Clinical expertise is invaluable to companies at the intersection of healthcare and technology. We sat down with Dr. Stephanie Kuku of Conceivable Life Sciences to discuss her professional journey, women’s health, and the role of clinician-scientists in startups.
Tara Bishop: You have such an interesting career path. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the world of technology, digital healthcare, and women’s health?
Stephanie Kuku: I trained as an OBGYN, and women’s health was my first love and has continued to be my main passion over the years. As you know from being in the medical world, OBGYN surgeon training is a long process. I did research in gyn-oncology, and I spent 15 years in total in the clinical world at a time when all the cracks in our healthcare systems were starting to show. Working in women’s health, I saw there were a lot of gaps that needed to be filled to improve the way we worked and delivered care. At some point, I realized some of these gaps could be filled with technology. With that, I decided to pivot toward the future of health. I transitioned into health technology first by advising very large and small entities, from small women’s health startups to very large women’s health startups that had raised a lot of money. I also advised the digital health department of the World Health Organization, who are trying to decide which technologies are actually going to improve health outcomes. I would say I had a sort of MBA experience working with these health technology companies at this very crucial time in the past five to seven years.
Tara Bishop: What an amazing journey. You have been at the forefront of the changing world of women’s health. What trends are you seeing around women’s health, particularly in the startup world?
Stephanie Kuku: I think the first thing is that the funding has increased phenomenally for women’s health in the last five years. That is huge. Women’s health post-pandemic has become a trend in investing and is seen to be a growing field, but something that had previously largely been ignored. Most importantly, people are realizing, with more education and awareness, that women’s health affects everyone. The money is there - I always say that changes in healthcare are very much dependent on where the money goes.
Outside of that, the main trends we are seeing are like what we are seeing in other spaces in healthcare. It’s virtual care, diagnostics, population health, and digital health applications. People sometimes refer to these as “fem-tech”, which doesn’t do justice to the unmet needs and the addressable marketing within women’s health innovation. Of course, there are all the things happening to women in hospitals that require innovation in health technology like clinical decision support and for example, improving the diagnostic accuracy of breast cancer on mammograms. As well as general radiology companies who are looking at all sectors, we are now seeing companies that focus specifically on women’s radiology. As we track the funding, we see this trickling down into research in women’s health as well.
Tara Bishop: You mentioned “femtech”. I think you are right in the idea that the term “femtech” seems narrow when thinking about this diverse field. Technology obviously plays a huge role in building the future of women’s healthcare. What are the technologies that you see supporting these changes or that you see playing a big role in the future of women’s healthcare?
Stephanie Kuku: If you look at all the data in the last couple of years, we have recognized the biggest gaps in women’s health. It’s important to be very cognizant of the fact that fertility is not a women’s health problem, but it has traditionally been seen as such. I think the main areas that we are seeing and will continue to see benefits are when women can seek and obtain access to care with easier entry points. Companies like Maven, for example, are now bigger and provide more choices and options for access to women’s health.
Tara Bishop: You are now the VP of Scientific Affairs at Conceivable Life Sciences, a company looking to transform the world of IVF. Could you tell us a little about IVF? What is the status quo and how is Conceivable changing that model?
Stephanie Kuku: The latest statistic from WHO showed that one in six couples will suffer from infertility at some point. IVF since its inception and since the first IVF baby was born here in England has been revolutionary and truly transformative. Generally, IVF is quite an analog manual process and, of course, we’re moving into 21st-century medicine. While IVF is still considered a miracle, it is manual with success rates [of] 30-40% for every embryo that is implanted.
One of the most knowledgeable people about IVF is David Sable. I borrow some of his language, when he says IVF has quite a number of issues and one of them is that it’s been stuck on this travel agent model of patient care, where you go to the travel agent, book your flights, hotel, museums and then you are given one bill at the end. Now of course, with healthcare technology, we have the freedom to make our own choices, to look at prices, and to make decisions about what doctors we see. I think that is the shift we are going to see. There is fascinating deep technology that exists today, just look at Chat GPT 4. Why do we still have manual laboratories to do something so technical?
We are on the threshold of moving into a more engineered phase with IVF. I think we now should be aiming to improve outcomes of IVF, lower the number of dollars people spend leading to birth, and reduce the number of cycles you need to have a baby, which will ultimately reduce the price for the patients and the disruption to people’s lives. I have friends who have been through 9 cycles of IVF. You are not paying per outcome. Rather, you pay for the chance to have a baby. The process is manual, technology is slow to be adopted, and IVF is not as efficient and successful as it could be. Those are all the problems we are trying to tackle at Conceivable.
Tara Bishop: I’m sure your background as a clinician plays a big role in shaping your work with startups. How do you think your background as a practicing OBGYN has shaped the way you work in the startup world and Conceivable more specifically?
Stephanie Kuku: The best patient outcomes come from multidisciplinary teams. We have always had a multidisciplinary way of thinking and learning in medicine. As a clinician, I know women’s health is very intricate and different from other specialties in the sense that there are so many added nuances and complexities. I find it helpful to have different brains to tackle different problems – the science brain, the clinician brain, the surgeon brain – they are all useful working with healthcare startups. Startups are ultimately about product development and strategy. Understanding clinical research is helpful in building a deep-tech product in which you can validate that science.
Tara Bishop: You have described the IVF process and industry right now, but how do you envision the future of IVF in say 5-10 years and where is Conceivable positioned in that future?
Stephanie Kuku: In the future, IVF will be cheaper, more efficient, and democratized. Right now, only a certain percentage of people who need IVF can access it. These are people with high incomes in only certain countries. We will be looking at a world where there are more IV cycles because people will be able to afford IVF. In countries like Denmark and Belgium, where there is high utilization of IVF, you see the prices are lower compared to other countries. It comes down to the idea that utilization goes up when we lower costs and improve accessibility. One of the things with lowering the cost is ensuring we can improve outcomes, so people can have fewer cycles. We will do all this with technology; a combination of engineering, robotics, computer vision, and refining the laboratory workflow. Conceivable is at the forefront of ensuring these labs and clinics will not only be a better experience for patients, women, and couples but also improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Tara Bishop: I wanted to turn a bit to another topic to end our interview. You started out doing many years of training and then practicing as an OBGYN. What advice do you have for clinicians looking to build careers at the intersection of healthcare and technology?
Stephanie Kuku: One of the most important pieces of advice I was given was from my younger brother who was working in finance at the time. He said, as a clinician, you can bring a lot to these businesses, but it is important to make your individual contribution more meaningful. In technology, you must be more well-rounded, so there are likely gaps to fill in your own skillset. So, whilst you likely have a deep understanding of networks, workflows, research, and credibility from your clinical background, that is only one part of a triangle of understanding healthcare technology. For example, understanding hardware, software, product iteration, and go-to-market strategy are all important. With this triangle of clinical science, business, and technology, clinicians can be invaluable to companies at the intersection of healthcare and technology. It comes down to transferring your skills and building upon them to become truly multidisciplinary.