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David Happel of Cognoa: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes”

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of control. Pursuit of perfection is futile — keep learning and doing, with purpose. As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Happel. David Happel is the President and CEO […]

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Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of control. Pursuit of perfection is futile — keep learning and doing, with purpose.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Happel.

David Happel is the President and CEO of Cognoa, the leading digital diagnostics and therapeutics company developing FDA cleared pediatric behavioral health solutions. Prior to joining Cognoa, Happel served as President, CEO, and Director at Chrono Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company focused on the development of treatments for neurologically debilitating conditions. He also previously served in senior management roles at Horizon Therapeutics, Raptor Pharma, Allergen Research Corporation and others. With 30 years’ industry experience, Happel has an extensive track record of improving clinical and commercial outcomes for cutting-edge health-tech companies.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve spent over 30 years in the industry with the goal of helping individuals and families who are living with health conditions. It is my passion and I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the largest pharmaceutical companies that were dedicated to treating very large populations of patients, to working for smaller biotech companies that were committed to helping individuals and families living with rare diseases, some of which occur in only 2,000 individuals globally. While helping all individual families living with an array of health conditions has been extremely rewarding, it has been especially gratifying to work with patients and families living with rare diseases. This is why I am so enamored with Cognoa and what we are on the path to achieving. Although autism is not a rare disease in terms of sheer numbers of individuals living with the condition, it presents very similarly to a rare disease in that the first concerns about a child’s development are expressed between 14 and 18 months of age. Most families are not familiar with what is happening to their child and how to help them. Simply put, it is our goal to help these families find the right solution to improve the likelihood of a better outcome for the child.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

At Cognoa, we are pioneering a new approach to autism diagnosis, harnessing the latest AI technology to introduce a new paradigm of care and bring autism diagnosis into the digital age. The standard of care for autism has remained unchanged for decades. Pediatriciansrefer most children with suspected developmental delays to specialists to diagnose and prescribe treatment, rather than making such diagnoses themselves. This leads to long waiting times for children and families often waitingmonths and even years to see a specialist and/or to receive an initial autism diagnosis. In fact, on average, theoverall delay between first parental concern and a definitive autism diagnosis is approximately 3 years. These excessive wait times prevent children from receiving early intervention during a key window of neurodevelopment which occurs before age six. Early autism-specific intervention has shown to improve lifelong outcomes for children and their families with research demonstrating thatchildren can benefit from cognitive developmental gains, higher IQs, and up to25% of highly functioning autistic children can progress beyond their autism diagnosis altogether.

By empowering pediatricians to accurately diagnose autism, our Autism Diagnostic device will change the autism diagnostic journey. Our Autism Diagnostic device is positioned to be the first FDA cleared digital device designed specifically for pediatricians to aid them in diagnosing autism to accelerate the initiation of appropriate treatment. Cognoa’s AI has also been consciously built to embrace and account for gender, racial, ethnic, and socio-economic origins which enables us to tackle the longstanding issue ofdisparities and inherent biases in autism diagnosis.

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 made a million mistakes, don’t know if any of them were funny, per se. One of the greatest lessons I learned early on was: listen, be humble, know what you can control, and what you can’t. Realize that authority does not equate to “I make the decisions”, and “I am right”. And be flexible. Learn to be comfortable amidst uncertainty and change.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

The best mentors I have had have all inspired me to take calculated chances and to not look back. Mistakes and failure are sometimes (usually) painful and inevitable, but we learn from them. And I have always been encouraged to push myself to be better and to encourage others to follow the same path. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with great teams during my time in the industry. The journey has been a blast, and I would not trade one experience that I have experienced along the way.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption with a purpose is positive. In this way, disruption and innovation can be interchangeable — — both referring to a purpose of positive, helpful, improved change. In healthcare, innovations (disruptions) require that we — — those innovative, and those we are serving, including families (patients), and the community of doctors and providers — — believe in the positive outcomes (the “why”) we are striving to create. That purpose, that value, in my view, must be defined by value to the patient. For us at Cognoa, that is value to children and their families. The community we are serving — for us to make a positive impact on the quality of life of children and families — — must define value as, first and foremost as, the impact on families. The benefits to the system overall, whether measures of cost, efficiencies, etc., will fall from there.

Any innovation, progress, iteration from improvement means that we need to be able to be empathetic, to be able to observe the status quo and the comfortable ways we currently operate. We have to commit to a vision and a journey that requires collaboration, engagement, and decisive effort.

It’s a particularly exciting time for innovations in healthcare — — telehealth is experiencing an exponential growth during the coronavirus pandemic for clear reasons — and as a community, we are addressing longstanding barriers of adoption to accomplish the kind of impact on people’s lives and scale technology can bring. In many healthcare fields, providers are practicing medicine in the same ways as they were trained years and years ago. The wealth of digital tools that leverage ubiquitous devices and our ability to arm physicians with digital capabilities improves access to care and can help us to address longstanding disparities in care for more equitable access. Training, education, and a broad perspective of the patient’s care journey must accompany innovations. Otherwise, innovations will be purely “disruptive”, and not adopted, not effective, and potentially counterproductive.

While there is tremendous opportunity to improve healthcare systems for the value of improved outcomes, we cannot underestimate the complexities of the system. One can’t create something, throw it over the fence and expect immediate adoption and understanding of value. There is a tremendous learning curve and understanding of every stakeholder in the care journey that is involved — starting with the patients/people we are serving — to really impact how healthcare delivery works and consider all the support systems that can be leveraged to create better outcomes, and a better care journey for patients. Innovations in healthcare can improve the current disjointed system — it requires a perspective that takes into account the entire ecosystem of care and support systems surrounding the lives of people, of patients.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of control. Pursuit of perfection is futile — keep learning and doing, with purpose.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We aren’t done at Cognoa. We are just getting started, and we have — along with our partners in the healthcare community — a lot of work ahead in order to accomplish our shared mission to improve equitable access to care and the lives of children and families who are living with behavioral health conditions.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Read the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, and books like it. Understand history, the history of Homo Sapiens and how we have become the most dominant species on the planet Earth. It will build understanding, which builds compassion and empathy, for our societal weaknesses, so that we can improve. It also highlights a key life lesson: learn to live comfortably in ambiguity. We are not inherently designed to do so. We prefer black and white, yet more often, we are confronted much more often with varying shades of greys and colors.

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

Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

— Samuel Beckett

I honestly live my life with the understanding that the pursuit of perfection is futile; however, the journey is too much fun! The goal is to challenge ourselves to be better than we think we can be, not what others think we can achieve. We all make mistakes. We all fail. But we learn from these failures so that we can collectively improve. I learned long ago that single individuals have the capacity to do a lot of damage. I have also learned that cohesive teams with a purpose have the capacity to achieve incredible outcomes. And this is where I choose to devote my energy — to work with teams that are dedicated to achieving remarkable advancements for the betterment of our society, or in Cognoa’s case, to work with a great team to help families living with debilitating behavioral health conditions.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Before we tackle broad global healthcare issues, it is important that we begin with helping families living with autism. Families with concerns for their children — their health and development — — without support systems and access to care, are at a real breaking point. There is so much more we can do for families. We have the opportunity to improve a disjointed system and coordinate care in so many better ways, so that we truly create the opportunity for every child to thrive, the opportunity to better support and impact the lives and journey of parents and families — regardless of zip code, income, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/dave-happel-b7ba2825/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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