Digital Health Company Wants to Change the World by Changing Habits

We sat down with Ellen Su of Wellinks this week to discuss how their wearable technology will help change the lives of scoliosis patients.

Wellinks will help patients change their habits by monitoring behavior, providing accountability and embracing routine.

Ellen talks to us about…

  1. That “startup life”
  2. Why being in Connecticut has been incredible
  3. Advice for every startup company


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Ellen’s Networks
The Refinery
Yale Entrepreneurial Institute

Ellen’s favorite productivity tools

Ellen’s Podcast Recommendations
99% Invisible
Planet Money

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Transcript of our Interview with Ellen Su of Wellinks


KENNY: Hi everybody I’m Kenny Jahng with the Venture Clash Entrepreneurship Podcast, thanks for joining us today. I’m excited because I’ve got Ellen Su with us who’s the CEO and co-founder of Wellinks, a wearable health company. She’s passionate about how design and technology can improve people’s lives. I’m really excited, she’s a graduate of Yale in Connecticut and has worked both for startups and in design education, and this is going to be a fantastic conversation today. Welcome to the show Ellen.

ELLEN: Thanks, thanks for having me Kenny.

KENNY: So, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your company Wellinks. Like what does your company do? How old is the venture? Where are you in the starter process? How did you get involved in all of this?

ELLEN: Yeah, so my background is in design, design education. I actually came into Yale to be a painter and then got interested in human sensor design technology and all of that. And so I ended up graduating with a degree that was a combination of like art, sculpture and engineering. So, that was fun, that was an interesting experience. But, I got really interested in healthcare and technology partially through an engineering fellowship that we had the opportunity to do where we were really able to explore an area of deep clinical need. We focused on scoliosis patients and that process of trying to avoid surgery by wearing hard plastic back braces. So, that was something we were interested in, our CTO Levi actually had scoliosis and so that was part of the interest there. And so, through that process we really discovered that there was a very deep unmet need where kids were going into surgery who could have avoided surgery. And so we were really trying to prevent those. So that’s actually where the idea for the venture came out of. Since then, that was 2013, and so since then we’ve actually incorporated, we’ve turned it into a business, we’ve actually started manufacturing, we made a hundred prototype devices last year, we’ve been able to test it at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

KENNY: Oh, wow.

ELLEN: We’re actually in the middle of a manufacturing run of devices right now for sales. So we’re making a thousand devices, and we’re hoping to get to sales this year. So it will be really big.

KENNY: Wow, that’s exciting. It’s always great in star play when you actually have a prototype and you actually have something tangible.

ELLEN: Yeah.

KENNY: A lot of celebrations, I’m sure. But I think that the secret is out, that the startup life is not all glitter and glam, right?

ELLEN: Mm-hmm.

KENNY: So tell us a little bit about the journey there, I’m sure you’ve had some milestones or some obstacles, or some scary moments here and there. Tell us do you have any stories like that to share with us what the entrepreneur life is like.

ELLEN: Yeah, I think just in general, everything is always going to take longer than you want it to and it’s always going to be more expensive than you expect. So, you know, we’ve learned this lesson, I think everybody else has learned this lesson too. You know, you take your best estimate and then you double it and then you double it again. And that’s pretty much where you’re going to end up. So, you know, we thought we would be at sales, I actually recently looked through some of our old pitch decks, and it’s like, oh we’ll be in sales in 2015, at the end of 2015. You know, we aren’t too far off track, we’ve been able to hit most of our milestones.

KENNY: Nice.

ELLEN: I think part of the challenge is as always, is raising funding, being able to sort of meet those deadlines. What’s been really great is we’ve had really great partners and mentors and advisors who’ve been helping us through that process.

KENNY: Nice, nice, nice. So let’s talk about that, because funding and just especially getting that network of support is really critical for the success of startups typically. What does your network look like? I mean, were you targeting specific people and reaching out to them? Or did you walk into a prebuilt community with support? It’s hard to be an entrepreneur sometimes.

ELLEN: Yeah, yeah, oh for sure. And I think it’s something where, because we started this venture straight out of school, we knew nothing and I think that was something we were very aware of then. So, we tried to supplement our skills as much as possible. What was, one really great thing for us is that we got to take advantage of the Yale network, which is extremely powerful. The Yale Entrepreneurial Institute connected us with mentors and advisors who were Yale alum’s, one of them actually ended up investing in us. They connected us to investors who were at, you know, various investment firms, who’ve been able to provide guidance to us. And then part of it is being in Connecticut, they have a lot of funding available to try and draw company’s to Connecticut. You know, the location between Boston and New York is great for us. There’s also some Connecticut specific accelerators, so we’re actually part of the refinery accelerator, and they provided us with a mentor who was able to help us through some of our challenges with, you know, customers and balancing all that. So, you know a lot of it is, part of it was starting out with our network at school, but then expanding out to the local networks and then really just going to events, talking to people and really try and figure out who has that expertise that we need.

KENNY: Where specifically are you located now?

ELLEN: So we’re in New Haven, Connecticut.

KENNY: You’re in New Haven.

ELLEN: Yeah, so we’re working out of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute offices.

KENNY: Awesome. So did you ever consider other regions of the country or different cities that are tech friendly or startup friendly?

ELLEN: Yeah, we thought about it a little bit. You know, we had thought about that I think after we graduated about moving. Partially hiring talent, partially you know, figuring out where there was a lot of investment money. What was nice was that, there’s a lot of seed money and grants available on the east coast, and I think Connecticut’s trying to put a lot of money into that. And so that was good for us. One of our, our chief medical officer is in New York, and so you know, we had thought about moving to New York. But then a lot of our partners and a lot of our sales partners were in Boston. And so it actually made sense for us to be sort of in the middle between there and being able to make trips to both was really convenient.

KENNY: Nice. And so you’re in this digital health space. Are you seeing other peer companies also set up shop in this region as well, in the New York, Boston corridor?

ELLEN: Oh yeah, for sure. And I think the east coast is a really good place to be if you’re in healthcare. I think if you were a software company or a tech company, you know, everyone’s moving to Silicon Valley. I actually moved out of there. But I think for healthcare the east coast is actually really, really great. Partially because there is such a density of large cities along the coast. And so there’s a lot of hospitals and there’s a lot of people that you can access. You know, in New Havens specifically they’re a lot of pharmaceutical companies and I think a lot of them are coming out of Yale. We are seeing actually some more digital health companies though, you know, there was a company that graduated a couple of years before us that, you know, we’re very close to, that were also Yalies, they’ve moved up to Boston, we have, you know, we’re friends a couple of students that are thinking of starting ventures. So, I think there is that ecosystem starting to come up.

KENNY: That’s really cool to hear, really cool to hear. So, tell us a little bit more about what are you looking forward for this next year? Are there any specific real big milestones or steps that you’re looking forward to, to achieving with at Wellinks?

ELLEN: I mean, yeah, our biggest, biggest milestone that we’re looking at is just getting to sales. Getting our product into the hands of customers, I think that’s been something that we’ve been gunning for, for a very, very long time. And, you know, we’ve hit some stumbling blocks along the way, but I think we’re really close now. You know, we’re raising the funding to pay for the manufacturing. What’s actually interesting is we’ve picked all of our manufacturers and suppliers and most of them are in Connecticut.


ELLEN: We actually weren’t expecting that, but we got connected to the engineering ecosystem in Connecticut and they’re able to really connect us to, you know, a printed circuit board manufacturer down in Milford, a medical device assembly house up in Wolcott. And so, there actually is a lot of manufacturing expertise in the state. And what’s nice is that they’re actually pretty price competitive. And so it actually ended up being cheaper than we expected. And that was really great for us because now they’re local and so we can actually drive up and visit them. So we get that advantage, but we don’t have to pay, you know, we don’t have to pay out the nose for that.

KENNY: That must be specifically advantageous during the prototyping phase, right? Back and forth, back and forth.

ELLEN: Yeah, oh yeah, so you know, we have calls, we’ve visited their facility, and so we’re able to see, you know, what they can do and if there are any problems we can actually go up and see it.

KENNY: Gotcha. Now, can you share a little bit about maybe one of the biggest challenges that you’ve had in the life of your startup so far? Whether it be human resources or IT, the tech side of it, or funding, what’s the hardest part, the challenge that you’ve seen so far?

ELLEN: So I think, you know, I feel like funding’s the easy answer cause I think everybody has that challenge. But I’m not going to talk too much about that. I think actually one of our challenges is trying to balance our users and our customers and all of that. I think being in healthcare is a really complicated space because you have so many people interacting. You have the patients, you know, in our case we’re working with kids, so we have patients and parents, as well as, the doctors. We also have the hospital systems and you have the insurance companies, and we’re also working with brace manufacturers. So, they’re all these stakeholders in this, you know, some of them are paying for your product, some of them aren’t. So, some of them you have users and customers and trying to balance all of those gets really, really complicated. And so, for us, it’s a ongoing challenge and I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. And that’s what we’re getting help with our mentors from, is just how to balance, you know, things that we develop for the patients, for the kids, and that’s where it really came out of, that’s where the product came out of. But then also balancing that with the, you know, the interest of the brace manufacturers and the insurance companies who will ultimately be the ones who will, you know, push it forward and actually, you know, allow us to actually help and make an impact.

KENNY: Now, I’m assuming the scoliosis market is not a huge a mass consumer market, pretty small, well defined. And I’m assuming the device that you’re making is somewhat costly. Who’s the end user or who’s the end target that you’re trying to really pitch and market to. Is it the HMO, the insurance companies? Is it the patient, the doctor, the medical centers? How does that work?

ELLEN: Yeah, yeah, so, you know, yeah. Scoliosis isn’t a huge market. And so, what we’re looking at is really looking at the insurance side. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to prevent surgeries by helping the kids wear the brace more, and also making sure that the parents and the doctors know how long the kid’s are wearing the brace. And so, you know, the product on the whole is essentially it’s a monitor for the braces, and so, you know, we develop features for the kids so gamification incentivization, but it’s really about preventing the surgeries and that saves the insurance companies a ton of money, since the surgeries are extremely expensive. And so, long term we’re looking at that as our path forward is really being able to show that our device can help the kids wear the brace more, which studies have shown actually reduces the likelihood of surgery. Short term we’re working with a brace manufacturer so these are the companies that actually make the braces, our device essentially retrofits on top of the brace and turns it into a smart brace. And so, we’re working with them in the short term to achieve the distribution, and to also be able to have some early results and clinical results to show that the kids are actually wearing the brace more.

KENNY: Gotcha, gotcha. How big is your team right now?

ELLEN: It is pretty tiny. So, we have three full time employees and then our chief medical officer is part time, cause he’s on the side, he’s an actual orthopedic surgeon.

KENNY: Details, details.


KENNY: And so you’re wearing many hats at this point.

ELLEN: Mm-hmm.

KENNY: When you’re looking to grow your team, is geography one of the challenges to trap people into your area? Or do you suspect that you’re going to be able to recruit the talent you need right in your backyard?

ELLEN: I think it is a challenge. And I think really with the, especially in the early team members, you want to make sure that they’re definitely the right people. So, you know, right now we have three full time. So it’s two of the co-founders, but we also have one employee who’s a software developer. So we were actually able to, he lives in Connecticut, you know, we didn’t know him before, he had emailed us and reached out through our website and I think he had seen it on something from Connecticut innovations. And so, he’s been amazing. He actually started out doing our back end and front end, and he’s taken on all the mobile app stuff as well. So he’s doing the work of like three or four people. You know, and what actually works really well is that he works off site most of the time. So he has a family, he has you know, a real life, unlike the co-founders. And so, you know, he can spend time with his family and work off site. But, you know, we know that he’s working with us and so we actual communicate using a lot of digital tools to make sure that we’re all on track. And so, I think that’s something that we’re open to. It is nice to have people in the office and I think we’ll try and find that. You know, we’re always open to looking at kind of the college graduates with Uconn and Yale there, they’re a lot of really talented people graduating. But I think, you know, hiring is always a challenge for startups and I think, you know, the talent pool is a little bit smaller in Connecticut. And, you know, we may have to look outside the state to see if there are people who would, you know, either work remote or move to Connecticut.

KENNY: Interesting, interesting. So, Wellinks doesn’t seem like a name that you guys came up with that’s specific for this product. It does seem that, in digital health if you’re paying attention at all, wearable technology, wearable health devices is the thing. Do you guys look beyond scoliosis as other markets are popping up, is that something that’s in your dreaming and planning process right now?

ELLEN: Oh for sure, definitely. I think, so at the very, very beginning when we first had three people on the team and we were starting our fellowship, we called ourselves Spine Design and we quickly outgrew that name. And so, we’re definitely interested, our product right now is essentially a smart strap, so it’s a strap that can detect tension, position, orientation, a lot of other factors. We’ve actually been able to attach it on to a couple of other types of braces, and to test out some of the other functions there, and that’s something that we’re interested in, and we’ve had doctors contacting us about using it in other types of braces, you know, for other conditions. And it’s something where it is a flexible system and I think that’s where healthcare is moving towards where everything will become smart. And, you know, we’re getting to the point where patient adherence, like patients going along with the treatment becomes a huge part of the treatment itself and the treatments success. And I think the more we’re able to actually incentivize that to actually get people engaged in their treatment, the better that is. And so, I think that’s a huge part of it. We’re personally interested in staying in healthcare, but we’re looking at other braces that we can apply it to, other conditions, we are focusing right now on scoliosis to get it into the market and really test out those assumptions that we have. But, you know, we’ve, we’re playing around with the other braces and I think that’s something that we’re definitely interested in down the line in the future once we get scoliosis out the door.

KENNY: That’s awesome, awesome. Yeah, when I worked for a pharma company, the compliance is one of the biggest issues. And being able to apply technology to that right now and evidence based behavioral intervention worldwide. I think it’s just fantastic, it’s just great to see companies like Wellinks sprouting up and trying to solve real life problems that are going to do good for the individual, but also for the system as a whole. So, great, it’s great to see that you guys are thriving and on your way. Just are you ready for a quick lightning round of questions Ellen?

ELLEN: Sure.

KENNY: So, first is, just first for our compatriots who are in the startup digital world, we’re always looking to get better and sharpen our sword in terms of productivity. Do you have a digital or online productivity tool that you’ve been enamored with recently, or just use day in and day out at this point?

ELLEN: I really like Trello, even, not even as a team management, even just for myself, keeping track of all the tasks. I really like the way it’s laid out with the cards and being able to move them around. And so it works really well with my personal workflow. And I’ve seen other teams using it really effectively for team management, so I think that’s a tool that I really enjoy using. And also, it integrates with Slack, which is another fantastic tool.

KENNY: Yes, Trello and Slack, awesome. Podcasts just like this one, I think are really doing well these days in the age of content binging, etc. People are looking for new Podcasts, do you have any others that the listeners here today that are entrepreneurs that are interested in startup life, do you have any Podcasts in particular you could recommend?

ELLEN: I’m always interested in learning kind of the background of the world and sort of things that you see. So a lot of my Podcasts have to do with like design and those kinds of things. So, I always have time for ninety nine percent invisible, planet money, you know, a lot of those. So, those are always fun. Mine aren’t as tech focused.

KENNY: I’ll have to look those up to put on my list. And last question is, if people here want to connect with you today, what’s the best method for people to reach out to you Ellen?

ELLEN: So actually, I’m actually really bad at social media, so you should send me an email. My email is

KENNY: Awesome, thank you so much for spending time with us. I know that each minute of the day is precious in the startup life. So, it’s a privilege to really be able to talk to you and see inside what’s going on behind the curtains at Wellinks. Just, best of luck to you as you guys get to market. My name is Kenny Jahng, the host of this show the Venture Clash Entrepreneurial Podcast. If you have other startups that you think would be great in the interview seat here, just reach out to us at and that’s also the place you’ll learn about our five million dollar venture competition that’s coming up this year in 2016. Thanks Ellen for joining us, hope to see you soon and take care.

ELLEN: Thanks for having me.