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“Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech” With Douglas Brown & Sidney Collin

Building a company requires the right people from the beginning, you need to hire the person who is the best fit for each job you are fulfilling. It takes a specific type of person and team dynamic to succeed in an early-stage startup. Moreover, it is crucial to have mentors and advisors who can bring […]

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Building a company requires the right people from the beginning, you need to hire the person who is the best fit for each job you are fulfilling. It takes a specific type of person and team dynamic to succeed in an early-stage startup. Moreover, it is crucial to have mentors and advisors who can bring a diverse set of experiences and expertise to your company and help you navigate certain situations. Another important aspect of building a successful company is doing it for the right reasons. Your mission and values will trickle down to your people and can be an especially powerful motivation tool if your company provides fulfilling experiences. Spending time listening to the customer is necessary for developing a product or service that will be successful in the market. We worked closely with the Parkinson’s community in developing NexStride, and because of that, we were able to create a product that benefits the most amount of people. Finally, in building a successful company, you need to be extremely adaptable. Things change every day, especially in the startup world, and you must have the ability to be flexible to survive and ultimately be successful in your market. To be able to grow successfully, you need to be able to have direct communication with your customer and understand their needs better than anybody else.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sidney Collin. She is the inventor of the NexStride, and is the co-founder and CEO of De Oro Devices. De Oro Devices is a VC-backed biomedical device startup whose mission is to develop products to improve mobility, independence, and quality of life for those who suffer from mobility disorders and the aging population. NexStride is a small, portable device that uses research-backed sensory cues to help people with Parkinson’s overcome freezing of gait and be able to walk smoothly. Sidney started the company while studying Biomedical Engineering at Cal Poly. She has an academic research background in computational neuroscience, with a recent research paper published in the Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology. In addition, she has experience working in R&D at a past medical device startup during its product launch. Sidney was awarded Cal Poly’s 2019 Outstanding Woman in Engineering Award, Outstanding Student Award, and Lisa Hufford Scholarship Award. She was also recognized as one of the most influential women at Cal Poly by the Wire in their 30 under 30 list, and as an accomplished young business leader in the Pacific Coast Business Times 40 under 40 list.

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 tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Igot into the biomedical engineering field because I have always been fascinated with the way the interaction between humans and technology and the way we can use technology to change the way people live their lives. When I was studying biomedical engineering at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I met a local veteran named Jack who struggled with freezing of gait and was looking for a solution. I invented a device just for him that has now transformed into NexStride. He was so thrilled with the results that he took me along to a local Parkinson’s support group, where I met 10 to 15 other people who had the exact same problem. They asked me when they could get their own prototype, and that is when I realized the tremendous impact this device could have on people and their quality of life. I thought to myself that if I didn’t get this device out to the people who needed it, who will? So, we raised some money and launched NexStride.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The first time I ever pitched the company at our accelerator’s demo day presentation, we had a VC come up to me during intermission. He was so excited about that product that he offered to fill the whole seed round. That moment was incredibly humbling for me because it was the first time I realized that other people not only believed in what I was doing but believed that our team was the one to do it. I just needed that one person to show me that I could make this happen and actually bring this medical device to market. It energized me to work even harder for the people that were going to ultimately benefit from this product.

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?

The funniest mistake(s) I made when first starting was sending out investor updates with embarrassing grammar and spelling mistakes. I have now learned to always have somebody else review all emails going out to a large number of recipients. I am an engineer at heart, and the stereotype that engineers are notoriously bad spellers rings true in my case.

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?

When I was first starting De Oro Devices, I did not have a business background. I studied biomedical engineering because I am a very logical, numbers-driven person. It was extremely difficult to leave something I knew excelled in and was comfortable doing to go into something with which I had no experience or knowledge, and frankly not really the right personality type to pursue. I had to work incredibly hard on learning how to communicate like a business person, not an engineer. Learning how to leave out the research citations to get the main point across in an elevator pitch was difficult. I was a 21-year-old engineer trying to start a medical device company, and it was a tough process. However, what kept me going was seeing how much the device was improving people’s quality of life. This device, for many people, was what gave them the ability to walk independently. As hard as it was to keep going in the beginning, I knew this device needed to be available to people. Somewhere along the way I stopped worrying about doing everything wrong and just focused on getting things done the best way I knew how with the resources I had available to me.

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 am so grateful to all the mentors and advisors who have helped out our team along the way. I am particularly grateful to have Jan Haynes as a close advisor even before the company was incorporated. She gave so much of her time to help us figure out the medical device world. She has been a great role model, mentor, and friend to me along the way — supporting me and believing in me, even before I did. I think it is fair to say we would not be where we are without her patience, insight, and strong belief in what we were bringing to the world.

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

My favorite life lesson quote is: “If you don’t do it, no one else will.” This has been a relevant part of my journey in bringing NexStride to market and founding a business to improve quality of life. After I went to that support group with Jack, I realized that this simple, elegant technology I had created could be a really powerful part of people’s lives. Even though building a business was never what I saw for myself, I realized that if I didn’t do it, then no one else would, and this technology wouldn’t exist in the world today as a solution.

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?

At De Oro Devices, we build products that can be depended on to improve mobility, independence, and quality of life. Our first product, the NexStride, is a daily assistive device that helps people living with Parkinson’s overcome the debilitating symptom, freezing of gait. Freezing of gait occurs because of a disconnect between the brain and the body, and is commonly described as feeling though your feet are “glued to the floor” or “stuck in a box of cement.” NexStride combines research-backed sensory cueing into a portable, easy-to-use device that attaches to canes, walkers, and walking poles. The device features customizable, on-demand visual and auditory cues in the form of a green laser line and metronome, respectively. The NexStride gives people confidence, the ability to retain their independence, and the tool they need to get moving again!

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

I think how we got started really makes us stand out the most. I built the device just to help Jack, and then I realized how impactful it could be for assisting not just one person, but multiple people in moving around and walking. Exercise is the only thing that has been proven to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, so this is a very important thing for people to have access to at any stage. Moreover, we developed this product with the Parkinson’s community so that we could understand what it is people needed and how we could make that happen in our device. There is so much money going into research to cure Parkinson’s, which is an amazing task to take on, but I think it is important for us to be focusing on helping people live with Parkinson’s right now. We want to invest in technology that makes a difference.

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

We are working on partnering with international distributors to get NexStride to as many people as we can throughout the world. We want our device to be as accessible as possible so that it can help the most 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?

No, I am not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech. Over the years, we have worked to improve it, but the number of women thriving in the tech industry is not as large as it should be. To change this, the existing women need to mentor, empower, and lift up those that are rising through the ranks. Mentorship has been so important in my career and is a defining factor for many who are at the top of their industries. I would not be where I am without the mentors who have guided (and continue to guide) me along the way. We need to provide this guidance to as many women as we can so that the status quo changes and women are recognized for their talent and hard work.

Based on your experience, can you share a strategy to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

The customer strategy we live by here at De Oro Devices to give our customers the best possible experience is to show that we are here to help them and provide information/resources, not to sell them what we have to offer. I would recommend a competitor’s product if I thought it would help the customer. De Oro Devices’ mission is to improve the people’s quality of life in any way that we can; we just want to provide value to people.

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.

Building a company requires the right people from the beginning, you need to hire the person who is the best fit for each job you are fulfilling. It takes a specific type of person and team dynamic to succeed in an early-stage startup. Moreover, it is crucial to have mentors and advisors who can bring a diverse set of experiences and expertise to your company and help you navigate certain situations. Another important aspect of building a successful company is doing it for the right reasons. Your mission and values will trickle down to your people and can be an especially powerful motivation tool if your company provides fulfilling experiences. Spending time listening to the customer is necessary for developing a product or service that will be successful in the market. We worked closely with the Parkinson’s community in developing NexStride, and because of that, we were able to create a product that benefits the most amount of people. Finally, in building a successful company, you need to be extremely adaptable. Things change every day, especially in the startup world, and you must have the ability to be flexible to survive and ultimately be successful in your market. To be able to grow successfully, you need to be able to have direct communication with your customer and understand their needs better than anybody else.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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 would love to see more diversity at the executive levels of tech companies. Not only diversity in gender, or race, but also diversity of background, of culture, and of experience. I find it so incredibly valuable to have decision-makers coming together with different perspectives.

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

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