As a female founder in the biotech startup space, 22-year-old Sol Chen is a pioneer. Her company, Clara Health, which connects patients with clinical trials, has landed her a Thiel Fellowship and a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the healthcare category.
It all started with a lone flyer on the campus of Brown University. Sol Chen was on her way to class one morning when a clinical trial notice for breast cancer patients caught her attention. It was the sheer nonchalance with which it fluttered among flyers for coffee shop comedy shows that made her take a second glance. She was baffled as to why something as significant as a clinical trial was left to be discovered by chance on random papers stapled to a pole.
“Lives hang in the balance and lives are impacted by hurdles that can be cleared. And that’s why I’m working to build Clara,” Sol says. “It’s time to make a change.”
With just one year left at Brown, she decided to leave and pursue this new venture. Armed with the computer science knowledge needed to create a digital platform which empowers patients, Sol started Clara Health – the “Google for clinical trials.” By matching individuals with these medical trials, the company assists drug development corporations by lowering the cost of finding patients and simultaneously enables those dealing with illnesses to take control of their treatment options.
Things have been going well. Sol won a Thiel Fellowship, which awards $100,000 to college-student founders with cutting-edge business ideas. The company itself has also led several successful rounds of venture funding, where investors put their financial weight behind Sol and her cofounder, Evan Ehrenberg. Just a month ago, she made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the healthcare category. The one significant challenge? Being a woman in the male-dominated biotech sector. At a particular event, she was even assumed to be her cofounder’s secretary(!).
On a rainy Cambridge afternoon, we met up with Sol to discuss her experiences in the tech field and beyond. Between sips of a steaming green tea latte, she warmly shared her advice for aspiring founders and other young women in STEM.
1. You grew up quite close to Silicon Valley. Did you always dream of working in tech?
I grew up in the South Bay in Silicon Valley, but tech and engineering fields were actually something I hadn’t considered at all until after I started college. Although I had three older brothers who my parents wanted to go into tech, my parents didn’t really encourage me to. My parents really wanted me to go into medicine.
Since I started high school, I was passionate about going into research to make new medicine and spent a lot of my free time watching med school lecture videos online and taking courses at nearby universities in anatomy and physiology. I entered college pre-med as a biochemistry major and had never considered anything in tech up until that point.
The only reason I got into computer science was [because] my friend in my freshman math class explained object oriented programming to me, which I thought was incredibly interesting. He encouraged me to sign up for the intro CS course which I ended up loving. I’m very thankful as I think if that hadn’t happened, I probably would still be in biochem.
2. What is the idea behind Clara?
When people ask me how the idea for Clara came about, it always surprises them when the first thing I say is that “It started with a flyer.”
When I was a student at Brown, I frequently saw flyers on my campus advertising a local band playing that night, an apartment for rent, or a coffee shop comedy show. But on my way to class one morning, there was one that was really different — it was trying to find patients for a breast cancer clinical trial.
I was floored. As I continued walking to class I was imagining what it would be like to be a breast cancer patient struggling with that diagnosis, trying to make educated decisions about what would be the best treatment option for herself. This trial could provide hope for a breast cancer patient who needed another option, but to find it stapled to a telephone pole? Most patients who might benefit from the new treatment would never see it, and anyone who did was likely to ignore it.
I thought, “How can a patient feel empowered to make treatment decision when that information is coming from a flyer?” And that was really unacceptable. That really gave me the drive to change the clinical trials landscape and create a software platform that could help streamline the entire process of finding and enrolling in the right study for patients, which is incredibly confusing to navigate alone today.
3. Was it a difficult decision to leave Brown in order to pursue this new venture?
It wasn’t really a difficult decision at all! When we were exploring the problem, and started talking to patients, we saw how difficult the situation was for them and how we could have a huge role in helping. Even though I only had a year left of school, starting Clara one year sooner was much more important to me.
4. Much has been said about how few women are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Have you ever faced misogyny as a female in the STEM field?
Absolutely! At first it was incredibly frustrating. My co-founder is male, and at many meetings and events we attended together, I would receive little to no eye contact or acknowledgement. I remember one particular event where someone assumed I was my co-founder’s secretary, even though we were both part of the presentation (hah). It’s crazy hard, but one piece of advice I would give is to keep acknowledging yourself and your contributions. Simply accept compliments – don’t undervalue your incredible achievements with words like “just.”
5. What does a day in your life look like?
It’s usually very different every day! I spend a lot of my time evaluating the problems faced by patients, the tools that exist today to help them, the technologies available for us to use to solve these problems, and how each of these is evolving over time. I use what I learn to work with the team and help plan out how we can best position our company and direction to make the greatest impact.
6. What has been your proudest moment?
When we began to build Clara, we knew that we were working to help improve the life of patients. But the potential of what we were doing felt theoretical, until earlier this year when we helped a patient enroll into a clinical trial that could help treat their condition. I felt very proud that we really helped someone in such a scary time in their lives, and it made me resolve to keep working even harder to make sure that every patient has that sort of experience with us.
7. What is one piece of advice you would give to those aspiring for success?
Become comfortable with making decisions and having conviction in them with incomplete information. I struggled a lot with this early on, but the reality is you’ll never know every factor or outcome and you have to become comfortable with balancing instincts and research. You’ll always have to make choices without fully understanding what is coming.
8. Would you go back to Brown to finish up your degree?
Possibly! Before starting Clara, I had wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. Brown is very supportive and generous with the amount of time they give you to go back, so maybe one day in the future!
9. What is your vision for the future?
In the future, I’d love to play a role in helping all parts of the healthcare process be more understandable and accessible for everyone.
Some facts about Sol:
- Some of her role models include Melinda & Bill Gates, Anne & Susan Wojcicki, Janet Yellen and Elon Musk.
- She believes the best way to relieve stress is to “go for a swim!”
- The best advice she ever received was “just do it.”
- As a kid, she wanted to be a “superhero.”
- One word she would use to sum up success is “impact.”
Cover photo shot by Adelle Goldenberg for The Glam Salad ©