How did she do it? A Q&A with Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica

By Kathryn Swintek, member, Oculogica board of directors

Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate women entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How did she do it?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.

Today, Kathryn Swintek, board member of Oculogica, interviews Uzma Samadani, left, founder of Oculogica. Below, they discuss how Samadani launched her company, which is transforming the way traumatic brain injury and concussion will be diagnosed and treated.

KS: Tell us about the origins of your company.

US: I have a day job as a neurosurgeon and researcher — I was not looking to start a company, but this was serendipity.

I was doing clinical trials to improve outcomes after brain injury. The FDA was giving us a hard time about the outcome measure we wanted to use, so we ended up having to invent our own, and that turned out to be eye-tracking. At first, the plan was to use it just as an outcome measure for brain injury, and then we realized it was a physiologic indicator of function — you can actually tell what’s wrong with the brain by looking at the eye tracking.

Eye tracking now is where electroencephalogram (EEG) was in the 1950s. It’s freshly discovered. EEG permanently changed the way we diagnose seizures, and eye tracking will permanently change the way we diagnose brain injury.

However, I realized after I made this discovery that the only way for people to benefit from it is to commercialize it. Unless someone has a financial interest in the propagation of the technology, nobody will use it. If you want to change the world, you almost have to start a company to do it.

Here’s what I mean. When we first discovered this, I was sure that other people would want to use this too, so I gave grand rounds on it at Children’s Hospital Philadelphia, where we set up an eye tracker. Afterward, we got about 18 phone calls from pediatric concussion specialists saying, “We want one, too.” The problem is, a single lab can’t do that at 18 different sites; we didn’t have the resources to scale like that. If we wanted to make this available to every neurologist, pediatrician and emergency room physician, how do you do that? The easiest way is to commercialize.

KS: How is this different from what doctors previously did to diagnose brain injury?

US: Even five years ago, most physicians thought if a patient had a negative head CT, they were going to be just fine, that whatever was wrong with them would resolve eventually. That realization has substantively changed primarily because of sports and the military. Because there is increased awareness that there is a problem, there is also increased focus on finding diagnostics that can identify radiographically silent brain injury finding physiologic measures, which is what we do.

When patients come in and we find something abnormal in the eye tracking, they’re often relieved to be validated, if all their previous tests were normal, but their symptoms were not. The first step in being able to treat something is being able to detect it.

KS: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?

US: Personally, I didn’t realize when I started the company what a different skillset it was from being a physician. It has been helpful to have my sister, who has a business background, take over that aspect as CEO.

As a company, our biggest challenge is it’s a competitive landscape with a lot of noise. There are eye-tracking technologies out there that don’t work, and people have known it for a long time. That’s a problem, because they continue to act as if they can do what we can do. Our challenge is to demonstrate that our algorithms are completely, dramatically different, and that’s why we get the results that we get.

KS: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?

US: Our next step is FDA clearance, which we are working toward, and commercialization. We have a device that is ready for commercialization, and later, we want to develop portable versions, for example something you could run on an iPhone, which would make it accessible to everyone all over the world. For me, that is the ultimate goal. It’s just a matter of getting the resolution of the camera on a portable device where we need it to be.

Ultimately, 10 years from now, all care will be algorithmic. From a patient perspective, you will have access to things at your home that you never had access to before. The role of the doctor is going to evolve, and there is going to be a huge role for algorithmic technologies in changing people’s lives.

Right now, though, we’re not a consumer device. We are a medical company first and foremost, and our initial FDA clearance will be for use under the supervision of a physician.

KS: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?

US: When a lot of people tell you that something is very difficult or disruptive or not going to happen because of dogma, that’s when you know that you’ve got something really good.

For example, optometrists have been very embracing of this technology, but there are sometimes others in the field who have a hard time with the idea that a computer could detect abnormal eye movements better than a human.

KS: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?

US: My first real exposure to Golden Seeds happened after my TEDMed talk in 2014. Joan Steinberg, a Golden Seeds managing director, came up to speak with me afterward. We had just closed a friends and family round, and soon after TEDMed, I got three different term sheets. I ran them by Joan. She gave us great advice, and we ended up turning down all three. It was the right decision — we would have basically been giving the company away, and I didn’t know that.

When we did our official first seed round in 2015, Golden Seeds was extremely helpful in making introductions and raising money with their network. They have really opened doors for us, and I’m grateful to them. They’re earnest about wanting to help Oculogica grow.

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