When Jessica Ching studied industrial design at OCAD University in Toronto, she didn’t think she would end up as a health-care entrepreneur.
“It’s probably not the conventional path. But I was interested in the intersection between design and health care,” she says.
Ms. Ching is co-founder (with Evan Moses) and chief executive officer of Eve Medical Inc., a Toronto startup that has developed a product called HerSwab for women to test themselves for cervical cancer.
“This project actually started as my thesis research project at OCAD University. I had a conversation with a group of women, and the topic of cervical cancer screening came up while we were just chatting,” Ms. Ching says.
“One of the women I was speaking with said that she knew that cervical cancer screening was important to her health. But she found the test and the process made her so uncomfortable that she had actually avoided being tested for the last five years.”
This intrigued Ms. Ching. “A lot of the other women around the table agreed that it was an awful experience. I thought, isn’t it quite tragic that these women are not taking care of themselves, just because the experience is uncomfortable.”
Ms. Ching and Ms. Moses looked at what was preventing women from being tested and discovered that the main barrier was a reluctance to go to a clinic.
“Women say they don’t have time, can’t get to a family doctor, can’t get daycare or transport. So we make the first step really easy. They can screen themselves, and if they have a positive result then they can take it to a clinic.”
Eve Medical’s trademarked HerSwab, available now only for research and limited commercial use, is designed to enable women to collect samples themselves near the cervix, where strains of high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) are more likely to be found.
The technology is being developed to make sample collection and shipment to the doctor’s office as foolproof as possible, and to point women toward seeking appropriate follow-up care if their self-testing shows up positive.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in health care to redesign things to be more useful for people, in ways that would increase compliance,” she says.
With financial help from friends, family, early-stage angel investors and funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence’s Martin Walmsley Fellowship, the company, now four people, including Ms. Ching, was started in 2010, a year after she graduated from OCAD University.
“Right now we’re raising our first real equity round. Fundraising can certainly be challenging for first-time entrepreneurs, and I have had to learn on the fly,” she says.
The company has been meeting prospective investors through groups such as the not-for-profit Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization, the MaRS Centre, business and female entrepreneur networks such as SheEO, Springboard and Next Founders. “I also reach out to investors that have some alignment with Eve Medical, or through introductions from other health-care companies,” Ms. Ching says.
While she has no personal or family experience with cervical cancer, Ms. Ching says prevention matters a lot to her. Cervical cancer claims more than 275,000 lives each year, mostly among women who do not undergo screening. Among those who do, “30 per cent are not screening according to guidelines,” she adds.
“It’s not a technical problem, it’s a behaviour problem. And that’s where design comes in. The designer will look not at whether something functions or not, but whether it functions for people.”
Once the design process is under way, one of the biggest learning curves for an entrepreneur such as Ms. Ching is to find out exactly how to be one.
“I don’t think there’s a way to train, other than to be one. There are skills that you could work on improving to give yourself a leg up before you start a business, but if you try to improve them all upfront, you’ll never get started. The challenge and beauty of running a startup is that you have the opportunity to learn it all at once,” she says.
“Starting a company is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m glad I did. Having a great team is really critical. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s practically impossible to over-communicate, but easy to under-communicate. Taking time to speak openly about how we can improve has been very important. We also receive a lot of guidance from our advisers and mentors,” Ms. Ching adds.
She recommends applying principles called “objectives and key results,” which she and her team have reviewed through a video produced by Google Ventures. The system helps her small team stay aligned and accountable to each other.
“I have also met women who have experienced cervical cancer and have encouraged me. If we can prevent even one woman from developing cervical cancer, I would feel that we’ve made a difference.”