Healthtech Stories highlights the unique and inspiring journeys of people driven to solve healthcare’s biggest problems through technology.
Robin Farmanfarmaian is a healthtech expert, angel investor, global speaker and author of Amazon No.1 bestseller The Patient as CEO: How Technology Empowers the Healthcare Consumer. She’s backed companies like Dance Biopharm who are doing clinical trials for an inhaled insulin vaporized from a liquid, and unicorn MindMaze VR who have raised >$100M (in part from Leonardo di Caprio) and are valued at $1 billion. I spoke to Robin about living with autoimmune disease and why she became motivated to positively impact 100M patients worldwide through healthtech innovation.
James Somauroo: Robin, tell me about yourself.
Robin Farmanfarmaian: I grew up surrounded by cutting edge technology and medicine. My mom was a physician, my dad is an MIT scientist turned IP attorney and entrepreneur. Combine that with having an autoimmune disease since I was a teenager and I feel almost destined to be an early stage entrepreneur in pharma, medical device and IT. I’ve now worked with over 15 companies in healthcare as an entrepreneur, angel investor or board member, that all tackle problems impacting more than 100M patients.
Somauroo: Tell me more about the companies you’re working with right now, I’ve heard that you’re working on some big global health issues.
Farmanfarmaian: Currently, I’m VP of business development for Actavalon, an early stage pharmaceutical company. We have 3 pre-clinical molecules: one is repairing p53 to potentially cure or treat cancer; the other two involve the AhR pathway, for both autoimmune disease and immune-oncology. p53 has been called the Holy Grail, or the Guardian of the Genome. BigPharma has spent billions trying to address p53 previously, as it is the human cell’s natural ability to kill the cell if it detects cancer. Basically, it’s the body’s own cancer killing machine, but it’s damaged in about 50% of all people with cancer.
I’m also the Strategic Relations Advisor to MindMaze, a Unicorn ($1B valuation) with FDA and CE Mark approved VR for stroke and brain injury rehabilitation, and moving into other neuro problems and diseases as well. We’ve been in the clinic for years in the EU and the UK and will be distributed in the US later this year.
Somauroo: What about your investments?
Farmanfarmaian: A few investments include Invicta Medical, a medical technology company for sleep apnea, and Dance Biopharm, inhaled insulin with a smart, connected device and liquid formulary. Dance is quite far along in clinical trials already, and it is likely to only be a few years before it goes to market. A major benefit of Dance Biopharm is that they can undercut the price of injected insulin. I’ve also invested in another early-stage pharma called Rational Vaccines who are working on a vaccine for herpes. The common theme with every company I work with is that all of these diseases or problems impact at least 100M patients worldwide: Diabetes, apnea, cancer, autoimmune disease, neuro, infectious disease.
Somauroo: I heard a really interesting phrase recently that “investors have the ability to choose the future in which we live.” Do you believe that as an angel investor yourself?
Farmanfarmaian: Absolutely! As an Angel, my money isn’t make or break for a company, especially considering the sums needed for clinical trials in pharma and device (which can be hundreds of millions of dollars or more), but I am able to bring the right investors or partners to the table that the company needs to succeed. So my angel investing isn’t what chooses the future, but my business development absolutely can have an impact on the future.
Somauroo: And what do you look for in a healthtech investment?
Farmanfarmaian: I will only work on companies that have the potential to impact 100M patients worldwide. As an investor and entrepreneur, you need to have a filter or theme to your investing or work – that’s mine. In fact, I don’t work on my own disease, Crohn’s, because it’s too small, only impacting a little over 100k people in the UK. Compare that to the 3.5M-4M people in the UK with diabetes.
Somauroo: I see a lot of entrepreneurs who have found their motivation from being a patient. How has being a patient with Crohn’s influenced your career?
Farmanfarmaian: As a teenager, I was misdiagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I’ve had 43 hospitalizations, 6 major surgeries including a total colectomy with j-pouch, which led to a cholecystectomy. At the age of 26, seven years after I’d had my entire large intestine surgically removed, my doctors were telling me I was cured, but I wasn’t and I was in significant pain. For years they kept upping and upping and upping my opioid dose until finally, my pain doctor put me on 80 mg a day of methadone, which is a gigantic dose. I hated the drug, it was a terrible, terrible medication. I went back to my next doctor’s appointment and I said: “I want off this drug, now!” And they told me that the next stage could potentially be to surgically implant a morphine pump into my spine.
Somauroo: I’ve seen over-zealous opioid prescribing fail many people in my career. For people reading who might be able to help someone in a similar position, how did you recover when the system was letting you down?
Farmanfarmaian: At the time, I was essentially a shut-in, too sick to work or basically have a life, so I went home and I fired my entire healthcare team. I took control of my own healthcare and reduced my own methadone dose by 40% to kick start getting off it completely. I spent about a week going through significant withdrawal, then rebuilt my healthcare team and after getting off all the medications, was finally diagnosed correctly with Crohn’s. I went on Remicade and went into remission within 24 hours. At that point, it had been a 13-year misdiagnosis.
After that experience, I decided to pay it forward, to pay it back – to help other patients in order to pay back all the doctors, nurses, pharma companies, device companies, hospitals, payors, and everyone else who worked together to allow me to live. I wouldn’t be here today if not for all of those people working together. So I made my life goal to impact 100M patients worldwide. In order to achieve that number, I have to work on the most prevalent diseases.
Somauroo: Thanks for being so open – it’s such an inspiring journey to where you are now as a healthtech thought leader. On that note, tell me about your new book.
Farmanfarmaian: I recently wrote a second book, The Thought Leader Formula. While it seems like a departure from medicine and healthcare, it is applicable to this industry. As a professional speaker, I understand the power of being able to spread your ideas. I saw a lot of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare stakeholders want to become thought leaders. Most doctors, scientists, and other HCPs probably didn’t ever take a class in marketing, or branding, or storytelling, or building a business. They were way too busy studying medicine and science! But they make fantastic thought leaders, and can really educate a lot of people if they only knew how to get on stage and present their material in non-academic settings – academic keynotes are very different from thought leader keynotes! I realized I could help those voices be heard by creating a system for success. If you want to be a doctor, you know exactly the steps you need to take to be successful. I just created that path to be successful in thought leadership in healthcare. The system is actually applicable to any industry, but of course, my love is healthcare.
Somauroo: Do you ever sleep!? How do you give your all to so many things? What does your downtime look like?
Farmanfarmaian: The final chapter of The Thought Leader Formula is called Time Management. I choose the top 5 things I’m best at doing, and outsource the rest. I look at my entire life as Robin, Inc, and have built up a company around myself. I hire consulting companies instead of employees to take care of things for me. I have a publisher, marketing company, virtual assistants company, professional editors, designers on Upwork, tax accountant, and get 100% of my shopping delivered. I sold my car 3 years ago, and only use Uber, Lyft, or Caltrains. I’ve outsourced everything that wastes my time or I don’t like doing – like driving or taxes, and that frees up all my time to devote to the things I do love doing. I also exercise 7 days a week, which increases my energy and reduces my stress significantly and after traveling for a speaking engagement, I like to relax in my super quiet, sunny apartment in Palo Alto.