My guest today is Geeta Singh, Geeta is the co-founder and Chief Business Officer of Mag Optics, an ophthalmic device company, and we're going to get into how all of that works and what she does, but she comes to the start up world with over 25 years of senior executive experience in financial and operational roles. Her global career spanning cross-border M&A strategy, transactions for large multinationals, to working with early stage companies on strategic initiatives and strategic business development. Welcome to Wings, Geeta.
Geeta Singh: Thank you, I'm excited to be here.
Melinda Wittstock: It is so great to be with you here in the studios in New York of Mouth Media, so gracious of them to let us sit here in this beautiful office space and record this in person. I'm glancing at your career and you've had quite a varied history. Can you talk a little bit about that and how your path brought you to where you are now, at Mag Optics?
Geeta Singh: You're right, varied is an understatement. I look at it as a series of adventures over my first 13 years of my career was the role that people are familiar with. Corporate strategy, at large multinationals, specifically in financial services, but I really focused on strategic business development, corporate mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, the largest IPO in history at the time, which was Allstate's. Including living and working in London, Hong Kong, Poland, and Reno, which is actually the most exotic of all those locations, which I will talk about offline with you.
Melinda Wittstock: That's got my imagination going a little bit.
Geeta Singh: It is the biggest little city in the world, but what that taught me, that early corporate experience is how boardrooms think, how corporate strategics, or how corporates make decisions on strategic initiatives. It also taught me how to work across functional departments and when you're doing a transaction, you have business units, you have accounting, you have legal, so really how all the pieces come together. It was always from a view of bringing together cross-functional areas for an aligned objective. It was very relevant that it was grounding and it was painful, as all corporate experiences are, but it really gave me a very strong foundation to do what I did in the second half of my career, which was transition to smaller companies, entrepreneurial environments, and early stage companies. That happened to be over a variety of sectors, so from real estate to hospitality, to working with Indian companies with the global processing, global business processing outsourcing.
The smaller company environment did the same thing as I did in corporate, but without the deep pockets and without the resources. Same thing, wearing a lot of different hats, pushing forward strategic initiatives, but learning to do it on limited resources.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that's something that entrepreneurs often have to do, particularly women, and we're going to get into the funding issue in a moment. So, Mag is solving a problem called presbyopia, I hope I'm saying that right, what is it?
Geeta Singh: It's a problem that impacts over 2 billion people, almost 111 million in the US, but most people have never heard of it. If you're over the age of 40, you've certainly felt the impact of it. It presents in you not being able to read your phone, looking up, pulling books and magazines further away, we call it the long arm issue, but it's really the loss of near vision as you age.
Melinda Wittstock: I'm wearing magnifiers right now, so that means that I have this?
Geeta Singh: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I have purposely stationed my reading materials further away so I can actually read them.
Melinda Wittstock: Age.
Geeta Singh: Age. That's actually the interesting thing about it. This is … presbyopia actually translates into “old eyes”, isn't that sweet? But it is a condition that you cannot, unlike some other chronic conditions, [inaudible 00:04:21 that you may be able to manage, presbyopia, you, no matter how much yoga you do, no matter how much meditation you do, no matter how many green smoothies you drink, Crossfit, you will get it. It's almost 100% of people by the age of 50 actually have the symptoms of presbyopia.
Melinda Wittstock: And so how do you solve it, or get rid of it, and treat it?
Geeta Singh: Well, so solving is what we're all familiar with, is when you start to see an older person with readers, right? Readers, contacts is very much the tradition way of solving it, and it still very much works today, however, as the aging population has become more active, they're working longer, and they are also familiar with, well, in their younger years, they had LASIK, that allowed them to have a lifestyle free of glasses and contacts, so now what into your 40's? Surgical solutions for presbyopia have been very limited, and the concept of a corneal inlay, which is actually what we're developing, is a device that is implanted into the cornea to effectively reshape the cornea so your eye can see at all distances.
Melinda Wittstock: That's awesome, and so when did you start the company, and what stage are you at right now?
Geeta Singh: The company was started in late 2014, the corneal inlay was actually not our first device, we have a couple of devices, 'cause we really excel with innovation and we'll talk to a bit of that, but our corneal inlay device really … the ideation really came about in late 2015, and so from 2015 to now, we have prototyped, we have implanted into cadavers and we're not into 22 human eyes, outside of [inaudible 00:06:16.
Melinda Wittstock: That's amazing. Like a lot of female founders of companies, I know I've experienced this, it's very difficult, even when we're innovating and we have huge [inaudible 00:06:27 markets to get the funding that we actually need, has that been tricky for you guys, or do you have all the capital you need to really blow this up?
Geeta Singh: No, and no. Or yes and yes, depending on the question it is.
Melinda Wittstock: This is such a sad story, this is something that I'm doing this podcast 'cause I want to change, you know?
Geeta Singh: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: I interview all these amazing women doing these incredible things, and everybody's struggling for capital, it makes no sense to me.
Geeta Singh: Yeah, so it's interesting, 'cause I talk about a pipeline problem, right? But, it's really not a pipeline problem as you are witnessing, and what you do, and showcasing these female led incredible technologies, companies, et cetera. It's really not a pipeline problem, it's a, as I call it, the Triple A Threat, which is awareness, access and action. Yes, we have had … we have been bootstrapped, we have been very unique from the perspective that in less than two years we were able to take a very complex medical device and basically fast track proof of concept and into human eyes with one year data, in less than two years, also bootstrapped.
That is a milestone that people are usually, that drops jaws. However, we were at an innovation stage, we are now transitioning to a regulatory stage. That requires serious funds. This is a class three med device, so it requires clinical trials and et cetera. Now, our funding conversations have started and really over the last three to six months, we started having meaningful conversations, we were certainly having tap your toe in the water type of conversations before, and there are two things that impact it. One is, what is internal to Mag Optics, the second is, what is external to the environment? Med devices, and specifically ophthalmology, has been actually one of the hottest areas in the past because it's a captive market, I talked about those numbers, 2 billion.
Melinda Wittstock: You have a huge addressable market. Everybody needs this.
Geeta Singh: Exactly, and beyond that need, meaning presbyopia surgical solution is actually called the holy grail in ophthalmology, so for addressable market on that need, we check all boxes. However, it's an emerging market, much like LASIK was in the early '80s, it's an emerging market, people, as I said, you know you have readers and you know you have an issue reading your phone and menus at restaurants, but you didn't know it was called presbyopia. The awareness of presbyopia, the awareness of what there are now surgical solutions available, that's all a part of educating the patient, educating the market and getting people comfortable with the concept of a surgical solution.
Melinda Wittstock: I guess investors sometimes see risk, though, as well, in the regulatory procedure. ‘Cause that can take a long time, and it's not necessarily a done deal. How do you manage, as a company, and as a founder, thinking about that kind of risk and what do you tell investors?
Geeta Singh: A couple of things, and again, that is internal and some of it external. If you look at internal risk, we've managed it quite efficiently and actually to a degree that most investor conversations are again, very impressed by what we've done. We've taken, we've de risked the technology, we've prototyped, we've redesigned, we've implanted into humans, we have data, so we really managed it very well internally. Now, the external risk to your point about regulatory environment and et cetera, that exists in anything that is attempting to solve a really big problem, right, and when you look at healthcare, to some degree, the impact, the ultimate impact investment, it is really … you have to have investors get comfortable with the idea of a long tail business and a long tail return.
Unfortunately, we have been disguised with fast returns, how fast to revenue, and how can you get to X amount of milestones. Some of the tech bubbles has fed abnormal expectations.
Melinda Wittstock: How many more photo sharing apps can there be? You know?
Geeta Singh: For food delivery, or et cetera, so yes.
Melinda Wittstock: People looking for a swift return, and it's interesting where a venture capitalist become more like bankers, rather than, they should be risk takers.
Geeta Singh: Exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: But increasingly, it's like the funding environment, you have to be later, and later, and later stage to get that money. Do you see a difference in terms of when … There's a lot of women in the medical device business, in med tech, health tech, is it harder for women to get funding? Do you think you have more … a higher barrier to get over than if a dude was sitting in your shoes right now?
Geeta Singh: Well, you know, you look at what's been done historically, and I can speak to ophthalmology. I'm not from the ophthalmic world, but looking at where the innovation has come from, what the management teams look like, they are almost all male. There are very few founding teams that have a woman on them.
Melinda Wittstock: And you're changing that, which is awesome.
Geeta Singh: Yeah, it is awesome, and it's also daunting. Anytime you're disrupting, whether it's a health area, whether it's a more bigger concept of women and funding and entrepreneurship, it's daunting because you're always fighting an uphill battle, and it's not the same playing field, so I've never let that get in the way. My career has always been in challenging, daunting male dominated environments, so this is just another venture.
Melinda Wittstock: What's the inner mindset that you need to be able to do that, you've talked about showing up and disrupting, and not fitting the pattern or whatever. Is there something that the entrepreneur, and executive woman needs when you're often find yourself the only woman in the room, some sort of special attitude or the routine to get yourself in the right mindset, so actually succeed in that environment?
You need a lot of grit, resilience. All those things that are relevant for anybody trying to do big things, and I don’t think that is just necessary for women, I think that’s necessary for entrepreneurs in general. Click to tweet
Geeta Singh: Fortunately for me, that mindset has been built over 20 years. However, to your point, I do hear some of other female founders struggle with, okay, what do I need to do? And of course, all the things that we needed to do, and all aspects of our career, we need tough skin. We need to be vocal, you need to be able to call out others and get the story straight. You need a lot of grit, resilience. All those things that are relevant for anybody trying to do big things, and I don't think that is just necessary for women, I think that's necessary for entrepreneurs in general,but obviously, with the different lens that women have to deal with, it becomes an added challenge. I think I approach it very much, I have every right to be here than as anybody else, and the things I have done in my career, and my experience make me absolutely positioned to be doing exactly what I'm doing.
Melinda Wittstock: I've learned as a serial entrepreneur, yes, I'm on what, business number four now, right, that every … There's so many things beyond my control. The only thing that I can actually control is myself and my reaction to things, and I realized at a certain point on my journey that I was more likely, and women around me, were more likely to take thing personally, and I began to think it was because we're so much more focused on the relationship. We care much more about relationships.
Geeta Singh: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: And all these things, this is a generalization.
Geeta Singh: Of course.
Melinda Wittstock: And so when we think about as women, when we show up as entrepreneurs, what are some of the things that get in our way just because of our nature that we can become more aware of? Not like trying to be dudes, not trying to be guys, 'cause we're not, we bring so many advantages to the table, but what are some tips or some things that our listeners can take away from you and your journey in terms of a challenging situation or … that you had to think outside the box, or you had to bring it in a way that was maybe outside your comfort zone a little bit?
Geeta Singh: That's interesting because, again, this goes back to my unique set of experience and background. I have always been out [inaudible 00:15:17, I have always been out the comfort zone, so the challenges for me isn't about thinking about of the box, but I can understand why it might be for others. But the challenges for me have been … you mentioned about how does your voice carry [inaudible 00:15:37, and it's really about how do you get people to come along on the journey with you? In doing so, you have to find different ways to tell the story. You have to leverage and reach to, okay, if this angle is not working, let me try a different one.
To funding presbyopia, we're going in with here's why our technology is different and we have clearly shown the differentiating platform. We're able to address a much wider spectrum of presbyopia patient groups, but everyone's like yeah, okay, that's great. But there's still an educating that needs to be done. Many a times, I find myself having to actually educate the investor. Those who are not familiar with med tech and ophthalmology, so we're educating the investor and so that's got me thinking about what do we need to do to broaden that conversation about awareness? Because as you pointed out, we're a class three med device, with a regulatory overhead, and our path to market is at best case scenario, five long years, assuming we have funding. In those five years, what are the other things that we need to be doing that will allow for the most successful transition, commercial transition? In that, is how do we bring about this awareness and this conversation about this [crosstalk 00:17:10.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, how do you prepare and grow your market?
Geeta Singh: Right, and people will sometimes … and I've had this question asked of me in different presentations, it's like well so what, we can wear readers. Well, yes, so what, you can wear readers, but there's actually a GVP impact to uncorrected presbyopia north of 25 billion. The baby boomers and the aging population are working longer, so having to struggle between oh, I forgot my readers today, oh I don't have [inaudible 00:17:41. Now I need to, I mean, I find myself with that challenge all day long.
It's really bringing along all the stakeholders, so while yes, we certainly have the investor conversation and all the aspects of risk that we talked about, but then also we've got the patient education platform, and that fortunately for us, there are a couple of other corneal inlay devices that are already on the market, so they started a lot of groundwork on that, but it's not enough, so we very much feel that thinking out of the box, okay, this is not just about the technology but this is about a broader conversation.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, you mentioned women really speaking out and speaking up, there's so many times where I think we can sometimes wait or make perfect the enemy of the good and not speak up until we have all the solutions and all the knowledge, and whereas I see a lot of guys just talking before they even have a formulated thought. Not in all cases, but just being quicker to speak, quicker to seize the day, and with startups, so much of it is just keeping going and just telling your story and all of that. Has it been hard to speak up or do you notice the women around you doing that, and what's some ways that you found in your journey, where you can get that story out in the way that you need to?
Geeta Singh: I want to go back to that earlier point you made about women having to know all the answers and …
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, we think we do.
We don’t need all the answers. We do need people around you that have the answers, and you need to be able to put together that team, very purposefully. #WingsPodcastClick to tweet
Geeta Singh: Yeah. Exactly. Again, I have embraced, always, the path that we don't need all the answers. We do need people around you that have the answers, and you need to be able to put together that team, very purposefully, but there've been studies done that when you look to some of the research, men apply for jobs that they don't have qualifications for. One of the things that I've heard with female entrepreneurs and various panels is that you have to be the expert. You have to be the science expert, and you have to be the technical expert, [crosstalk 00:19:55.
Melinda Wittstock: No, what you got to do is you got to hire that, or you got to hire your weakness is what you have to do.
Geeta Singh: Often, I walk into meetings and people assume because I'm Indian, they assume I'm the doctor on the team, and actually, I'm not, my partners are the doctors on the team.
Melinda Wittstock: You're the business guru.
Geeta Singh: I'm the business. I'm the business chick. Yeah, and that just shows the first hurdle of having to switch mindsets. I'm a firm believer of embracing opportunity and jumping in without having all the answers, and that is fundamental to entrepreneurship, you're never going to have all the answers.
Melinda Wittstock: No, it's really interesting, you never are and often when you look around the room at an entrepreneurial event, it's very easy to look at everybody else and think oh they all know what they're doing and I don't. It's just that they're all thinking the same thing.
Geeta Singh: They are.
Melinda Wittstock: Everyone.
Geeta Singh: That I know from very intimate conversations with other fellow entrepreneurs, female and male. Nobody knows all the answers.
Melinda Wittstock: It's impossible. It's impossible, 'cause every day, every hour of every day is testing a hypothesis, much like a scientist would.
Geeta Singh: Exactly. Exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: Failure just comes with the territory, which is why we have to learn as women not to take things personally. I'm interested, you were mentioning the team, and I'm curious about your founding story, how you all came together as co-founders and is there some sort of backstory?
Geeta Singh: Yeah, so it's a very interesting backstory. We're a virtual cross border med tech company, so two of my founders are in London, and the story actually originates from Syria. The founding team, or Hakam and Marwan, my two founders in London, the family actually originated from Syria and in the early '80s, the family moved to UK and Marwan, who is our chief inventor and scientist, did his medical education, clinical studies and medical degree in UK. In the late '90s he moved the family back to Syria because he wanted to actually work within the country, and ended up setting up four eye hospitals in Damascus and surrounding areas. At the height of the Iraqi War, somewhere in the mid 2000's, 60% of their patient base were people coming over from across the border.
You had injuries like eye trauma, very complex eye conditions. The type of injuries and the type of conditions you would not see normal clinical work in the western society. His understanding of the eye and the anatomy and how to innovate on the spot, it surpasses normal experiences. Late 2000's, the family, the civil war breaks out in Syria in 2012 and the family relocates back to London, and upon Hakam graduating and becoming a [inaudible 00:22:51 specialty surgeon himself and his father's designs that for year had sat in drawers, but with some early patents awarded, decided to really take this concept and some of the designs forward and see if there's a possible opportunity to commercialize.
The two of them know medicine, clinical, science, engineering really well, but they didn't know what to do with the ID, so a mutual friend introduced us, a mutual friend of his in Chicago, and we spoke on the phone for a couple of months in October 2014, Hakam and Marwan flew out to Chicago. We spent a week together and the chemistry was right, our value system was right, our approach to … okay, what are the things that we're going to need to do over the next two years, because like more scientists or doctors, they're like okay, we got this great idea, not we need money, and one of the first things I said is we are so far away from standing up and asking for money, we've got a lot of work to do, so really we complemented each other really well. The two of them have really deep [inaudible 00:24:02 skills and expertise, and I come with incredible wingspan. Very horizontal.
Melinda Wittstock: I like that, wingspan, that's the right word here, on today, on wings of inspired business.
Geeta Singh: Wow, I hadn't meant that pun, but excellent.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I know, that's the right thing to say.
Geeta Singh: So yeah, so the three of us have been very effective, and again, we built the company for where we are right now, which is the innovation stage, now transitioning to the regulatory stage.
Melinda Wittstock: It's so exciting. Tell me a little bit about what's next for Mag Optics, where do you think the company will be, say if you think moon shot terms, think big. Where's it going to be 10 years from now? 20 years from now?
Geeta Singh: Well, 20 years from now, we hope that Mag Optics, our corneal inlays are in as many presbyopia patients across the globe. We have … one thing I've learned in business and doing five years strategic plans for corporate is you can have the best laid plans, but they're as good as your next major milestone or your next major turn, so while we certainly … our ultimate objective is we want to see it in patients, does this need to be a five billion dollar Mag Optics, we have no plans or no ideals about what that needs to look like. We're very fluid when it comes to what is the best model that will allow us to get to where we need to, which is really benefit the patient.
Obviously, as I mentioned before, it's a class three med device. This requires a lot of capital, so really of it is subjective for dependent on capital.
Melinda Wittstock: As we wind the interview down, I want to ask you a little bit about just your personal routine, and how you ride this entrepreneurial roller coaster. Do you have a lot of people around you that are encouraging you? How do you deal with things like work life balance, or work life integration, as I call it, because it's a lot to … it's a lot to juggle just to be an entrepreneur, but when you start to add in relationships or children or just other things in your life, staying fit, staying healthy, how do you manage all of that?
Geeta Singh: I mentioned we were a virtual cross border company. The advantages to that are that we have been able to fast track our proof of concept. The challenges to that is that we have coverage almost 24 hours. I work a lot of late nights, I'm a night owl from my very early days, so I embrace burning the midnight oil wholeheartedly. But I know that's not for everyone.
Melinda Wittstock: Do you take time for yourself? Do you do to the spa?
Geeta Singh: I do. I do. Well, not spa, but my release is Zumba and kickboxing.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, you got to do something.
Geeta Singh: Exactly, and also meditation, I try. Silent meditation, because nothing speaks more to you than silence!
Melinda Wittstock: I do that too, and when I started, it transformed my life, and I find that I get my best ideas, my best inspirations, when I'm not working.
Geeta Singh: Yup. I actually just did a silent meditation course about two months ago, just as a recent, because you know we're at a critical juncture of the business, but back to your question about how do you balance that and work life balance, and if you're going to embrace entrepreneurship, especially startup world, unfunded startup world, the concept of work life balance is … I'm sorry I'm going to be totally honest, it doesn't exist. So anybody expecting to have a work life balance, should not do this. But there is, like you said, there are things that you do to get through it, and yes, you have to surround yourself with a support system, and my support system consists of other founders, because they get it.
Melinda Wittstock: You got to surround yourself with that, and you and I are both alumna of Springboard Enterprises, which is an accelerator for women entrepreneurs, and having those networks or having people to talk to, oh my goodness, saved my life. I mean, really.
Geeta Singh: Just to know you're not alone, and the thoughts that go through your head at the peak times as well as the down times are first of all, all necessary, and you embrace all of them, but it helps to know that you're not alone because very few people really understand that journey of putting everything you believe in into something that is greater than yourself and risking a lot with that. There's a lot that goes into the journey, and emotional highs and lows and a support system is critical. And when all else fails, crank Led Zeppelin.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. What's your favorite Led Zeppelin song?
Geeta Singh: I have … actually, I was going to write a whole blog piece on this, but I truly believe that getting the Led out every day is critical to surviving entrepreneurialism. Before presentations, and some of my close friends know this, I crank Immigrant Song. You need a Viking war song to get you in the mood for okay I'm going out to present. Especially whether it's a startup challenge or investor presentation, et cetera. In other meetings, it's Whole Lotta Love. That is really about, when I said earlier about entrepreneurship is a two way street, nobody knows all the answers. The investors don't know all the answers, the strategics don't know the answers, the mentors don't know all the answers, you don't know all the answers. You've got to be very comfortable and confident in being able to call others out on it, because as much as we look for teaching as entrepreneurs, we're also teaching others. And Whole Lotta Love is really about being able to teach on both sides.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. So inspiring. Geeta, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with me today.
Geeta Singh: Excellent. Thank you so much. It's been a blast.
Melinda Wittstock: Geeta Singh, of Mag Optics. This show is recorded in the Mouth Media Network Studios in New York City, powered by Sennheiser, the Future of Audio. Visit www.sennheiser.com.