Lucinda Scharff is a Clinical Specialist at Google, working in the health product area. Her role is to work alongside product and engineering teams to build safe, first-class medical products, using her clinical background. Formerly, Lucinda was involved in the start-up Forward Health, now Pando, a messaging app for doctors and medical staff to communicate and help one another.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
At medical school, I wasn’t exposed to the world of health tech – it wasn’t that I didn’t find it interesting, as we used some really fascinating devices in neurosurgery, but I didn’t feel connected to the industry. However, in my second foundation year, I spoke to fellow medics about building an app for doctor communication. It soon went from having a meeting once a week to being a fully-funded start-up in nine months. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened – sometimes your career blindsides you! The start-up was an excellent learning curve for me, and I learnt to do many things myself: I learnt how to use Facebook for social media marketing, manage the clinical safety of the whole process by taking on the role of clinical safety officer, and then presiding over the governance and GDPR side of things. When the company reached a more advanced stage, I felt that the time was right to either go back into medicine or learn something else with other people. I joined DeepMind, which in time became part of Google Health.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I think entrepreneurship is not just about having the guts to go with any idea – you need to really believe in it. Clever and successful entrepreneurs may have crazy ideas, but they are firmly rooted in problems that exist in reality. The act of entrepreneurship, to me, means not taking ‘no’ for an answer when you know that the answer could be ‘yes’. You have to do what it takes to find the people to accept your solution. I’ve sat in uncomfortable meetings where people were telling me that putting health data on the cloud – a controversial topic – was illegal, even when I knew it wasn’t! I knew I had done my due diligence and had to have the self-confidence to find my people, the ones who understood me and my ideas. It’s all about persistence and being willing to go the extra mile. I also think it’s about being able to teach yourself anything from YouTube…
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The idea for the app wasn’t my own, but I knew right from the moment I heard about it and joined the group that it was a good one, and I immediately had belief in it. I believed in the product, but I also knew and had experienced the ‘why’ behind it. Communication on the wards is tricky – you could be trying to put a canula in when your pager is bleeping constantly, and you don’t know why you’re being bleeped, or how urgent the call is. It’s very unidirectional. I also knew what it was like to not have the information you needed in a crisis situation, and so falling back on WhatsApp group chats was the only option. The development of the app was happening around the same time as the London Bridge attacks, where it was reported in the news that the only think that kept the operation together that day was the exchanges of WhatsApp messages from those on the ground. I had no doubt that we were solving a problem that a lot of people felt was an issue.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, I think you need a willingness to accept that things are good enough, and I think this is particularly hard for a lot of people in Oxford! Everyone wants a first class degree, but a 2:2 is good enough in the start-up world, and you have to realise that spending too much time trying to make one thing perfect means you forget everything else that needs to be done. Persistence is also crucial, especially in the face of people who say no and tell you it won’t work. Your self-belief needs to be stronger than what other people tell you – we had 46,000 users on the app at one point, which was amazing considering some of the negative feedback we had. Finally, flexibility is key. Being able to turn your hand to any problem is important, but also being flexible and open to change with your idea is needed so you can grow with the company. My role went from drumming up support for the app on the wards, to managing social media and looking after information governance. Also, it isn’t really a skill, but a degree of naivety is great. We had no idea how hard it was to build a messaging app, but because we didn’t know this, it was easier to think ‘why not?’
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
There’s so much you can do in a small start-up in comparison to the big companies – we had so much fun! We used several techniques to trial our app on users, setting up beer and sushi nights and transforming our co-working place into a hospital was one of my favourites. I also used to stand by the coffee shops in hospitals and would buy people their coffee if they downloaded the app. That’s another great thing about a start-up, you can pivot: if it doesn’t work, you just don’t do it again. The only limit is your imagination. Another favourite part for me was how close we all became as we developed the app. There was a real bond there as we grew something from nothing.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many, and I meet so many impressive people which means I am constantly humbled. I’m particularly inspired by the NHS, which in many ways operates like a start-up – it is able to pivot and change direction when needed and knows how to use its resources in creative ways. Of course, everything is also done there with such compassion. I’m also inspired by my parents who ran their own businesses – I saw the successes and failures close up, and how it really isn’t a 9 to 5, instead being such a whole family effort.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
When we were developing the app, I spent some time with hospitals in Leeds where we were trying to understand how our app could work for referrals when patients came in from different hospitals, and a group of opinions was needed. I met an elbow surgeon called Sam, who I interviewed to learn more about this process. I then went back to London and communicated with our engineering team in Poland to develop this software, and I sent Sam a prototype version of the app to play around with. When I picked up the phone to get Sam’s feedback, and he said that it was exactly what he needed, that was incredibly satisfying. Developing software for healthcare is hard – it can often come down to the basics such as WiFi connectivity and login privacy. But the moment he said that it was exactly what was required was great.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think it’s really important to not let self-confidence become arrogance, you need to watch the line between the two. There were a few moments where we were so confident that we pushed too hard on people we wanted to do deals with, which then backfired. Reputation really matters – when you’re tiny, you don’t have a reputation to damage, but as soon as you build one it can be ruined quickly. Knowing that you’re not the biggest shark in the sea is important.
How have you funded your ideas?
We had quite a classic start-up funding route; there was an angel fund at the beginning, and also a couple of venture capital companies. One of our co-founders, Philip, had done this before, and so we were fortunate that he had quite a few contacts, with the creativity to get them on board. We also had some paying customers from the NHS, although this only made up a small amount.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Occasionally there were grants or procurement frameworks around the NHS; we also used the G-Cloud framework. We participated in quite a few ‘Pitch to Present’ competitions – although some did come with prize money attached, it was more about building experience for talking about our ideas.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
We were on two specific health and public sector accelerators in London, Digital Health London and Public IO. Google for Startups is good too. In Oxford specifically, we used The Hill, and this was a great place to perfect our early pitches and bounce around ideas specifically relating to healthcare. I’d also say don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have done it before on things like LinkedIn. Start-ups are like your baby, and so everyone is desperate to talk about them!
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I feel like I haven’t, but maybe that’s because it’s so implicit rather than explicit that I haven’t noticed. I’ve never perceived that I have been looked upon badly because I am a woman. I’m seeing lots of opportunities currently for women founders only, so I guess that’s positive discrimination. In my role at the moment, I’m doing some hiring, and so when people reach out I’m really mindful of my own biases. Although I’m working in a predominantly male industry, I’m still white, English is my first language, and have many more advantages than disadvantages compared to others. I’m really keen to lift up others who perhaps don’t have the same education or background that I do.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I follow a group called ‘Advancing Women in Product’, an organisation which runs a wide variety of events. The FT also runs an event for women in tech which I have attended a couple of times. In Google, we have our own women in tech community, where there are lots of great opportunities.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think public speaking is a big thing – it’s something I did a lot of in school, but at university I hardly did any. When I suddenly had to do it again in my 4th year I had lost all of my confidence. Pitching is the worst kind of public speaking, as there will be people in front of you who hate your idea. You need to have the confidence to talk to an all-male audience, those who are older than you and have power over your idea – the most important skill is to articulate your idea clearly and defend it well. I think this often holds women back, and this is the main way you get money for your idea. Also, lots of legal companies and banks came in to give talks to students, but I don’t recall seeing many from tech companies or VCs. I know that there is the Oxford Foundry now which I hope provides the opportunities to meet with these people and hear what they’re looking for.
Any last words of advice?
You are more capable and valuable than you think. Apply for things even if you don’t think you’re going to get them. I hate the kinds of statistics that say that women won’t apply for something if they don’t meet 100% of the criteria – I wouldn’t have got my job at Google if I applied that mentality. Even if you don’t get the job, the application process allows you to meet lots of people and it is a valuable experience whatever happens.