EDITORS’ PICK|653 views|Apr 10, 2020, 07:00am EDT
With the COVID-19 crisis disrupting the entire world, the need for rapid innovation in healthcare has never been clearer. But beyond this terrible virus, there remain many afflictions that impact the weakest and most disadvantaged population the most, due to a lack of funding for accessible and affordable treatments. Tammi Jantzen is a lifelong finance professional who, after embracing the world of venture capital, committed herself to making a difference in the lives of women and children through healthcare innovation. She is the cofounder and CFO of Astarte Medical, a precision medicine company using software and predictive analytics to improve pre-term infant outcomes.
But Tammi offers valuable insights beyond the topics of healthcare innovation and running a company, for she is also a successful entrepreneur who struggled to succeed in a male-dominated industry, while focusing on the most vulnerable people among us. In an inspiring Q&A, we discussed her life story, how to build a great finance team, the importance of continuous upskilling and tech savviness and the unique challenges facing women in the finance profession.
Jeff Thomson: Venture capital is considered a male-dominated field. Yet you were highly successful working as a CFO for Astarte Venture. Later, you secured funding for your own start-up, Astarte Medical. What advice would you give to women who are working in predominantly male fields? What do you do when you encounter gender bias?
Tammi Jantzen: Perseverance is key. The road to accomplishing whatever it is that gets you up in the morning will be hard – most of the time. Personally, I never want people to invest in my firm because they are trying to fulfill a quota and they feel it’s a requirement. On the other hand, I would like to get the same access to investors as other male-led companies. Even in 2020, gender bias still exists, but it isn’t always because of outright discrimination. Venture capitalists, predominantly men, tend to back serial entrepreneurs who have been successful in the past, also mostly men. They are comfortable investing their money with entrepreneurs with vetted track records. It’s understandable that we are all more comfortable with the familiar; however, because many women haven’t had the opportunity to prove themselves as entrepreneurs, they remain unproven, which further exacerbates the problem.
Astarte Medical successfully raised a Series A financing last year. However, the fundraising journey was not what we expected it to be. As former venture investors, my co-founder Tracy Warren and I thought we knew exactly who our investors would be and how long it would take; we were wrong on both counts. My advice to female founders is to stay focused on your goals, continue to knock on those doors, and never give up. To make the venture capital world more female-friendly, women need to assert themselves until their presence at the table is no longer a novelty, but routine.
Thomson: Astarte Medical uses software and predictive analytics to improve health outcomes of pre-term infants. Why did you shift focus mid-career to work exclusively on women’s and children’s health? Did you feel that there was a market that was being under-served and had potential?
Jantzen: After working together for almost 15 years in venture capital, Tracy and I set out to blaze a path investing in companies we were most passionate about: those with technologies focused on women’s and children’s health and well-being. We saw an enormous opportunity to add value to an under-served and underfunded market. In fact, the term “FemTech” had yet to be coined. We put our own money to work investing under Astarte Ventures with the intent to build a track record in the space, and then raise a larger fund around our successful thesis.
In an attempt to gain insights into clinical needs and pain points, we visited women’s and children’s hospitals across the country, talking to innovation groups and researchers. It was during a visit to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston that we met our scientific cofounder, Katherine Gregory, RN, Ph.D. Kate had a unique background with hands-on clinical experience alongside academic and research credentials. She started her career as a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse, received her Ph.D. and had been doing research in her lab at Harvard on pre-term infant microbiome and gut health, long before microbiome was a buzzword. In that initial meeting, Kate opened our eyes to the challenges of pre-term infants and early life nutrition, and we were immediately hooked. Kate’s passion quickly became our passion. We didn’t want to just invest in her idea; we wanted to build the company ourselves. Astarte Medical is a precision nutrition company using software and predictive analytics to improve outcomes for pre-term infants, with a suite of digital tools and diagnostics designed to standardize feeding, optimize nutrition, and quantify gut health. It was that initial meeting with Kate that prompted our entrepreneurial shift.
Thomson: As a platform so heavily reliant on automation, artificial intelligence and data analytics, what did you do to upskill yourself in these technologies to prepare for Astarte Medical’s launch? What should all finance professionals be doing to stay relevant in the digital age?
Jantzen: The upskilling was not trivial. I read – and read some more – anything and everything I could find. There are so many different technologies at play for Astarte Medical. We are a software and data analytics company, so learning about software development, data science and machine learning was certainly in order. Moreover, our software and data analytics are focused on feeding, nutrition and gut health, so understanding microbiome sequencing was also necessary. For example, strange as it may sound for a CPA, I took an online course entitled “Gut Check: Exploring Your Microbiome” to expand my knowledge in this area.
Another way to upskill our entire team at Astarte Medical was by implementing “Lunch and Learns” so that each team member could showcase and share what they were working on. We also brought in subject matter experts to really deepen the knowledge transfer. We exposed the team to topics like the infant microbiome, shotgun sequencing, bioinformatics, machine learning techniques, software development, fundraising, neonatal nutrition, feeding protocols and outcomes metrics. It was an incredibly efficient way for the whole team to learn about all aspects of the business and provide the forum to ask questions and absorb new information.
Thomson: On Astarte’s website, you describe yourself as a “classic utility infielder,” someone who has the versatility to cover the basics, but also to quickly transition to cover more complex tasks. How do you cultivate agility in yourself and in your staff? When hiring what qualities do you look for in staff?
Jantzen: The start-up environment demands versatility and creativity from basic execution to complex strategy. An agile attitude is essential for real, fast-paced and effective decision-making and execution. It’s what makes a start-up both exciting and frustrating at the same time. Most days it feels like a sprint. You have to be willing to contribute wherever you are needed. Although I am the CFO, I spend less than a third of my time on finance and accounting matters. I also currently act as head of marketing as well as head of human resources. Having the ability to do whatever it takes to make the company succeed is crucial and we are continually fostering that attitude amongst our team.
In the last three months, we have doubled the size of our team at Astarte Medical, which is both exciting and terrifying. Outside of the specific technical requirements of any position, some of the other qualities we look for are curiosity, creativity, positivity, integrity, good communication skills and attention to detail. Maintaining our culture and preserving the passion for our mission is an integral part of our hiring process. We invest time in finding the right hires to make sure the cultural fit is right. A bad fit can create negative energy and can bring the whole team down. We operate as a team and attitude is everything.
Thomson: You are a Kauffman Fellow – part of a Silicon Valley based program focused on accelerating innovation, supported by the global venture community. What did you learn from that two-year experience? How were you able to apply it to founding Astarte Medical?
Jantzen: Kauffman Fellows is a leadership program for the venture capital industry to develop talented innovation leaders to support entrepreneurs in their mission to change the world. The two-year structured curriculum consisted of quarterly in-person modules, each tackling a theme or aspect of innovation investing from fund management and deal terms to building boards and optimizing human talent to social responsibility and ethics. Following the completion of the program, I have now graduated into the Kauffman Fellows Network, a global connected network with access to more than 500 leaders in the venture and innovation community.
During the program, I was challenged to create and execute on a personal development plan and was continually pushed to think outside the box. I was introduced to incredible speakers and thought leaders in our modules, including numerous icons from the venture world with different points of view, which resulted in many moments of surprising clarity. The session that stuck in my mind the most was a deep dive into the characteristics of a visionary entrepreneur: radical self-belief, willingness to go against the grain to follow your passion even when others think you are crazy, and being able to build a stellar team of talented and diverse individuals who also believe in that passion.
This session still resonates with me today. Tracy and I founded Astarte Medical based on the belief that we could not only build a company with a sustainable business model that would provide sizable returns to our investors, but also one that would develop solutions that would have a meaningful and measurable impact on the lives of the tiniest, most vulnerable patients. It was extremely validating to raise $8.5M last year from an incredibly supportive group of investors who share the same vision. In addition, we are deliberately working to build a strong, diverse team of individuals who also share our passion. Passion makes you believe, at the deepest level, that what you are doing matters. This conviction is evident at Astarte Medical whether you work in Sales, Dev Ops or Finance.
This article has been edited and condensed.