Gwen Edwards, managing director of Golden Seeds and lead investor for Golden Seeds’ investment in nVisionSeptember 6, 2018
Surbhi Sarna’s quest to detect ovarian cancer started with a health scare she had as a teenager. She founded nVision Medical after graduating from college, and the company has since developed the only device cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to collect fallopian tube cells. The fallopian tubes are now understood to be the primary site of origin for the most lethal types of ovarian cancer. Sarna’s work earned nVision investments from angel groups and venture capital firms, including Golden Seeds, followed by larger round of funding in which Golden Seeds also participated, and recently, a $275 million exit to Boston Scientific five years after the Series A investment.
Below, I talk with Sarna about how she grew nVision Medical and her advice for early-stage entrepreneurs.
SS: For as long as I can remember wanting to do something with my career, it’s always been about making an impact on women’s health. That began in my early high school years, when I had an ovarian cancer scare. Being that young and going to the hospital with some frequency and having that uncertainty about my health — it brought to the forefront the idea that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything else. It’s an interesting realization to have so young. The genesis for nVision and my motivation around the company’s mission came from that personal experience.
SS: The only time we have truly made an impact on a disease from a prevention standpoint is when we’ve been able to get to the source of the tissue or the source organ — for example, think about colon cancer and the colonoscopy, cervical cancer and the pap smear or breast cancer and the mammogram — these tests offer direct access. nVision uses a different approach to diagnosing ovarian cancer that follows in the footsteps of those other successful methods of catching cancer early. nVision allows the physician to access the full length of the fallopian tube, where the vast majority of lethal ovarian cancers begin, and take a sample during an office visit. Our device is now in clinical trials, and we’ll launch to the broader market in the next year or so.
SS: Before, in women’s health, there were not a lot of successful exits to point to, so that definitely made fundraising in this space a bit more difficult. However, I’m lucky to be able to say that I had buy-in from a diverse range of investors. By the time we got to Series A and Golden Seeds invested, we saw about half and half women and men investors. It’s fantastic that men were so supportive. Especially in the early days, though, when we just had the concept, we did see that men had some trouble relating to what we were doing.
SS: Being able to return more than 10x to investors on a pre-commercial women’s health product — folks are excited about that, and investors are energized by that. Recently, I’ve been hearing about more women’s health companies being funded. Entrepreneurs reach out to me and say, “Hey, we were able to cite your exit as a potential exit path for our company.” A couple of companies I know of that have been trying to fundraise for a year or two are now starting to get funded, so that feels really good. If I can do anything with my time on this planet and make this world a better place for women, that’s what I feel like I’ve been put here to do. If this exit means the next investor takes the next woman CEO or the next women’s health company — or preferably both — more seriously, what a wonderful feeling.
SS: Unfortunately, people tend to respond more positively right off the bat if you think like them, talk like them and look like them. Sometimes as a female founder, you’ll feel that and know that’s happening; people are more obvious in their body language than they think they are. Don’t let that distract you from making it really obvious that nobody knows your space better than you. I faced skepticism from women investors too, because I was younger. A young, brown woman, starting a company in a space that hadn’t had historical exits — that doubt was omnipresent as I went out. But people are willing to look past that when you start talking about numbers and clinical need, and you bring out the human aspect of what you’re trying to do. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an exhausting fight, but it’s possible.
SS: One question I get asked a lot is, “How do you find mentors?” I’ve always been really blessed in the caliber and type of people who were willing to let me stand on their shoulders and support me. For example, Andrew Cleeland was on my board. He’s one of the most successful medical device CEOs of our time, and he ended up sitting on little old nVision’s board, making people ask, “How did that happen?”
I basically advise them to not waste people’s time. If you’re asking to meet with people, you have to understand their backgrounds and the potential connections with what you’re trying to achieve. A bit of self-awareness and doing your homework goes a long way. And if questions come up during meetings with would-be advisors that you can’t answer, follow up in an email. The scarcest resource people have is time, so make that extra effort to be prepared.
SS: You, in particular, Gwen, have been extremely helpful, and Golden Seeds came on before we had any clinical data. It was great to have a group that believed in us before the product had been thoroughly vetted to do what it needed to do. I also really like that Golden Seeds is a bicoastal organization, so I had that benefit of folks in the Bay Area, as well as on the East Coast.
SS: I remember that day well! Thank you so much, and thank you for all your support. You know, this is one of the ways that Golden Seeds’ involvement really helped. The network is made up of women who have seen a lot of success in their own careers, and we all know there is a dearth of women role models. To be surrounded by women who have had illustrious careers and to be inspired by their achievements, that is a powerful benefit of Golden Seeds.
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