The Unstoppable Determination of Michelle Longmire, MD
Medable’s Co-founder/CEO on her father’s falconry, never listening to the no’s, and getting more molecules to market
Gabe Kleinman |
A grandfather engaged in developing the hydrogen bomb and establishing the underpinnings of electromagnetic pulse theory. Her father, a molecular biologist involved in the Human Genome Project. And her mother, a radiochemist.
“We call her my ‘hot momma’ because she’s a plutonium expert.”
Michelle Longmire was reared by a family of scientists — one that’s “all about innovation and discovery” — in an epicenter of American science: Los Alamos, New Mexico. With her father in particular, she learned the value or scientific inquiry in the pursuit of one’s passions: a self-taught falconer from his teenage years, he developed the first genetic assay determining the sex of phenotypically identical birds. Her father’s test enabled the breeding of Whooping Cranes in captivity leading to their removal from the endangered species list.
“We grew up with birds of prey,” she says with a laugh. “We were a family that just went for it: discover things, build things, explore things. Nothing was out of bounds. I learned that when humans put their minds together, we can accomplish so much that seemed formerly impossible.”
This optimistic, determined, and team-driven philosophy deeply influenced and evolved with Michelle her entire life.
Dirt Biking, Division I Soccer, and Dermatology
From her elementary school days Michelle thrived as a solo sports athlete, from dirt bike racing to gymnastics. As she reached her early teens, Michelle saw her younger brother excelling in team sports like soccer and ice hockey. It’s not everyday a teenager seeks inspiration from a younger sibling, but the Longmires were no typical American family — and that’s exactly what happened.
At the age of 14 Michelle began her soccer career, and it took off quickly.
“People said ‘You’re too old to learn this.’ So I practiced over three hours a day on my own, and I got a Division I scholarship to the University of New Mexico three years from the time I started playing. It was really just an act of sheer determination.”
In addition to becoming captain of the team, Michelle toed the family line and pursued scientific research as an undergraduate. With an initial focus on biology, she applied for a Rhodes Scholarship and came up just short (named a finalist, no small feat). Her father’s encouragement combined with a fateful trip to Colorado with a friend (who suggested they “just go to medical school!”) led her to take the MCAT and apply on a whim.
Michelle was eventually motivated by medicine’s ability to impact people’s lives, although she had to overcome a personal challenge first: hypochondria. In the process of conquering these fears at medical school she learned both the ins-and-outs of illness, and most importantly, not to spend her healthy days worrying about it.
“I learned to make decisions differently. The hypothetical negative scenarios almost never play out. You should instead make decisions on the positive factors you know.”
With her MD in tow, Michelle decided to pursue dermatology. She describes the skin as “a fascinating area to explore — an access point to the broader story on human health and disease.” Michelle also seized on the opportunity to work with Howard Chang at Stanford, who became her research mentor.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to research with Howard. He drove the spirit of innovation for me, and further opened up the beauty of scientific exploration.”
Michelle’s residency at Stanford led to a faculty position, where she spent time both seeing patients and deep in research. Over the years she recognized the limitations of academia on her ambitions due to its institutional nature, and ultimately chose a different path: founder and CEO.
The Trueness, Purity, and Beauty of Business
In 2015, still a resident a Stanford, her entrepreneurial inclinations could no longer be contained. At the time a number of providers and technology startups were looking to digitize healthcare, without a common infrastructure or platform on which to build mobile applications. Michelle’s idea was to build a first-of-its-kind platform designed for both patients and enterprise healthcare companies — something that was HIPAA-compliant under the hood with a consumer-friendly design for patients.
“Patients simply needed greater access to the healthcare system on mobile,” according to her.
Through her time as a Stanford faculty member she’d raised $700K and hired an engineering team, which increasingly saw an opportunity to drive research through their system. The platform they’d built was their first go-to-market product, but turned out to be a hard sell to developers. While it didn’t exactly take off (although “major healthcare providers still use it to this day”), it provided a foundation for her team to develop their own applications which they began selling to research institutions like Penn Medicine. It enabled them to move more quickly in the market, “innovating at the application layer faster than pretty much anyone else.”
Their technology-driven approach to clinical trials — a decentralized capability — got the attention of entrepreneur Bob Duggan, who was eager to invest in the company. With an additional $3M in the bank, Medable was having a moment.
Then, she left Stanford.
“I went for it and I never looked back. I just I loved that the sky was the limit — it was up to us. It was heartbreaking because I loved the research team at Stanford. But I just knew I wanted to see how far I could take it.”
“When someone buys something from your company, you have immediate knowledge that you are generating value with the problems that you’re trying to solve. There’s a trueness, beauty, and purity to it.”
Distributed Teams, Decentralized Trials, and Sheer Determination
Throughout the years Medable had seen steady growth (helped by Tyler Pugsley, whom Michelle hired from IBM to drive their efforts with biopharma) and strong support from investors like GSR, PPD, Obvious, and many others. And while Michelle knew the company was working on something important, the rest of the world had yet to recognize it.
She persisted nonetheless.
“You can never listen to the no’s. You get so many more of them than you ever get positive support. You have to be fearless. You have to believe that you’re right. Whether people recognize that or not doesn’t matter. You need sheer determination and really have to maintain a ‘stay in the game’ attitude.”
Michelle stayed in the game long enough for the pandemic to hit, and the world quickly came to understand the value of Medable’s approach. Business went through the roof.
“Everything just started blowing up. People heard we had a remote clinical trial capability and asked us to have it operational two days later! The whole industry just shifted, and we were getting new partnerships — multiple by the week— deploying into clinical trials, some that had been in flight for years.”
The company also had an inherent advantage operating largely as a distributed team itself. Working virtually had helped them understand how to “bring that kind of innovation into our product in a way that ensured trust, connectivity, and the emotional connection that’s so important in the delivery of medicine — and in building companies.” It has enabled them to attract more talent, and as Michelle points out, “People want flexibility, just like they want clinical trial flexibility.”
As the company has grown in size (from 100 to 400 in just 24 months) and scale of business (50 new clients, 300% revenue growth, and 125% net revenue retention in 2020 alone), she has leaned on her collegiate soccer captaining experience to drive the company’s teamwork and team performance.
“Scaling requires massive teamwork and a focus on performance. I think we’re getting better at every day. It’s definitely not easy. But it’s incredibly fun. It’s no less challenging than the other phases, in some ways more challenging because the stakes are so high.”
“What will limit more diseases being cured is not the ability to create the compounds. It’s the ability to test them. I believe we have an important role to play in removing the bottleneck of how medicines reach people at scale.”
With Michelle’s sheer determination and Medable’s mission teaming up to tackle these challenges, that’s good news for us all.
[For more stories like this check out the 2021 World Positive Report.]