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Marta Gaia

Director of Digital Health at Stanford Byers Center of Biodesign

Marta Gaia holds degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Electrical Engineering from Politecnico Di Milano, Italy (BS, MS) and Stanford University (PhD), and a certificate in Entrepreneurship from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 2016, the Silicon Valley Business Journal named her one of the 'Silicon Valley 40 Under 40'.

As an investor, entrepreneur, start-up coach and director of Digital Health at the Stanford Byers Center of BiodesignMarta Gaia Zanchi has a privileged view of the past decade of digital health in Silicon Valley. This May, she shared this view at a talk organized by Biocat, in collaboration with Barcelona Tech City. Luckily, we will see her again soon, since she is moving to Barcelona in 2019 for a new initiative, along with a growing team of seasoned digital health advisors, both investors and executives, from the United States and Europe: “If you are a digital health founder or investor, you should get in touch with me,” she said.


Silicon Valley is broadly considered the healthtech mecca, and some European entrepreneurs think they can only succeed if they settle there. Is it possible to succeed in the sector from Barcelona?

In Europe, I am blown away by the quantity and quality of the talent and ideas I have been exposed to in the past year. It may have lagged in the previous digital health generation, and perhaps because of this, Europe’s best technology hubs want to lead the way in the next one. And I believe they will. I am especially bullish on Barcelona’s health technology ecosystem. Here, European talent and ideas have an intrinsic value as high as Silicon Valley’s. And if you, too, know and believe in Buffet’s Equation, which observes that Opportunity = (Value – Perception), then you’ll agree that Barcelona is at an exceptionally exciting time in digital health while Silicon Valley suffers from extremely high cost of talent acquisition, difficulty retaining talent, and valuations that all too often outstrip promise.


In fact, you are planning to move to Barcelona. Could you explain some of your next goals?

Yes, I am moving to Barcelona in 2019, and will be visiting often from Silicon Valley for the rest of 2018. Today is not the time for formal announcements: let’s just say, I put my money where my mouth is, and I am working on my next initiative along with a growing team of seasoned digital health advisors, both investors and executives, from the United States and Europe. On the US side alone, these include Anil Sethi (founder, Glimpse and Ciitizen), Matthew Holt (Chairman, Health 2.0 and founder, Smack.Health), Nina Kjellson (General Partner, Canaan), serial entrepreneur Geoff Clapp, Scott Barclay (Partner, DCVC), serial C-suite executive Lisa Serwin, Manuel López-Figueroa (Venture Partner, Bay City Capital), and more. If you are a digital health founder or an investor interested in seizing the opportunity to find and seed high-value and young health technology businesses within a strong and growing ecosystem of global impact potential, you should get in touch with me.


What sets successful digital health companies apart from the rest?

Looking back at the past decade of digital health in the United States and specifically in Silicon Valley, I believe what sets companies that have been successful apart from the majority is their focused effort to create measurable value in healthcare. The best companies are very clear on the target, on the core problem and on the importance of the outcome. For years we have seen an explosion of digital health technology, but most were nice little tools that did not materially impact patients’ quality of health, access to care, or the cost of it. They did not solve actual problems that healthcare stakeholders have. The best digital health entrepreneurs understand that technology is only an enabling component of a solution.


What about failed companies: what are the most common mistakes? What could we learn from them?

Joseph Smith, CEO of Reflexion Health and my guest at Stanford University, said it most eloquently: “The next frontier of enabling technology in digital health is PROOF.” A surprisingly small percentage of companies in digital health have been able to demonstrate or even define clear target outcomes. Granted, it is extremely difficult to design healthtech interventions to arrive at measurable results: the current clinical trials framework is just not suited for their iterative development and deployment, complexity, smaller budgets and ‘soft’ or surrogate endpoints. This has been a common missed opportunity for digital health companies: for a while, many went after engagement outcomes, but we have learned that they do not necessarily translate into behavior outcomes, let alone clinical ones.


How has Silicon Valley changed in the last decade?

I would say in Silicon Valley we have reached a certain level of maturity, with more and more emphasis on companies generating evidence of near-enough-term return on investment and a strong clinical-evidence base. We have seen enough shiny new things come and go so quickly. In general, we tend to be more careful about companies being very clear about their value proposition, about their ability to make a major material difference in time and money, from day one.


What tips could you share for start-ups looking for venture capital investment?

The working relationship between a start-up and a venture capitalist can last from seven to ten years. Especially at the earliest stages of creating your company, my advice to you is to choose great investors who have depth of expertise in your domain, and the potential for a long-term relationship. The best venture capitalists serve as venture catalysts whose close engagement with companies helps them grow. They assist entrepreneurs with their operational skills, their strategic insight and their business contacts. This is not possible without profound domain expertise. Find it in your investors and you will have a unique and valuable advantage.

Second, find investors that have the courage of their convictions and demonstrate a consistency between their ideas and their actions. Those who have confidence in their strengths and abilities, awareness of their limitations, and authentic, engaging outward behavior, can often offer the most rewarding and productive long-term engagement with entrepreneurs, as their mentors and the company’s best allies.


In 2016, the Silicon Valley Business Journal named you one of the 'Silicon Valley 40 Under 40' (2016) and gave you the Silicon Valley Women of Influence Award. What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated sector?

During my graduate studies and at the start of my career, I was incredibly intimidated at first. But for the most part, as a woman in a male-dominated sector, I find myself in a fortunate position: that to be able to affect positive change. I realized that all I had to do was to be confident in my informed opinion, unafraid to voice it, give my best effort in the present day and stay focused on the long-term goals. I credit my mentors, both female and male, for helping advance my career. I encourage all women in a mostly male sector to actively seek similar figures (ask me how), and to remain optimistic. Find role models, and then become one for others. The tide has started to turn, and every one of you can help accelerate change.

 Read here the full original interview by Biocat with Marta Gaia 

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