Gurjeet Singh of Oma Robotics: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup
Originally published in Authority Magazine 7-10-22
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Gurjeet Singh, PhD, Co-founder and CEO, Oma Robotics.
After learning of friends who’d been through six unsuccessful cycles of IVF, which landed them in over $250K of debt and ultimately bankruptcy, Gurjeet Singh partnered with Sahil Gupta and Kiran Joshi to launch Oma Fertility where he serves as CEO. Oma was founded to develop and implement cutting-edge technologies, alongside compassionate clinical care, to increase IVF success rates and reduce the stress that so many people go through.
Prior to Oma, Gurjeet had co-founded Ayasdi, an AI based enterprise software platform where he served as CEO. Ayasdi pioneered the commercial use of unsupervised machine learning by making practical, and commercializing, an old brand of mathematics called Topology. This was used to develop vertically specific products that utilize Machine Learning to improve outcomes in different industries. Gurjeet led ~$100M in total financing across four rounds at Ayasdi and led the successful sale of the company to Symphony AI in 2019.
He has also served as a Technical Advisory Board member for HSBC and holds a PhD in Computational Math from Stanford.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in India and studied to become an engineer. As an engineer, I had a visceral fear of math — I knew enough but did not feel like I could solve difficult or novel problems. A year into my first job, at Texas Instruments, I started applying to grad schools in the US. I was looking for hybrid programs — a bit of math and a bit of computer science. I was accepted at the Computational Math program at Stanford and completed my PhD.
My research at Stanford explored how to make an old area of math, called Topology, practical. The research was funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and they encouraged us to commercialize it. They gave us a grant and that is how I started my previous company, Ayasdi. At Ayasdi, we built AI (Artificial Intelligence) based enterprise software. We sold it to large banks, large hospital systems, pharma companies etc. to solve different operational problems. I grew the company from the three co-founders to a few hundred employees and over the course of a decade, raised ~$100M for it. I sold the company in 2019.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The idea that became Oma Fertility started after I heard that an acquaintance of my wife, who had gone through 6 IVF cycles, at the cost of $45,000 each and did not succeed (that’s $270K!). They had made poor financial decisions and had to file for bankruptcy due to this. I was shocked at hearing this and felt that even though the clinic they worked with was not malicious, they certainly misled this couple about their chances of success with IVF.
Coincidentally, my two co-founders, Sahil and Kiran, intersected with me during this time. Sahil was visiting us as a family friend. Sahil, a physician himself, operated a chain of IVF clinics in India and Nepal. Kiran and I did our PhD’s together at Stanford, him in Electrical Engineering. He had just left the company that he had co-founded and was looking to start another venture.
We got together and visited one of Sahil’s IVF labs in India. I was utterly shocked at what I saw — I was expecting high tech instruments and automation, given the high price tag of the procedure. Instead, an IVF lab looked like a high-school biology lab, where the success of the procedure depended on an embryologist, hunched over a microscope, making decisions about eggs, sperm cells and embryos by their vision and manual dexterity! Furthermore, we discovered that, in large part, the success of IVF depended on these decisions and typically an embryologist is not a trained clinician. It is usually someone with an undergraduate degree in sciences and decades of experience.
We started looking at the statistics and realized that the market was drastically underserved. Only 1.7% of births in the US happen due to IVF, compared to other developed countries like Denmark, where the number is 9.2%! The root cause of this problem was the cost — an average IVF cycle in the US costs $20K and 70% of the IVF cycles fail. Typically, a couple will try for 3 cycles before they succeed or give up. That means that the entry level cost of trying to conceive a baby with IVF is $20K x 3 = $60K. This is just a hair under the average household income in the US and puts IVF firmly outside the reach of most families.
Our “Aha moment” was that if we could build AI driven technologies to increase the success rate of IVF, we could reduce the number of cycles required to succeed with IVF, thereby making it accessible to more people. That is what we do at Oma Fertility — leverage AI based devices that aim to increase the success rate of IVF, available exclusively at our clinics.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Silicon Valley is a magical place — a network of people who perpetually pay it forward. I have so many to thank for their help. One in particular is Steve Blank.
When we had started my previous company, Ayasdi. I realized quickly that I didn’t know anything about running a business. I found a class about entrepreneurship at the Stanford Engineering school, and it was taught by Prof. Steve Blank. The final assignment in the class was to present a business idea — I used the learning from the class to build the initial business plan for Ayasdi. After the class was done, Prof. Blank was very generous with his time as well as his network. He connected me with Ann Miura-Ko, who eventually wrote the first check into Ayasdi, was on our board for a decade and remains a good friend.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Vinod Khosla. Vinod invested in Ayasdi and the biggest lesson I learned from him was how best to think about the role of failure in success. The lesson etched into my brain is that failure is OK as long as success is worth it. In other words, it is important to pursue big, meaningful goals, even if the probability of success is low.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We realized that one of the keys to making IVF accessible was to increase the success rate of the procedure. An equally important part is “The Oma Way,” our mindset in serving our families revolves around three key ideas: success in as few cycles as possible, human-centered care, and accessibility to more people. As an example of the latter, we have decided to follow ethical pricing practices — our pricing is a third of the competition, it is transparent, flat, with no hidden or surprise costs or inflated profit margins. This makes it possible for a new segment of people to attempt having a baby. Many of our customers have been folks who simply could not afford to attempt IVF at other clinics due to the pricing.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We make the dream of building a family possible for more people. We feel pretty good about serving our communities and the world at large.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Risk weighted approach to decisions. I always think about the biggest risk to the business and mitigate that rather than working on problems which I know I can solve. When we started Oma Fertility, the technical challenges that we had to solve were great, but I was confident that we’d be able to make progress against them. We were less confident about building a consumer-facing business. Thus, before we wrote a single line of code, we started experimenting with customer acquisition strategies. That was the biggest risk to the business.
Quick decision making. Most of the decisions that we need to make are reversible — in other words, if it turns out that the decision was incorrect, you learn and course-correct. I am super comfortable with making decisions without 100% data, but I make sure that I write down the expected outcome and timeframe to reconsider.
Discipline. I live my life by building systems and habits. I used to be extremely unhealthy a decade or so ago. I knew that I had to reduce my weight but could not control my portions. I happened to learn about intermittent fasting and have stuck to eating once every three days for the past few years. Similarly, I religiously maintain a gratitude journal.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
At my previous company, Ayasdi, we built machine learning based enterprise software. By design, we charged our customers for Proof of Concepts (PoC), where they would get to try our software before, they decided to license it. We made the very controversial decision about charging for our PoCs. We constantly got told how it was an unwise decision and we should give PoCs away. We did an A/B test and concluded that it was a bad idea as those who did the free PoC did not convert into paying customers. It turns out that when a buyer is making the decision to license software that costs seven figures each year, they are willing to invest both their time and money to make sure they need it. Customers who were not willing to invest in the PoC were usually not serious about buying it anyway.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Being called an academic. I had just graduated with my PhD from Stanford, and we were out raising financing for my previous company, Ayasdi. I got told over and over again by VCs that I was merely an academic and would not be able to build a great business. I eventually came to the realization that my scientific training was a huge asset — I had learned the value of perseverance, I knew how to experiment and fail fast, and I knew how to make decisions quickly.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
I remind myself that I have nothing to lose, and I am not playing a status game. Early on in my career, I had just moved to the US and didn’t have any assets beyond my education. I had nothing to lose. Now, I realize that I never had anything to prove to anyone anyway. I work on the things that I am curious about and where the potential impact is huge. Note that this line of thought does not mean acting irresponsibly towards one’s family, friends, employees, investors etc. This is a good read about stoic philosophy which has served me well in life and in particular, in entrepreneurship.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Being a founder is like having the best day of your life and the worst day of your life every day. For me, the most valuable tool is to be unreasonably committed to the mission of the company. It has to be something that you deeply care about — that’s what allows you to persevere through the tough parts.
Another valuable lesson is something that I’ve learned from Tina Teena Seelig, who says that every problem is an opportunity. During a tough phase, there is usually some problem that you are dealing with and it is a great perspective to instead view it as an opportunity — to discover something new about the business, or to become better at operations or to invent a new product or to build a new moat around your business. None of your competitors are going to succeed without going through the same set of issues.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Honestly, it is not worth making this distinction. An entrepreneur is someone who chooses to play their own game. They choose to paint outside the lines and make their own rules. There is no right answer — only YOUR answer.
There are many financial tools that are available to build your business — bank loans, venture debt, venture capital, private equity, IPO etc. Each tool has its upsides and its downsides. When you think of any of these, think first about your aims — what is YOUR aim for YOUR business?
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need to Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
A problem worth solving. At my previous company, Ayasdi, we built a product that helped the biggest banks in the world with making their compliance and anti-money laundering (AML) teams efficient by ~30%. Many banks were regularly getting fined for inadequate controls around their AML processes. This was despite them spending many hundreds of millions in their compliance operations. This continues to be an existential problem for banks. We chose to build a solution to this problem using Ayasdi’s application platform that was based on unsupervised machine learning because we were motivated to stop financial support for bad actors. Lessons: A good startup problem is an acute problem that lots of people have, that you can solve and care deeply about. Each part of this statement is important. -The problem needs to be acute — sell painkillers, not vitamins, as the adage goes. -Lots of people need to experience it — the market must be large in other words. -You need to care deeply about it since there will be many dark days that you will need to push through.
A business that makes profits. At Oma Fertility, our mission is to empower anyone seeking to have a child to access the most advanced fertility treatments. Part of making IVF accessible is to reduce the financial burden of the treatments and to this end an average IVF cycle at Oma costs about a third of the national average. That said, we still make a profit and as we further develop our technology, we expect our operations to become even more efficient, leading to higher margins. Lessons: A startup is a temporary organization that’s searching for a scalable business model. You don’t want to be a startup; you want to discover the business in the ‘startup phase’ and then become an organization that generates profit. There are many factors to consider on this journey: -Can you acquire customers in a scalable way without spending too much? -Can you serve your customers and turn a profit? -Will you run out of money before you start making net positive cash flow
The right team. Many startup teams come together because friends think that it will be fun to work with friends. Nothing wrong with that. A far better approach is to assemble a crew a-la Ocean’s Eleven. Engineer the gene pool of the startup for success. Think about the diversity of skills and ideas that are necessary for you to succeed. Finally, when hiring executives, think of them as co-founders who are incredibly talented at one particular trait, but, like co-founders, can flex into and contribute to other areas. Lesson: It’s ok to admit what you don’t know. Surround yourself with brilliant minds that share the founding vision and set them free to push that vision forward.
A differentiated solution. The new age of AI startups (Oma Fertility included) are vertically integrated. That means that we build the tech, and we use it to serve end customers directly. This has compounding benefits — better quality training data makes better models, which produces better outcomes, which attracts more customers and produces more data. Lessons: To succeed your solution must have something unique about it and ideally an advantage that grows as your solution proliferates. Central to the idea of building a differentiated solution systematically is iteration. Ship your product as soon as you possibly can to gather feedback and adjust based on the feedback
Luck. The founders of AirBnB had to make and sell boxes of cereal to keep the company afloat. They made their own luck by not giving up. Lessons: Luck is not a thing you have, it is a thing you make. You make it by showing up and putting energy out into the world. You make it by being curious. You make it by authoring a cold email to a prospect or investor. You make it by not taking no for an answer.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The cardinal sin of startup founders is not attempting to make money. Many people take the example of some of the most successful companies such as Google and Facebook and assume that they can figure out the business model at a future point once they have scale. This has many problems:
Founders create fancy KPIs that provide a false sense of complacency, but do not translate into a great business.
Particularly with technical founders (myself included), the instinct is to start making the tech as soon as possible. Technical founders are especially well suited to building the tech, so that was never the risk in the business to begin with. The real risk was sales and marketing — which takes equal, if not more, effort to iterate and perfect.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Being physically and mentally well is a personal journey. It’s never done — always a work in progress. Here’s what works for me:
Hike 3 miles in the morning (~8AM) after I drop my kids at school ~45 mins.
Strength training 3x a week after work ~45 mins.
Sleep at 10PM.
Gratitude Journal every day for ~2 min.
I also highly recommend reading “Lifespan” by David Sinclair.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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.
Normalizing the conversation around infertility like how mental health is now normalized.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oprah Winfrey. I admire the good she has done for women and the world overall. Her positive approach, her efforts to bring the best out in people, and her expectation of accountability is inspiring.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I love helping people and am very easy to access — I am @singhgurjeet on Twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!