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David J. Whelan is a seasoned strategy, business development, and general management executive building businesses and inspiring entrepreneurs at the intersection of technology, health, and wellness. David discusses how he combines his love for health and the tech industry into one, and what a successful pitch looks like, when aiming towards these types of investors. Listen in for so many great nuggets of wisdom from David on the topics of investing, raising capital, and building your network.
The Intersection of Technology and Health – Interview with David Whelan
Welcome to The Successful Pitch. Today’s guest is Dave Whelan, who is a seasoned strategy business development and general management executive, which builds business and inspires entrepreneurs at the intersection of technology and health and wellness. He’s a consultant and advisor and operating executive. He devotes his career to building successful businesses. He was an integral part of the creation of the New York Genome Center, a unique not for profit scientific research institute where he was a chief strategy officer and collaborated on the development of the business plan fund raising of $115 million. He launched one of the first fitness tracking wearables with 24 Fitness. He holds an MBA with honors from UCLA Anderson School and a BS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. Dave, congratulations on all that accomplishment and welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. I forgot about the with honors parts. I’m not even sure if I deserve that. Thank you for reminding me.
What is Symbolic Systems? What is that?
It’s Symbolic Systems. Essentially, it’s an artificial intelligence human computer interaction major at Stanford. It is indeed a real major. Marissa Mayer is probably a more famous alum of the Symbolic Systems program than me. Hopefully I can catch up with her at some point.
You’re in great company. How fantastic to be able to be that cutting edge on artificial intelligence, which is sort of the future internet of things and all kinds of stuff.
Wow. Let’s dive back into, what made start there? I want to hear about that. How did you even decide, “I want to learn about artificial intelligence and make that my major.”
You mentioned this intersection of technology and health and wellness. I’ve been in technology my whole life, or passionate about technology my whole life. The health care part came accidentally later. I was definitely one of those computer kids growing up. My first computer was a Texas Instruments, TI 994A, which was discontinued about a month after my parents invested in it for me. I switched over to Apple and I’ve been an Apple guy forever. In fact, I purchased the first Macintosh for my school district to run the high school newspaper back in the late 80s. Early adopter, and all of that got me excited about the world of artificial intelligence, which seemed to the next big thing at the time.
That led me to Carnegie Mellon for a year and then I transferred to Stanford. Loved Stanford, loved the program and was still passionate about technology. I graduated into what was not the best market for artificial intelligence. AI was in a dormant stage at the time. My first job out of college was actually with a biotech incubator, probably even before they were calling them incubators. I was hired not for my biotech expertise since I had none, but I was literally hired as the IT guy in this firm and that quickly evolved into more of an operations role. I guess I’ve actually been connected to life sciences my entire career but took a pause there after that job and spent about six years as a retained executive search consultant.
Again, this is mid to late 90s in San Francisco. It was just an amazing time for technology businesses, for telecom, eventually internet. Probably the best time ever to be a search consultant. We were building venture backs, senior management teams for again, technology companies, telecom companies, some biotech, some consumer, automotive. It was a lot of fun. I probably could’ve stayed doing that forever but I was about to turn 30, really wanted to get my MBA. At the same time, the dotcom crash was happening so it was a perfect time to take a change of scenery. I moved to LA to attend UCLA Anderson School as you mentioned.
As I said, I really loved Stanford undergrad but Anderson I think was absolutely the best time of my life. Amazing professors, especially in the world of entrepreneurship, an incredible network that I draw on every day and some great opportunities. Even though I love LA, it gave me a chance to study at London Business School on exchange, which was just an amazing opportunity in one of my favorite cities. This was beginning of second year of business school. I actually arrived in London on, I think it was the first, maybe second flight from LA to Heathrow after 9/11. Just a weird time to be travelling, weird time to be leaving the country but also an amazing time to look back and see what the world was thinking about the US during those days. A sidebar, but interesting time.
I graduated with my MBA in 2002 and I’ve spent the past almost fifteen years now as strategy consultant, advisor, interim executive. That’s been areas as broad as technology generally, in aerospace, in defense, but more and more the health and wellness space. You mentioned the wearable world, which was my entrée into that. I was working with a subsidiary of 24 Hour Fitness and we had a chance to launch what was one of the first fitness wearables and online nutrition programs. This is way back in 2004. We were absolutely ahead of our time. Lesson learned there is do not launch a fitness wearable in a world that doesn’t have the iPhone or Facebook. It will fail.
Let’s talk about that for a second because I think one of the most important things when you’re pitching an investor, there’s two questions, why you and then the big one is why now? If you have this great idea but now is not the right time for Uber or fitness wearables if people don’t have enough smartphones to use them.
Exactly. First of all, we were, in some ways, lucky enough to be part of this large global organization that was looking at investments perhaps a different way than a venture investor would, but the same questions I think apply. The why now aspect in some ways made a lot of sense from a standpoint of the need was there, the technology was coming together. We had this intersection of need and technology and actually an amazing solution. The challenge comes essentially from the network effect aspect or the lack thereof in this case. When you think about something that’s very personal like fitness data, fitness tracking and ultimately hitting your goals, or when you think of anything that involves connecting with other people, you’ve got to have the tools and technology to allow for that network effect.
Again, in a world without smartphones, without Facebook, we were launching into a vacuum. The exciting thing about that is ultimately the company that we were partnered with, which is called BodyMedia, got acquired by Jawbone. Their technology is still involved in what I think will be Jawbone’s new clinical work. The founder of that company, BodyMedia, is Astro Teller, who went on to run Google X or Alphabet X, whatever they’re calling it now. The cutting edge, a bunch of new technologies. There was some amazing people that were part of that. A lot of the efforts lived on. I took that experience about health care data, again, put it in the back of my mind for a little while. I was doing some work in aerospace and defense.
A few years later, this is back in 2010, ended up getting a call from a friend of mine who was in the life sciences real estate and economic development world in New York. She had a colleague we’re working on this for, what they were calling New York Genome Center. I basically saw this as a three month consulting opportunity with a trip or two to New York that ended up being a three year crazy ride with almost weekly commutes between LA and Manhattan, where we launched this large scale, non profit research institute. I was the first business person the team.
As you said, helped to write the business plan. I was part of this massive fundraising effort, helped to recruit the launch team and ultimately set the wheels in motion for what is now a world class research facility that is part of multi million dollar NIH funding grants for things around Alzheimer’s and autism. They’re doing some amazing work. I’m convinced that someday, some aspect of cancer is going to be cured there or something like that and it’ll an amazing thought that I was involved from the beginning.
That must make your passion really strong for making a difference in the world. Talk about the fundraising for non profit of over $115 million. Is that from one big government grant or do you go pitch it, like you would if you were a profit company with Angel and VCs?
This was very much multiple funders and very much like a pitch for venture backed startup. In fact, while this was a non profit, we were in some ways running it very much like a technology startup in terms of how we built the plan, built the business model, even recruited. From a funding standpoint, we started out by talking to what will be the course stakeholders, which were the academic institutions, the large hospitals in New York and literally going door to door, drumming up support. This was maybe a little bit different from an early venture effort.
If you think about getting in front of Angels, in front of incubators and accelerators, just in front of the movers and shakers in your community. This was very much what we were doing. Helping them understand what the vision was, why New York needed this, what the opportunities would be for them and their institutions as well as beyond. Those academic leaders, academic and medical leaders in New York, then led to some of the major philanthropic funders, led to some commercial funders. Ultimately with that momentum, we were able to go to the city of New York, the state of New York and ultimately even some other, as I mentioned, more recently they’ve got an NIH funding. This builds on itself.
While I can say that raising money for a large non profit in New York is in some ways much easier than raising money for a for profit venture in San Francisco or Los Angeles. I think there’s a lot of similarities in terms of how you tell the story, how you get in front of one person, which leads to others. Ultimately, how you use one success, one small success to move the next one. Eventually, you can bring in hundreds and millions of dollars to get this thing off the ground.
You’ve talked about networking twice, once with your experience in how the UCLA Anderson MBA continues to help you with your network and now you just brought it up again, which I love, which is one network connection gets you into another network connection. Can you give an example or a case study story of that happening for you?
Sure. Again, you hit the nail on the head in terms of networks leading to other ones. Actually, I’ll start with a story. This just came to me last week. One of my inspirations in the life sciences world, who also has a connection to UCLA Anderson School, is a guy named Larry Bock. Larry lived in San Diego, actually he just passed away last week after a struggle with cancer. That’s why he’s been on my mind very much recently. I never met him but inspiration to me in terms of this guy literally built 50, 60 life sciences companies in San Diego and beyond. He was part of the Illumina founding team and the genome sequencing space. He also had a passion for STEM education, launched science fairs, science festivals.
He was highlighted a few years ago in a book called The Rainforest, which was talking about the Silicon Valley eco system. He was highlighted as, what they call, a keystone species in anthropological or ecological standpoint. Keystone species are these standout species that somehow make connections and exist in different eco systems or pull them together. In the context of innovation, this book highlights keystone species as someone who connects people who could benefit from working together. They might not work together under normal circumstances because of things like geography or cultural differences or trust or things like that.
When I think about it, and I’ve been inspired by that my whole career as trying to be a connector. Ultimately the idea is everyone is part of hopefully several networks, maybe many networks. This could be schools, it could be workplaces, it could be religious organizations, it could be geographic communities, it could be volunteer efforts. Each of those networks hopefully is a source of amazing connections. Everyone needs to think about how they keep each of those networks fresh, how they stay connected to them, how they contribute to those networks.
Back to this idea of the keystone species and Larry Bock, how do you actually take the leap to help connect people from these vastly diverse networks in a way that they would never meet each other but once they do, something amazing comes from it? I think it’s the idea that you can be at a cocktail party with your friends and have a conversation with someone and realize that this ties into the business meeting you were in last week or the conference that you were attending last month and you start to connect the dots and start to bring people together in a way that creates these really rich interactions. Hopefully, what comes out of that are businesses that would never have existed or investment connections that wouldn’t have happened. Eventually, you can change the world because you’re connecting people in a way that is very unique, very creative and hopefully redefining an industry.
Wow, that’s great. You’re almost like the catalyst, set up those connections that would never have made. If you connect the dots first and see the big picture and then step out of the way, magic can happen.
Exactly. I was at a conference a few weeks ago called Ideas Los Angeles, which was an amazing multi cultural, multi faceted conference around both health technology and entertainment technology in LA, Silicon Valley and beyond. First of all, I invited a ton of people to this event and so I ended being able to introduce people who, not only might not have met but were in the same place. There was one person I met there who was working on an amazing integrative health and wellness business and another one of the companies that I advise, which is building conference app tools for the life sciences industry. I saw some connections there and couldn’t introduce them directly at the event and tried to introduce them after the event.
One of the individuals said, “That sounds cool. I don’t really see the connection. It doesn’t make sense right now.” I actually pushed both of them to get together and talk about their commonalities and where they might be able to collaborate. Both of them after this meeting said, “Wow, this is great. We never would’ve even thought about this. Thank you for making the connection.” Again, sometimes it takes some vision, sometimes it takes some creative foresight, sometimes it just takes luck where you hope people will connect. If they do, great. If they don’t, there’s honestly no harm and maybe they’ve met someone that at least they like socially.
You’re creating real value so when they come across someone that they can refer to you as a potential client, as a consultant, they’re more than happy to do it, which is a great way to drive business.
Let’s take a little dive into when you raised over $25 million with the Precision Medicine venture. That was a for profit I’m guessing, yes?
Yeah. Again, another unique angle on fundraising. This was a commercial spin off from a hospital, from a cancer hospital, that was a public benefit corporation in New York. Which means it’s a non profit enterprise that’s got ties to the state, operates somewhat independently but in many ways like a state organization. In that effort, we were really focused on the typical starting point of let’s understand what the opportunity is and build the plan and start to build the story. We were putting together relationships where we were seeking funding both from the hospital system itself as well as from, ultimately from the state, both existing state moneys, Empire State Development Corporation, which is the state’s economic development arm, and eventually teeing this up for broader external investment.
Again, a little bit of unique twist on funding. In some cases I think, when you’re in a funding situation, and you could argue it happens to people in any company when they’re going to their boss, when they’re going to the general manager, their division, and they’re trying to fight for budget for the next year. Ultimately, planning for your budget for the year, planning for budget for a product launch, a marketing strategy or an invest in a company, there’s a lot of similarities. It’s really about having your plan straight, having your numbers straight. Being able to tell a story in a really strong way to get these people not only wanting to be a investor and a funder but ultimately being an advocate, being an ally, being someone who can then take your story to the next funder. Whether that’s moving in an organization, whether it’s going to the board or whether it’s going to a larger a investor down the line. Again, I think there’s a lot of common ground there.
When you’re talking about health care and you’re saying the importance of a story when you’re pitching for this kind of money, do you give an example of one particular patient and that person’s story so it’s really specific? “If we get this money, then we can do this for this cancer hospital and save someone like XYZ person who was suffering and who doesn’t have to suffer,” for example?
I think that’s absolutely one angle. The great thing about health care is that while it’s a large industry, really the largest industry out there by some measures, it’s also very personal. Everyone has dealt with health care on their own, they certainly dealt with it with their children, with elderly relatives. Health care is just, by definition, a very personal topic. This idea that when you’re telling a story, how do you do something that can provoke, that can inspire, that can challenge, that can tease what the solution will be? Bringing it back to something that is very personal, very relatable.
I’ve certainly seen, not so much in an investor pitch, but certainly in public pitches or public presentations. Even the ability to bring a consumer, bring a patient into the story physically, bring them into this presentation to have them tell their story. Have them talk about where they’ve come from, who their family is, where this disease, this condition, this situation came about, what was the discovery process, what was the diagnosis process? Then either they’re pushing for a cure, which is that big north star vision, a massive goal we can think, about or they’re sharing how this solution might have helped. I find that something that the public loves, investors love but it’s also something that I think really is the way to connect the scientist and physicians to this whole investor conversation and customer conversation.
I think there’s a lot of people who give scientists or physicians a bad rap because they’re not always business people and they don’t have that business mentality. That might be true in some ways but from my standpoint, when I work with scientist and physicians, I help guide them and help them realize that in many ways, the scientific method and scientific research are really a lot like entrepreneurship. You got to identify a problem, create a hypothesis, find the funding, pilot your solution in some way, you asses the results, you course correct and then you keep at it until you’re successful.
When I get in front of scientists and talk to them about this fundraising effort shouldn’t be scary, shouldn’t be foreign. It’s actually something you do all the time anyway. This whole idea of building a company is not that different from putting together a massive experiment and hopefully coming out with some great results. Once I make those connections for scientists and physicians, it clicks in a way where they become a really strong part of the process, which then makes them that much more sellable or approachable or understandable to not only investors but ultimately the customers or consumers who are buying this.
What you’ve done is you’ve given them a story, an analogy to follow to create a story. You say, think of it in terms of how you do scientific work and then just transfer that to the ability to run a business. You create story that they are familiar with and that’s the power of storytelling. When you can get people to put themselves in the story, then they come alive. I really like what you said, when you pitch, you want to provoke, inspire and tease the solution. We’re going to tweet that out from the episode, that’s a great line. Let’s switch gears really briefly here about what you did at the Chinese Casino Game Leasing venture. That sounds interesting.
There’s some good lessons and some cautionary tales in that one for sure. As I said, the intersection of technology and health and wellness, sometimes that is very much in the health and wellness space. Sometimes it’s a little bit more on the tech space. A few years ago, actually through a business school network connection, I got introduced to a Chinese, almost family office investment group, that was in the process of assembling an investment fund to acquire some casino game leasing operations in Taiwan and the Philippines. This is a few years ago. I’ve traveled a lot of places, but at the time I had never been to Asia.
First of all, I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about Asia and hopefully I get a chance to spend some time there, which I ultimately did. A whirlwind due diligence trip to the Philippines, to Taiwan and being up in Shanghai to meet with the family. We were building, very much building a story about what this business could look like and ultimately trying to pitch it to US investors. That was my connection, was building this bridge of a story between the Shanghai family, these businesses in the Philippines and Taiwan and then US investors. We went really far down this process. Again, there’s not going to be a happy ending here. We went really far down this process. Interestingly, I was actually thinking about this longer term because the family also had investments in the massively growing, if you could imagine, retirement community business within China. If you think that the US has a large aging population and a large retirement community population, just imagine what China has with many more people.
They were actually looking at leveraging some of these technologies into mind games and games and tools for maintaining mental acuity, mental sharpness in old age. I was thinking about this from a health care standpoint all along. As we pushed forward with this effort, sadly, unfortunately, this will be my second time mentioning death on this life sciences health care podcast, not by design. Anyway, the senior member of this family passed away from a kidney transplant that didn’t take. Obviously, their business was in turmoil from that. Literally, the entire business not only collapsed and unwound, as might happen with any family business anywhere. But it was sucked back essentially to the party, to the government financial entity.
Long story short is I’m still trying to collect on that project. I’ll call it a loss at this point. Very much lessons learned about doing international business. I did learn a lot. I’ve actually been back to China twice since that for other ventures. I think if anything, what’s my personal takeaway? It’s leverage opportunities even if they don’t turn out the way you’d like to, to be able to start to get comfortable with a new market or a new geography. Now, I feel very comfortable doing business in China. I’d have to find a different way to structure a deal. I guess, you really can’t plan for everything.
What a great thing to be able to say, “I feel comfortable doing business in China.” There’s not a lot of people today that can say that. That, in and of itself, makes you extremely marketable. Before I let you go, because the half hour is already up, it goes so fast with someone like you. What is a book you would like to recommend about business or personal that you think would be inspiring for entrepreneurs?
I’ve got two books, if I can do that.
Because they’re so different. One, it’s a business book that’s also a health care book called The Checklist Manifesto. This is about a six, seven year old book by Harvard physician, Atul Gawande. It’s got some amazing business lessons, life lessons. Simple but powerful. How you can use checklists to get business done, get health care done, improve results. Why I love it is, I actually first encountered it back when I was doing consulting to Boeing engineering teams. They were using this as part of a way to improve their engineering efforts. Interestingly, it comes full circle because the book is about health care, using checklist in health care to improve results.
Atul Gawande actually was inspired originally to write this book and develop this process based on checklists that Boeing, once upon a time, used, Boeing test pilots used back in the 1930s. It was this aerospace into health care back into aerospace where I first saw it. Things really come full circle. If you think about going after funding, launching a computer, whatever, making sure you’re following the basic checklist and not missing a step is critical. That’s the business side.
The other one which is, it’s a fiction book that everyone needs to read because it will help redefine what business looks like. It’s a five year old book called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Again, it’s a fiction book but if you work in technology you need to read this. It’s intersection of media and culture, virtual reality and social networking. A couple years ago when Facebook acquired Oculus Rift, there were a bunch of people who popped up on Twitter and said, “Look guys, Ready Player One is happening here.” This book is just an amazing fun read. If you’re an 80s pop culture buff, it’d fall in there. I think it really points to where the future of social media, virtual reality, augmented reality and to some extent, life, is going. If you look at the buzz of the Pokemon Go over the past week, you see how people can get so excited about some of these technologies. We’re going to see a lor more of that.
I love it. We’ll put both of those books in the show notes for people. Dave, how can people follow you on social media? What’s your Twitter, and if somebody wants you to hire you to help them in a wide variety of things from China to health care, what’s the best way to follow you on social media?
My website which has my bio and ways to connect to me is BespokeStrategy.com. I live on Twitter and I was an early person on Twitter @DJWhelan. I think I’m @DJWhelan on every social media tool out there except for Snapchat where I missed the boat. I’m @BespokeStrategy on Snapchat. You can find me there. @DJWhelan will get to me almost everywhere.
Sounds great. Thanks again Dave, for being such a great guest.
Really appreciate it. Thanks for the opportunity.
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