardless.”
“Permission to make mistakes gives you a sense of fearlessness. You can inch out on that limb, not sure when it is going to break, but getting far enough to reach the milestone that feeds your confidence to keep inching out further.”
After many years working for others helping to grow their companies, seed their breakthroughs, and shape their vision, Meridith decided it was time to take all her validated learning and forge her own path. “I wanted to make my own schedule, follow my own instincts, construct a life that was rooted in attributes fundamental to my nature — authenticity, fearlessness and the ability to create something from nothing. My need to create, to do something new and exciting, outweighs the fear of failing at it.”
While there is great freedom in following your personal path, you are also responsible for those who go down that path with you. “I am the type of person who operates at home the same way I operate at work. I want to surround myself, in both places, with like-minded people, my husband, my colleagues, my friends. If people are going to follow you, you need to earn their respect and trust. You need to be able to say ‘I’ve got this,’ or ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out,’ and have them believe you. This is being authentic. This is why I followed my own path.”
The Black Sheep of Blavatnik
Meridith was one of five Fellows accepted into Harvard’s prestigious Blavatnik Fellowship program in Life Sciences in 2014-2015. This annual Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) is an accelerator designed to “create new ventures around promising life science technologies while developing their leadership talents.” The goal for the program was simple: the commercialization of science. In life sciences, you typically identify an interesting technology (first) and figure out the market problem it can solve (next). Meridith, however, took the opposite approach: she figured out the market problem (first) and then identified the technology to solve it (next). Black Sheep.
Meridith’s market problem was how to hydrate athletes and the solution required a consumer health application. She believed there was huge potential in the concept of biosensors and went looking for a technology that could be repurposed to interface with human bodily fluids like sweat, tears, and saliva.
She was asked to pitch her vision to the group — professors and peers— to validate the value proposition. And pitch she did. Her vision was deemed valid, it had merit, and it had a future. Meridith now had the Blavatnik resources to help make her vision a reality. Black sheep no more.
Nix, the company that Meridith founded to commercialize her vision, is now developing and testing a wearable hydration sensor that enables athletes to manage their hydration status in real time. Although initially targeting athletes, the potential market includes a broad swath of consumers and workers who deal with hydration risk including the elderly, firefighters, oil and gas workers, construction laborers and the military, to name a few.
Q and A with Meridith Cass
WiST: You have an extraordinary personal and professional resume: Bryn Mawr undergrad, Harvard MBA, Harvard Entrepreneur in Residence, senior experience across HealthTech, BioTech and Venture Capital, a college basketball player, and a world class marathon runner. How have these experiences molded your career path to CEO of Nix?
When you are in the thick of it, you don’t necessarily differentiate the ordinary moments from the extraordinary. For me, those moments gain clarity in retrospect.
While I have learned and earned many things during my academic life, my professional career, as an athlete, and as an EIR at Harvard, each experience has been a moment, a step — either deliberate, opportunistic, strategic or serendipitous. Some of those steps have moved me forward, some sideways, some back.
When I look at the steps that generated the path I am on today, I see each step as a learning curve. The ability to leverage each step towards a smarter, more efficient, more effective next step is what has led to the founding of Nix.
I have worked for many smart and successful people, identifying and developing product solutions for pain points across healthcare and biotech. Along the way, it became clear that my path was to lead the development of a product solution on my own. To be a founder and lead a team that generates the best product solution with a scalable future is my calling. This is what Nix is all about.
WiST: Can you share your Nix founder’s story? How did you identify the pain point and craft the solution?
In my VC role in the healthcare sector, I collaborated with brilliant academics, scientists and researchers to commercialize their solutions solving significant healthcare pain points. By its very nature, the path to commercial viability for healthcare technology is fraught with risk: technical, clinical, regulatory, reimbursement and capital intensity just to name a few. But product strategy is critical in healthcare, too; not every innovation gets adopted simply because it addresses an unmet need. The technology has to be a perfect fit for the pain point.
I was working with an exceptional doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital who invented a hydration diagnostic technology to quantify the level of dehydration of children who came into the hospital’s emergency unit. But the value of a diagnostic product in a clinical setting lies in its ability to reveal a more effective or efficient treatment pathway. Dehydrated children in the ER are likely to be given an IV regardless of hydration level, so the diagnostic is merely an added cost without a meaningful clinical benefit. But I instantly saw the benefit for athletes, soldiers and laborers who sorely needed a convenient assessment tool that they could use in the field. Since I struggled with hydration issues as a marathon runner, I recognized the value of monitoring hydration levels for athletes as well.
The technology remained at BCH but the need case very much stayed with me. Because I had a front row seat to witness the trials and tribulations of commercializing technology in bio tech and healthcare, I believed that hydration was a pain point that required a solution in the consumer sector—athletes, fitness enthusiasts, outdoor laborers, the military— the masses.
I knew I wanted to work for myself and set my own personal and professional path. Through my fellowship at Harvard as an EIR I had the time and resources to develop the roadmap for what became Nix. I was solving a science-based problem, dehydration, with a consumer application. At the same time, sports tech, performance tech and consumer tech were gaining momentum and validation and it became clear that my solution, Nix, could be established through one of those verticals. And so, Sports Tech it was.
Nix started as a solution for athletes but was developed with a broader total addressable market in mind. We constantly iterate our software and hardware to improve adoption, ease of use and actionability. We developed technology we wholly own and are always looking for ways to deliver value to our consumers. We are a young company, but we have a fearless attitude. Right place, right technology, right market, right time.
WiST: Based on your experience as a rising professional and now as CEO, what are the essential leadership qualities you have learned from others and developed yourself to be a competent, inspirational and productive leader?
Leadership is more about how you interact with people than the hard skills. You have to be an authentic person which translates into a credible leader, one that others will believe in, support and follow. The hardest thing for a leader to learn and actually do is to strike the balance between being confident and being uncertain. Confidence enables you and your team to push forward, taking acceptable risks; uncertainty forces you to ask for help when you need a fresh perspective to push forward. Authentic people, credible leaders, must master this balance.
As a founder, you can’t possibly know how to do everything — how to run a pilot, price a product, negotiation, legal, IP, establishing corporate structure and corporate culture, go to market strategy, market development, product development, back end engineering, setting up a 401K. The best way to the best outcome is to leverage what you know, learn what you don’t, and ask for help from those who do. Smart professionals build strong networks of like-minded people based on mutual trust and respect. I turn to people I trust to ask for help, and they know they can do the same. This is authentic. This is credible. This is leadership.
WiST: Do you see differences between how men and women operate as they navigate their career paths and grow their personal and professional currency? Are there attributes you would ascribe to one gender that could (or should) be adopted by the other?
I’m really fascinated by the Harvard Business Review article, Male and Female Entrepreneurs Get Asked Different Questions by VCs—and It Affects How Much Funding They Get (June 27,2017). The authors did a study of male and female startup founders: how much money they raised and the questions they were asked during their pitches. Bottom line, male founders were asked big picture “promotion” oriented questions (e.g. “how do you monetize this?”) and female founders were asked detailed “prevention” oriented questions (e.g. “how long will it take you to break even?”). This line of questioning led to greater fundraises and higher valuations for male founders than their female counterparts.
Male founders were encouraged to leverage their swagger: share their big vision and how it could change the world. Female founders were restricted to the facts: share the fundamentals and how it would work in a specific vertical. The article’s conclusion for female founders? Address a prevention question with a promotion answer.
My takeaway is that women are forced to default to defense (focusing on details and facts to justify their activity) and men default to offense (focusing on the vision and opportunity to justify their ask). As any smart sports professional will attest, defense wins games, but offense sells tickets.
WiST: In this COVID19 era where so many promising young companies — from startups in fundraising mode to revenue generating companies with a few years under their belt —are under siege, how are you pivoting to operate in the “new normal”? Do you have validated learning you can share with other Founders to keep their roadmap moving forward?
SURVIVE then THRIVE. Tread water if you have to. Jump on new opportunities if you can.
Hopefully, during this pandemic, you can position yourself to have the wind at your back vs. fighting the headwinds.
This has as much to do with luck — the market you operate in and the runway you have — as your ability to adjust your roadmap to the present circumstances.
Our target market is one we believe will find new ways to engage rather than slow down or hibernate. Our 2020 roadmap was initially focused on reaching external milestones (launching pilot programs with athletes using our version 1.0 biosensors at events like the Boston Marathon) and then reaching internal milestones (product development for version 2.0). The idea being get the pilots out, generate the noise, then improve the product.
Now all of those events have been cancelled or postponed. So, we are jumping on new opportunities by reshuffling our roadmap, literally turning it on its head. We are focusing first on our internal milestones, driving product development to perfect and deliver the 2.0 version. Then, when we open the pilots later this year, it will be with the 2.0 version. Better product, better outcome.
We are prepared to iterate, iterate, iterate to adapt to a shifting landscape. Most successful startups, and companies do. COVID19 has accelerated the shifting landscape and we must adapt and adjust to survive, then thrive.
WiST: What does success look like to you?
I feel successful now! For the first time in my career, I love what I am doing every day, and I love who I am doing it with. The ability to inspire and drive this company forward, doing what we love, producing meaningful products that serve our market makes us all feel successful.
As a venture-backed startup, we need to see our company grow and succeed — not just for us, but for our investors, people who have put their faith and their money behind us. We dream about the day when we are running along the Charles River and pass runners we don’t know wearing our Nix patch. Or viewing the social feed of an elite athlete we have not signed wearing our product. We dream about our platform being incorporated into a larger platform that serves greater audiences across different verticals. These are milestones. And every milestone is what keeps us forging ahead, keeps us loving our work and keeps us wanting to do more, to be more.
A special thanks to Meridith for sharing her story with the WiST community. Meridith’s perseverance in following her personal path has led her to build a company that addresses a problem of the many, not the few. Inspiration comes in all forms.
Join the WIST community at www.womeninsportstech.org.
Check out NIX Bio Sensors at https://nixbiosensors.com.