Neither Semira Gonseth Nusslé nor Nayeli Schmutz had ever planned to become entrepreneurs. Both medical doctors by training, their passions led them to found startups that could revolutionize their respective fields.
Gonseth Nusslé was a researcher investigating the links between chronic diseases and lifestyle factors at the University of California San Francisco and Berkeley when she first came up with the idea for a new diagnostic tool that could improve the prevention of chronic diseases.
A specialist in epigenetics – the study of how the environment and behavior impact your health and risk of disease – it wasn’t until she was on vacation with her husband and two children in 2017 that she realized the idea had potential to become a business. Within two years she had co-founded Genknowme with her husband, and was well on her way to turning her idea into a successful company.
“At the beginning, we were scientists with a nice idea of a new tool, and it took time to figure out how this would become something people would pay for,” she recalled.
The company has since developed a specialized blood test that measures the impact of lifestyle factors such as drinking, smoking, nutrition, and stress. This allows healthcare professionals to guide patients towards healthier choices using a personalized approach, tailored to the individual.
“Chronic diseases are responsible for the largest share in mortality in industrialized countries,” she explained. “Epigenetics opens the black box between how our lifestyle influences our health, allowing for early detection – and therefore treatment and prevention – of conditions which lead to premature aging and mortality.”
The credibility gap
Gonseth Nusslé served as CEO for two years before handing over the reins to her husband, a fellow biologist, so she could spend more time at a public health institution during the COVID-19 pandemic. She felt that her husband was taken more seriously by potential investors.
“I felt like it was harder for me to feel confident and credible enough when I was presenting my project to jury members than when my husband was presenting it. I wondered if he was simply a better speaker or if less credibility was given to a female CEO,” she recalled.
It was around this time that Genknowme was selected to participate in an IMD startup competition. After working with EMBAs to develop their sales model, Gonseth Nusslé was offered an Empowering Women in Leadership through Executive Education scholarship to take part in IMD’s Strategies for Leadership program.
“It was a life-changing experience,” she said. “The program gave me much more confidence in myself. I have participated in programs for women before and it didn’t always have that result. I realized I could be a strong leader, even if I wasn’t always conscious of it.”
Ginka Toegel, director of the Strategies for Leadership program, said it was designed to give women leaders a “confidence boost” and the opportunity to discuss the leadership challenges they might be facing.
Prior to the program, Gonseth Nusslé had often felt lonely as a woman entrepreneur, especially since some relations didn’t understand why she was spending so much time and effort building her career and company rather than aiming for a less demanding career to be able to spend more time at home and with her family.
“When asked to participate in events, mentoring groups, press articles, due to the scarcity of women in the entrepreneurial space, I sometimes feel a certain weight on my shoulders to represent ‘all’ women entrepreneurs. The idea that women entrepreneurs can be recognized as a ‘community’ that is further supported by generous donors has given me a sense of belonging and hope,” she said.
From emergency doctor to strategist
As an anesthesiologist and intensive care specialist, Nayeli Schmutz was acutely aware of the burden of postoperative delirium (POD), which causes patients to become agitated and confused after surgery, and may have several long-term effects such as increasing the risk of developing dementia. Around 59 million people around the world are affected by POD each year, with the cost burden in those aged 70 or over rivaling that of cardiovascular disease or diabetes, according to one study.
Schmutz’s startup career took off in 2019, when the company she co-founded, PIPRA, won €2 million from EIT Health in a Europe-wide competition.
PIPRA (Pre-Interventional Preventive Risk Assessment) has developed an AI-based tool that determines a patients’ risk of developing postoperative delirium (POD) before they undergo surgery. The tool is designed to be used in hospitals to improve patient outcomes and reduce the burden on patients and overstretched healthcare systems.
As Chief Medical Officer with the company, Schmutz brings her clinical expertise into PIPRA product design and is responsible for building relationships with clinical specialists and hospitals and running global clinical trials.
Making the switch to the startup world has sometimes been a challenge and the Strategies for Leadership program was instrumental in helping her broaden her knowledge. Schmutz said: “I appreciate the opportunity to connect and exchange with like-minded women who often deal with similar problems, and I was excited to be able to share some of these in a safe place.”
The mother-of-three worked part-time as an intensivist during the pandemic but quit her job in January. “I am excited,” she said. “As a doctor, you treat one patient at the time. But if we manage to achieve what we want, we can touch the lives of millions of patients.”