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“Be easy to contact”, With Douglas Brown and Dr. Crystal Icenhour of Aperiomics

We are using cutting edge techniques to identify microorganisms by their DNA. This means we can look for everything in any sample that either doesn’t belong or is in too high of an abundance, relative to the other microorganisms that should be there. This allows us to spot what other tests miss. A perfect example […]

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We are using cutting edge techniques to identify microorganisms by their DNA. This means we can look for everything in any sample that either doesn’t belong or is in too high of an abundance, relative to the other microorganisms that should be there. This allows us to spot what other tests miss. A perfect example was the story of Ariana, a toddler who was about to have her bladder removed, due to chronic urinary tract pain. This particular story was covered in an NBC Today Show segment and really highlights where we can make a difference in the lives of patients. Her mother found us and after having our test run, we identified the actual cause of the problem, which allowed her to be properly diagnosed and treated. As a result, she had a full recovery and avoided the unnecessary surgery.


As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Crystal Icenhour, Ph.D.

Dr. Crystal R. Icenhour is one of the rising stars of American biotechnology. As founding CEO of Aperiomics, she brings more than 25 years in medical research and leads the company’s mission to harness the power of next-generation DNA sequencing to identify every known pathogen — bacteria, virus, fungi or parasite — within a single test. Throughout Dr. Icenhour’s career, she has been a leader in both business and science, bridging the translational gap between these two worlds through technology.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Appearing on the NBC Today Show was one of our most interesting stories to date! We had been featured in the Washington Post and a producer at NBC read that article. She emailed us through our website and asked us to be on the show. It was exciting, yet scary and overwhelming. On the day our story about a 3-year-old suffering from an undiagnosable urinary tract infection ran, our website crashed twice. Such an amazing opportunity to tell our story to the nation.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I tend to be a perfectionist, so I don’t typically view mistakes as funny. One that did make me giggle happened at a cocktail party. I was in attendance with a potential investor. The setup was one where there was no seating, but there was food and drink, but no cocktail tables. While trying to balance food, drink, and engaging conversation with a potential investor, I managed to have a shrimp tail slip out of my hand and hit the investor in the chest! Needless to say, he did write a sizeable check despite my less than graceful attempt to eat while standing, talking, and holding way too many items. Biggest lesson: always be humble and own your mistakes. Even if they aren’t that big. The investor and I still joke about this.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

One of the biggest challenges I had when first moving into founding biotech companies was in gaining my confidence as a business leader. Having been formally trained as a medical research scientist, I had been ingrained with the notion of training to become an expert in those skills in which I had been formally trained. Transitioning from science to business was challenging with respect to owning and being confident in my business acumen and leadership, despite the fact that I had no formal business education. Because I had grown up in a family-run business and because I had strong mentors, I never considered giving up. I did engage an executive coach that helped me work through my confidence issues.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had so many fantastic advisors, mentors, and cheerleaders throughout my career. One person in particular who has supported my work has been Elizabeth Pyle. We met at a business plan writing course 15 years ago and I quickly realized that she held a wealth of knowledge in strategy and operations. She joined my first company a few years later to head operations. After that company, she went to the University of Virginia School of Engineering to lead a student entrepreneur program. Fast forward a few more years, and she joined my current company to head operations. A friend, mentor, therapist, and right-hand is never a bad person to have on your team!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Do the Right Thing, Even When it is the Hard Thing. I was raised with the principle that nothing worth doing is easy. Working in the healthcare industry, strict policies, ethics, and regulations are required. One of the most important aspects of my company is to instill and demand all staff follow this basic rule: Do the right thing, even when it is the hard thing!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

There is a major issue in the US with undiagnosed or misdiagnosed infections. This is particularly rampant with UTIs, which are only identified 36% of the time by culture. That method of testing by the way, was discovered in the late 1800s and is unfortunately still used today. This can lead to serious and even deadly consequences, as was the case recently with Tanya Roberts who due to an undiagnosed UTI, developed sepsis and died.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are using cutting edge techniques to identify microorganisms by their DNA. This means we can look for everything in any sample that either doesn’t belong or is in too high of an abundance, relative to the other microorganisms that should be there. This allows us to spot what other tests miss. A perfect example was the story of Ariana, a toddler who was about to have her bladder removed, due to chronic urinary tract pain. This particular story was covered in an NBC Today Show segment and really highlights where we can make a difference in the lives of patients. Her mother found us and after having our test run, we identified the actual cause of the problem, which allowed her to be properly diagnosed and treated. As a result, she had a full recovery and avoided the unnecessary surgery.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on several, in partnership with both pharmaceutical companies and government research facilities, that will lead to a deeper understanding of various infections, therapeutics and the creation of vaccines. We are in discussions with one country, on ensuring a safe blood supply via testing. The most exciting part of what we are doing is building the largest known data set of every microorganism in a given human specimen. This will permit a pharmaceutical company or researchers around the world to develop the next generation of therapies or vaccines. The joint research we are doing, and the data set we are building has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The numbers of women in technology is steadily increasing and has been doing so over the last two generations. Women need to take ownership of their role, status, and compensation within their respective fields. They need to be more accountable for charting their path and not allowing society to box them into any situation they don’t want. Each of us has a unique path and we are far more powerful than we sometimes realize.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest addressing this?

Women tend to take on more than any one person should take on. They tend to have difficulties saying ‘no’ to commitments both professionally and personally. And the men in their lives tend to not step up and proactively support the women in their lives, particularly with respect to domestic responsibilities. This can leave women burning on fumes and not as focused or productive as they could be. Women need to carefully evaluate what their priorities are and actively work to prioritize both professional and personal responsibilities to create a healthy work-life integration.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

The first question is whether the product or service is still relevant or does it need an overhaul. Tech moves at such an incredibly fast pace, it is easy to see your market share stop growing or diminish due to competition, stale marketing or changes in the environment. Make sure that you are staying hungry, setting stretch goals and not resting on your laurels.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

It’s a little different in our field, in the sense that we are support for physicians and we rely more on marketing to customers and educating the medical community about our cutting-edge technology. Therefore, our sales teams are built around being well informed and able to explain a very complex product in understandable terms. My advice would be to make sure your sales staff are evangelists for your product and experts in their field. Regardless of how good the product is, it does not generate sales. If the customer doesn’t understand how it works and why it is superior to your competition, they won’t buy.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

We have relied on guerrilla marketing, in the sense that we have sought out the end user (the patient) via social media, Facebook Ads, Google Ads, Reddit, etc., and educated them on the benefits of our testing. This in turn leads them to go to their doctor and request our test, particularly when all previous tests have failed to determine the cause of their illness. As we have grown, we have these same doctors using us for their other patients, which creates a repeatable busines model. By knowing the demographics of patients for each particular infection, we are able to customize our message and place ads in locations frequented by the desired patient group.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Be easy to contact. Whether for sales inquiries, customer support, etc., there is nothing better to a customer than being able to reach a human being who is there to help them when they need it.
  2. Make sure when you do get the call, your employee knows their business. Intelligent, professional people who have a knack for being able to adapt to the level of their audience is priceless.
  3. Deliver on promises and make sure orders and information arrive on time. In our world, where our customers are suffering, delays are far more than inconvenient. That is why we overnight all of our test collection kits out and again with the sample returning to our lab. That sense of urgency and commitment is appreciated and reflected in the great deal of word-of-mouth advertising we receive.
  4. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. We discuss with each patient or doctor whether the test requested is right for them. When it isn’t, we let them know so they don’t waste time and money. We can identify virtually any infection, whether bacterium, virus, parasite or fungus, but we can’t test for lung cancer. Always be honest about your capabilities.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We don’t have specific initiatives to reduce churn, because our testing is an event driven transaction. In essence, you only need the test if you are sick. Likewise, a doctor only wants to prescribe it, when it is applicable to the patient’s situation. Therefore, we work on the customer experience points noted above and find that is sufficient to get repeat business.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Technology — The technology needs to be something customers will ACTUALLY buy. When my cofounders first developed our core technology, they thought the agriculture market would be the perfect place to begin commercializing our technology. Turns out the cost was far too expensive, and the market could not bear the cost. We shifted to the healthcare market where pricing sensitivity is not as severe and the impact to public health was far greater.
  2. Team — Building strong teams is one of the hardest parts of creating any company. People are hard!! They disappoint and fail to deliver on promises. When you are building a company, you need people around you that believe to the depths of their soul in the company mission. And no one will ever believe in your vision as strongly as you do. We have had a great deal of team turnover…and that is not necessarily bad. Just the reality.
  3. Funding — It always takes more time and more money that you will ever imagine. It also takes longer that one would like to get investments in the bank. The best guidance I have gotten is to ALWAYS be fundraising!
  4. Operations — If efficient and effective operations are not in place, the technology can’t be effectively delivered. We ship all over the world. Unfortunately, a new staff member didn’t follow our SOP for international shipping and the collection kit got stuck in customs. It took weeks to resolve this, all the while the patient is suffering and in need of testing. Always follow the SOP!!
  5. Legal — Don’t EVER skimp on legal support, be it company formation or protection of intellectual property. Two of my companies were formed as LLCs by cofounders. This was done because it was less expensive, and an account advised it was a tax write off. Investors typically won’t invest in an LLC, so both companies had to convert to a C corporation. This was a timely and expensive process — it would have be far less costly to organize in the proper structure to begin with.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Patient empowerment! Patients tend to suffer in silence, relying on their doctor to have all of the answers to make them better. No doctor has all of the answers. And no patient is suffering from a truly unique condition. Patient advocacy and support groups are a start, but patients need to be inspired to take ownership of their health and work collaboratively with their entire healthcare team to find the best possible outcome. Creation of a complete healthcare team would help alleviate many of the inherent pressures in healthcare practices and give patients a better chance for a successful outcome.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love the opportunity to meet with Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Our technology has the power to solve medical mysteries, improve healthcare, guide drug development, as well as prevent the next pandemic. Had our testing been in use during the first cases of COVID-19, we would have identified SARS. It would have been slightly incorrect, but a HUGE red flag to stop, quarantine, and figure out what was going on before it spread and caused global devastation. Melinda would be a great resource for guidance and insight in ways to improve the human condition through use of the latest technologies such as ours.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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