“People will want to help you.” We were so hesitant to ask for help early on, and that made things so much harder. Had we asked for help from those who we assumed would be too busy or important to share their time, and had we asked them early and often, we would have avoided mistakes and moved much faster. Looking back, so many incredible people were happy to share their time and knowledge, and I wish we had dared to ask more for the same.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan Ehrenberg.
Evan Ehrenberg is the CEO and Co-founder of Clara Health, the company helping individuals with any condition access clinical trials more easily and quickly than ever before. Alongside Sol Chen of Clara Health, Raj Kapoor of Lyft and Vijay Chattha of VSC, Evan recently co-founded World Without COVID with the goal of speeding up clinical trials for the development of COVID-19 vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics.
After graduating from UC Berkeley at 16, Evan became the youngest ever neuroscience Ph.D. student at MIT. Before Clara, he managed AI research for over a decade at MIT, Cal, and Palantir. Evan is a USERN ambassador and recipient of the Forbes 30 Under 30 award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I’m fortunate to have had a lot of opportunities growing up. When I was 11, I started taking some part-time courses at a community college in Southern California, and I then enrolled as a full-time student when I was 12, later transferring to UC Berkeley to get my bachelor’s degree by the time I was 16. I then went to MIT to pursue a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience. I was a Star Wars nerd, liked to compose for piano, and enjoyed organizing group projects with friends.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Clinical trials have historically had high barriers that make it difficult for people who want to participate to access the potential treatments being tested. If you want to be part of a clinical trial, you face challenges like complex government websites where information is hard to find, scientific medical jargon to wade through, and unanswered phone calls or outdated contact information. This friction has created an imbalanced access to the cutting edge of medical research that is not equitable to those who don’t have the time, persistence, and extremely high health literacy to get into a clinical trial.
Further, 86% of clinical trials fall behind schedule because too few people are enrolling in the study, and these delays directly lead to 50% of clinical trials being cancelled. Potentially breakthrough medical advancements are being halted simply because of the friction to access these studies. During this pandemic these challenges become even more relevant to the general public, as we are now all affected by slowed medical research for a condition that threatens all of us.
Sol Chen and I co-founded Clara Health to provide free, easy access to clinical trials for every medical condition. By creating a consumer-friendly experience and doing the heavy lifting for our users, we are simultaneously democratizing access to clinical trials and accelerating the pace of medical advancement. Near the start of this global pandemic we partnered with Raj Kapoor, Lyft’s chief strategy officer, and Vijay Chattha, founder of Silicon Valley PR firm VSC, to launch World Without COVID, a nonprofit initiative focused on connecting the public with critical research in the fight against COVID-19, using the Clara Health platform to automatically match anyone with the research they can get involved in to put a faster end to the pandemic.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As a researcher running brain imaging studies at MIT, I was personally faced with the challenges of recruiting participants to help my research. When my co-founder, Sol, came across a flyer recruiting for breast cancer clinical trials and saw just how difficult this process was for patients, it became clear that these inefficiencies were causing real harm in the world. Patients in need and suffering from mild, serious, or terminal medical conditions were barred access to the latest research because of the difficulties to find and enroll in clinical trials, and the entire world is left waiting for research that may never be completed due to these recruitment delays.
As Sol and I spoke more about the problem and potential solutions, it became clear that there was a path forward, but we didn’t see any organizations implementing it. We decided that if no one else was going to make the changes to fix this problem, that we had a responsibility to do it ourselves, so we started Clara Health.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Sol and I started what would eventually become Clara Health as a project, trying to make a better solution to help both patients and researchers. It was hard but rewarding work, and we gradually found ourselves with more and more of it as we continued to find success. At a certain point the company was far more than a side project, and we both had to decide if we would continue to balance the company with school, or if we would go all in and drop out. We took a step back, and seeing that we had been helping people access care they otherwise couldn’t, that we were helping terminal patients and their families find hope in a research trial, and accelerating research that could impact millions, the decision became obvious.
Sol dropped out of Brown University after her junior year, one year from graduating, and I left MIT after working on my Ph.D. for 7 years, just months from defending.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Everything starts with market research. You can’t organize resources to tackle a problem that you don’t fully understand. The first thing we did was speak to hundreds of patients, doctors, hospital executives, pharmaceutical executives, consumer research firms, clinical research firms, and other startup founders.
We used this information to design an initial solution, reached out to leaders in the space to advise us, and through them were connected to venture capital firms and angel investors who provided us with capital and mentorship as we built the company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Since the early days of starting the company (when we were only a few people working in an apartment), we sought to gather as much feedback from patients as possible to inform our work. As part of this, we were introduced to a patient advocate who could serve as an advisor to the company. The second time we met with her was over lunch a few months after our first coffee meeting, and she broke the news that she had just left her current place of work and would begin looking for a new job.
We hadn’t been planning for a full-time patient advocacy role at that time, but given how we wanted to focus on integrating the patient voice in our work, the fit seemed natural. She got up to get her pizza, and by the time she sat down at the table we offered her a position. She joined as our Head of Patient Advocacy and one of our earliest employees, and has shaped the company in the most important ways.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Our patient ambassadors, advisors, and investors have been our greatest cheerleaders. They remind us constantly about the impact that our work is making, and speak honestly about the challenges we face. Early in the company’s history there were multiple times when Sol and I debated if the problem we were working on was even solvable, and we had the great fortune to have investors and advisors who we could turn to and speak frankly with. Our supporters always told us to keep working on it, that they believed we could figure it out even if our current data was suggesting otherwise.
When the world appears to be telling you “no,” it really helps to have a few people tell you “yes.” In each case we kept our nose to the grindstone against all odds, and sure enough often just weeks later we would find a breakthrough that enabled us to move forward. There are so many people who have helped us to where we are today, and I couldn’t fit them all in this article even if this was your only question.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Working in clinical trials we sometimes assist very ill patients, and when we first started Clara we were very afraid of the day that someone’s condition worsened during a trial, or worse if they died. The very first patient we ever enrolled into a clinical trial ended up dying, and our team was devastated. We had helped her and her husband navigate through hundreds of clinical trials for her late stage lung cancer before they joined the one they chose, and we felt like we were on the journey right beside them. A few days later we received a handwritten letter from her husband thanking us, because now as he grieved he did not also have to wonder if there was more that he could have done, since he knew we helped them evaluate every possible option. There were no more stones to turn over that he would cause him to wonder “what if”.
We still have that note hanging in our office, next to prestigious awards and plaques, and of all the recognition we’ve received his letter is the one that matters most to all of us. We’re proud to have been able to play a role in such an important time in this family’s life, in the lives of so many families, and it’s sometimes incomprehensible to imagine just how long-lasting the impact is.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Anyone can go to worldwithoutcovid.org to join the registry and immediately be matched to research that they can personally contribute to so we can put an end to this pandemic. There are studies you can do from home on a smartphone, to tests for new diagnostics and vaccines, and much more.
Patients, caregivers, advocates, and health professionals are all welcome to apply to join the Breakthrough Crew, our ambassador program of friendly and passionate individuals advocating for research participation and patient-centric design across the industry.
Anyone can use Clara Health to become more informed about research they can take part in and help advance. From potential breakthrough treatments, to easy observational studies, there’s a wide range of research that our team would be happy to help you explore. If you find something that piques your interest, our support team will help you every step of the way to join the study. We’re here 24/7 to help you.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- “People will want to help you.” We were so hesitant to ask for help early on, and that made things so much harder. Had we asked for help from those who we assumed would be too busy or important to share their time, and had we asked them early and often, we would have avoided mistakes and moved much faster. Looking back, so many incredible people were happy to share their time and knowledge, and I wish we had dared to ask more for the same.
- “Follow your full hiring process for every new team member and make no exceptions.” We actually were told this advice by an early advisor, but nonetheless we skipped some steps of the hiring process for certain candidates that we were excited about early on. We later learned that they weren’t a fit for the company, but a lot of damage had already been done, and reference calls appeared likely to have raised red flags had we actually done them. Now we treat every step like a pre-flight checklist, and offers can’t be made until everything is checked of
- “THIS is what success looks like.” In the early days we were constantly struggling to find the right solution and business model that would just take off, but we know that building new things is hard, especially in healthcare. We kept wondering if we had found the right solution, if this was what “right” looked like. When we finally did hit the nail on the head, and actually saw our metrics turn into the fabled hockey stick, we looked back at all the time we had wasted wondering if we were on the right path. If we had leaned into the messiness of experimenting to success instead of trying to optimize everything perfectly, we could have iterated quicker and found rocket ship success much faster.
- “By the time you think about maybe firing someone, you probably should have fired them months ago.” We were given this advice by an investor/advisor when we were contemplating firing an employee. We continued to delay our decision for months before finally making the decision to fire them, and we wished we had followed it sooner. We’ve taken the wisdom to heart and it’s held true. As a startup your team is everything, and thinking about losing any person should give you a terrible sinking feeling in your stomach because you would be losing someone so amazing. If you’re actually thinking there’s a possibility you’d be better off without them at the company, that’s a much larger red flag than it may seem in the moment.
- “You’ll get through it.” There have been many times when things seemed impossible. We faced challenges early on where we thought we had come across an impassable roadblock to our solution, or where we were going to run out of money, or when we realized we needed to move the company across the country to scale the team. Every time we just trudged onwards, pivoting to the best of our abilities and hoping that it would work, even when it felt like it wouldn’t. That kind of work and feeling is common at a startup, and it’s horrible. I think it’s worth doing, no matter the outcome, because if you don’t, you’ll always wonder what would have happened if you just kept trying. But it would have been a lot easier if we knew it paid off in the end.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
To me, one hour of easy impactless work feels awful, but ten hours of challenging impactful work feels fun. Working for social good turns your work into a mission, it turns your co-workers into a squad, it turns you into an operator. It makes a hard day feel worth it, and a long career even more so. The best part is, even in failure, you’re making a difference. Even if your vision isn’t fulfilled or you crash and burn in the first month, you will still have inspired and likely helped at least dozens of people, and doing that for even one person is all it takes to be worth it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have a conversation with Melinda or Bill Gates. I look up to them both so much and really admire how their philanthropic efforts are so thoroughly optimized for social impact, not for recognition or political gain. Seeing them put so much funding behind often “unsexy” strategies like mosquito nets that end up having the highest ROI for dollars spent to lives saved is very humbling and a wonderful reminder to do work for the right reasons.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!