“It takes a lot of work to win, so it should not be all about the money.” I may just be a bad listener in this case, but this is my fifth start up and I always forget how much work it takes until I am in the middle of the process. It takes incredible commitment, so you better be doing something you are passionate about.
As part of my series about “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that seem copied from science fiction, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Hennessey. Rick has built several successful early stage companies and is now the CEO of SOLIUS, a futuristic bio-tech firm. His energy is contagious which makes you believe he would be innovating even if he did not get paid for it. His firms were some of the earliest to break ground in the green revolution and with mobile data. Now he plans to displace or improve pharmaceutical drugs with advanced light science… yes, like in sci-fi movies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The idea of using nano-spectrums of light as a way to activate specific human gene expression was fascinating to me. A better way to treat and fight disease with light seemed like something out of a Star Trek episode, so of course, I had to be involved. It’s simple — humans need clean air, fresh water, good food and sunlight to survive and thrive. I was already aware of the profound physiological impact sunlight has on the of health plants, animals and humans, so it was not a big leap for me. We’re simply looking at how to trigger or expedite the specific benefits the sun provides to humans, but without the harmful rays.
I was motivated to become CEO because over the years I’ve watched vitamin D deficiency impact my family members, and supplements and drugs were not solving those problems. Cancer, diabetes, MS, and Alzheimer’s have claimed the lives of family and friends. Immediate family members have lived with thyroid disorders, arthritis, bone disease, and depression. These diseases have direct and scientifically validated correlations with insufficient vitamin D. We believe that some of the drugs that treat these diseases can be improved or replaced by our light science. After diligence, I invested and joined the board. After seeing the results from early tests, I became convinced that our science can improve the quality of life for millions of people and that SOLIUS will play an important role in the future of medicine. I was psyched to become the CEO and we plan to change the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It was during a time when my first company was experiencing incredible growth. We had a new office building with a warehouse, we were hiring new employees, and our sales were going through the roof. Cashflow became an issue due to large orders and slow receivables. At the end of one of those months, after the lease, paychecks, and inventory were paid, there was $60.00 left in my business bank account and less than that in my personal. I called my landlord and let him know the rent on my apartment would be delayed a few days as I was awaiting several payments. When I arrived home, he had boarded up my door and had a note that said to pay rent. Being naively proud of the success the business was having, I did not go to friends or family for help. Because we had projects working around the clock, the office had people working there in the evenings. So, for two nights I would say goodbye to people in the evening and then drive to a small industrial park in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle to sleep in the back of my car. I had targeted that area because in the past, while riding my bike, I had noticed several other in-city car campers on the street. On the first night I pulled behind a car to find a woman and two kids peering out the back window into my headlights. I turned the lights off and waved at the woman. She climbed out of her car and gave me the brief explanation of how she was running from an abusive relationship. I noticed that she had ingeniously adjusted all of her belongings and her kids in her 1980’s white station wagon, making the back off that car seem like a little living room. She cautiously said hello and politely said good bye as we both crawled back into our cars.
The next morning it was cold and rainy. I went into the office early, made coffee, grabbed some doughnuts and then waded through the rain to share a warm snack with the woman and her kids before getting to my day. That evening the woman invited me over to her station wagon to play cards because I genuinely believe they felt sorry for me being alone. Lounging in the back of their station wagon on a combination of clothes and a blanket, the rain pounded down as we played cards. I truly enjoyed visiting with the family and they made me feel welcome. They seemed so incredibly normal and were simply a family beginning to find their way. They believed I had nothing to offer, yet still welcomed me into their protective sanctuary. That evening I crawled back into my car and tried to sleep. I did not sleep but began the morning with an enormous amount of energy. I had experienced a rebirth and emerged with a motivation that was more authentic, more grateful and more loving.
While the family left our parking spot after that second day, periodically on a rainy Seattle day, I would stop back to the same spot to deliver coffee and selfishly remind myself of what matters most.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
We are working on several ways to use light science as a better way than drugs to treat and prevent disease. The three “Bleeding edge” areas we are beginning are: 1. Using light to speed the movement of T-cells to help reduce cancer and other diseases, and aid in current treatments. 2. We are working with researchers who believe our light science may have a role in treating or preventing skin cancer. 3. Triggering the production of vitamin D naturally with light may seem innocuous, but optimized levels in pregnant women have the potential to completely eradicate disease states before babies are even born. All of these are in very early stage for us but would be incredibly exciting for humanity if they are successful.
How do you think this might change the world?
We have invested heavily in not only the science, but the experience. We have developed SOLIUS to be a self-service treatment and the best experience of any medical device ever made. This approach allows SOLIUS to provide our advanced phototherapy at a low cost, in a location that is easy to access, with an enjoyable experience that makes people feel good, instead of leaving them with awful side effects. It is projected that we could save billions of dollars in healthcare.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
So much of our lives are already spent indoors, perhaps one day people simply won’t feel the need to go outside at all as they embrace a more virtual reality. All humans need safe sun and SOLIUS, and unless you are a submarine or in a spaceship, I would encourage people to continue to embrace the outdoors for the many benefits offered.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
We are piggybacking off of the incredible advancements in science, including medical diagnostics like DNA sequencing, to help us better understand how the body works. These tools help us better understand how our light science impacts human gene expression as a way to prevent and fight disease. The tipping point was when we discovered how to isolate, filter, bend, spread and control the energy of specific wavelengths of light so that it can be used to safely and effectively treat humans. Targeting a narrow spectrum of light can be done easily with lasers but applying it to humans is a far more difficult task and this technological breakthrough is a major foundation of our science.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Education about the importance of sunlight and Vitamin D is critical for us. Vitamin D is in fact not a vitamin, but a critical hormone produced from the body’s exposure to the right spectrum of sunlight. Your body was not intended to get its vitamin D orally and because of that, does not process or utilize it the same way as when it is naturally made from sunlight or SOLIUS. Without this important hormone, science shows us that humans have far more sickness, disease, and they die earlier.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We have developed a software platform that enables users to interact with the SOLIUS self-care machine and allows practitioners to advocate, providing discounts, specials, etc. If you are a medical or wellness expert in BC Canada, you can now take a digital class to become an SOLIUS ambassador. SOLIUS ambassadors get to use our digital platform, training, custom support and compensation from us. We believe our digital platform enhances the patient experience and is a first-of-its-kind way to connect key contributors in the wellness ecosystem to a self-service therapeutic.
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 been influenced by almost everyone I meet and so many have helped me along the way. In particular, I have been fortunate to work with some long-time friends. Those relationships open up the ability to not only have more fun at work but also allow for critical eye from someone you know cares about the right things. I have had amazing support along my journey, but some of the most important lessons for me come from the culmination of many moments. As an example, one day I was walking and deep in thought over a business challenge. I went into Salumi Restaurant, in Pioneer Square, for a sandwich (before there were lines). I was walking out the front door with my sandwich and still in deep thought. I noticed a kind older woman making gnocchi by the front door was gesturing me to lean over to her direction. Dipping a little flour onto her finger, rubbed a small circle onto my cheek, kissed it and smiled. Her kind gesture was all about sharing love with another human being. It allowed me to loosen up and have a better mindset to solve my challenge. Plus, I smiled for a week while thinking about it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe that SOLIUS is the most important endeavor I have ever been part of building. Without my past success, I could never have been part of investing in SOLIUS, learning about our science, or had the chance at helping millions of people live longer and happier lives.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
1. “It takes a lot of work to win, so it should not be all about the money.” I may just be a bad listener in this case, but this is my fifth start up and I always forget how much work it takes until I am in the middle of the process. It takes incredible commitment, so you better be doing something you are passionate about.
2. “You are capable of achieving more than you think.” Love your employees, build a great culture but challenge them to achieve goals faster. No employee wants to be told to move faster or pushed harder (they are already moving fast and working hard). Employees will have plenty of time to forgive you, so it is ok that they may not like your aggressive timelines… you get to be their BFF when the company wins.
3. “Hire great people… wait, no I mean really, you have to hire great people.” It is hard but find a way to make it happen. Like a sports team, great players give you the best chance to win games.
4. “No product is perfect. Launch ASAP, learn and iterate quickly.” I have never had a launch that was a blockbuster success. Every product, every time, took an incredible amount of work to refine, adjust marketing and improve use to understand the best way to grow revenues.
5. “If you are the entrepreneur try not to stay too long after you sell the company.”I think helping through the first year of transition may be enough for an entrepreneur that has taken an early stage technology and sold it into company with a more mature pipeline. It is just a different beast and unless you are totally ok with the new owner’s vision and not running the show, it’s best to move on. Support the new firm taking your baby and growing it where they want while politely exiting stage left.
I had sold a firm to a large public company that was then purchased by a private equity firm. We tried to innovate within those parameters, but it did not work out. Good people were on both sides, but different mindsets made both groups’ jobs harder and created distance in relationships instead of it being something great for both parties.
6. Bonus round: “It’s ok to talk about loving each other and working hard for each other.” We are in this together, so we win and sometimes lose together. We should make it a priority to have respectful compassion for our team members.
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. 🙂
I plan to show that using love as a driver for culture and business works. I challenge employees to do great things, but also help them understand that it has to come from a culture of love and respect. Love each other, love our partners and love our customers. Using love in an authentic way provides a path to a movement for a better work environment and better products. An example is that we don’t offer fancy pricing… it is simply $50.00 per month and don’t lock people into complicated pricing schemes. SOLIUS is low cost and easy to use. We treat our customers with love and in an authentic way that is respectful. My hope is that our approach will inspire other firms to, you know, share the love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Make no small plans, for they have not the power to stir your blood.” Not sure who said it, but I love the quote and it is a good reminder to do something that matters, and that the process and journey should be as important as the goal.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
SOLIUS is a freestanding booth that uses advanced light science to strengthen the body’s systems by stimulating the production of critical hormones and peptides, including vitamin D.
SOLIUS’ revolutionary light science will be safer, more efficacious, and sold at a dramatically lower cost to replace many forms of pharmaceutical drugs. SOLIUS will enter the market as a solution to the epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. In the longer term, with scientific validation, we plan to disrupt five key markets that present opportunities of over $100BN: psoriasis, sports (performance/ recovery), thyroid disorders, depression, and gastrointestinal disorders.
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Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.