“How many of you are afraid of needles?” Alina Su asks her audience as she begins the pitch for her new company NovaXS Biotech. The audience shift in its seats. Most people raise their hands. “(Now) imagine you have to inject yourself with needles 1,000 times (over) three years.” Alina goes on to explain that she watched her sister endure this daily agony starting at the age of seven. Suddenly, the audience is in her shoes — imagining what it might be like if they, or a family member, had to struggle with such a painful regimen.
With this riveting opening to her story, Alina has entered five business competitions and become a finalist in all five. She has won three of the competitions outright. In the process, Alina raised her first one million dollars for the company so that her team may build a prototype of a new device to provide needle-free delivery of self-administered medicines.
Her opening grabs the audience’s attention and provides the “vertical take-off” recommended by storytellers. But Alina demonstrates another vitally important skill essential for a strong innovation narrative. She breaks the problem into its component parts in the beginning of the story and then pays them off by describing the features of her product that solve each one.
We are trained to expect this from the storyteller. In the Wizard of Oz, for example, we follow the journey of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Lion and Dorothy. We learn that the Scarecrow craves a brain, the Tin Woodsman yearns for a heart, the Lion desperately wishes for some courage and Dorothy wants to go back home. The audience follows their adventures and fully expects these story arcs to be resolved. In the end, the Scarecrow is given a diploma for his good sense, the Lion a medal for his bravery, the Tin Woodsman a testimonial to how much he is loved, and Dorothy eventually finds herself back in Kansas.
Even in a quick four-minute pitch, Alina is able to accomplish this parallel structure in her story. She begins by describing the three aspects of the problem she is tackling. The first is low patient tolerance. People either don’t appreciate being jammed with a needle every single day or simply choose not to get the necessary medication, because they are too afraid of needles in the first place. The second issue is low accessibility. The process of properly self-administering the medication by needle is so challenging that most patients have no choice but to go to the hospital to get their shots. Alina’s sister, for example, had to make the one-hour round-trip to a children’s hospital in Beijing every single day for three years. Hospitals also struggle, because they aren’t properly staffed to meet this need. The third problem is a lack of monitoring. Without proper monitoring, patients often don’t take the proper amount of medication at the right time and their doctors and insurance companies have no proof of whether the patient adhered to the prescribed treatment plan. The US healthcare system spends $39B every year on regulatory compliance.
Now it’s time for Alina to pay off each of these concerns. First off, the NovaXS patented solution is needle free. It is a device that generates a high-speed liquid stream the width of a hair that enters the body through the patient’s pores and instantly delivers the medication at the subcutaneous or intramuscular level. The medication diffuses evenly into the system without generating hard knots. This addresses the patient tolerance problem. Secondly, the device has LED safety lock sensors that light up green when the patient has found the proper placement and angle for entry. It only delivers the medication, when it can be done correctly. It provides over 3,000 treatments with the same device (only the cartridge changes). This means anyone can self-administer the medication without having to go to the hospital. Accessibility problem solved. Third, the device is connected to an app that has the necessary treatment schedule (including reminders, scheduling and side-effect tracking) for the patient to follow and documents each application, which is shared with the doctor and insurance company. This feature handles the monitoring bit.
Her pitch is so compelling that several prospective investors have asked for the solution for themselves. Investors who were undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments asked Alina to explore this solution for patients like them. IVF can require up to four medications on six different schedules that need to be applied on different parts of the body within four months. It’s a medication self-administration nightmare. Thanks in part to this customer feedback, Alina is targeting the IVF market as one of NovaXS’s early target markets in addition to pediatric IBD treatments, gene therapy with regenerative medicine and diabetes.
Alina who is a UC Berkeley graduate, is building this company, while pursuing a PhD in Regenerative and Clinical Medicine at Harvard Medical School. That’s a story in itself. Stand by for the next chapter as NovaXS pursues Master File Clearance with 510K and Institutional Review Boards clinical trials in 2022. It might be even more compelling than the first one.