By Fred Grier
Meet Debbie Chen, an imaging data scientist-turned-entrepreneur who is developing a personalized hydration monitor for athletes to reach and maintain peak performance.
Through her thesis work, Chen spotted a unique opportunity to extend beyond academia and move closer to making a direct impact. Leveraging her research background in optical imaging and signal processing, Chen brought together an experienced team to solidify a product based on science and formed Hydrostasis. The San Diego-based startup is developing hydration monitoring systems for coaches, athletes, healthcare providers, and patients.
We chatted with Chen, CEO of Hydrostasis, about her experience being a UCSD entrepreneur and the journey to successfully launch her startup.
Year Founded: 2017
Key Players: Debbie Chen (CEO), Michael Shirman (CTO), Jake Hershfield (Customer Development/UX), and Arielle Law (Operations/BD).
Headcount: Four full-time employees
Headquartered: San Diego (land of tacos, breweries, sunshine and cool startups!). In particular, the company is working out of The Sandbox, an AI incubator space in Sorrento Valley, headed by Shayne Skaff.
Technology: Hydrostasis provides a personalized real-time hydration monitoring system, notifying coaches and athletes before dehydration symptoms arise. Available on both iOS and Android mobile applications, the software notifies athletes in real-time before dehydration symptoms impact their performance.
Science: The Hydrostasis sensor technology is based in diffuse near-infrared spectroscopy. Although the optical method is not new, the hardware is designed specifically to work with the novel machine learning algorithms that provide personalized optimal hydration ranges for each individual athlete.
“We have taken steps to tackle typical issues that optical methods have been traditionally challenged with, such as motion artifact and confounding signals in-vivo. We currently have a utility and design patents pending,” Chen said.
Features: Hydrostasis is an easy-to-use patch sensor; the design provides comfort and allows for sport-specific measurement locations. Leveraging advanced algorithms, the user can see real-time graphical representation of their hydration status and reach their peak performance every session.
The Need: When asked to elaborate on Hydrostasis’s mission to enhance athletes performance, Chen said, “There is an immediate need for real-time hydration monitoring. Data-driven technologies in sports performance ,as well as risk-management and injury prevention, are very much front-of-mind in the sports sector.”
“There are a few hydration monitoring technologies out there but none that have real market traction and none that are as well positioned to transition into healthcare,” she added.
Customers: Hydrostasis is initially targeting collegiate teams to monitor athletes’ hydration level, but the young company has bigger things in store.
“We are concurrently laying down the groundwork to enter into healthcare and believe that real-time hydration monitoring should be a standard of care for hospitals, as well as out-patient monitoring for geriatrics, pediatrics, and nephrology,” Chen said.
Team: Chen talks more about how her team brings a diverse range of expertise.
“Michael, our vision-focused CTO, has led several tech startups and has taken the lead on our software platform. Jake is our hustler and does everything from sales to customer development, UX, and product testing. Arielle is our all hats on operations and BD. We have a small but incredibly effective team. One of my strengths is to see the potential in people and I could not be happier or feel luckier to be working with this team.”
Funding: Hydrostasis has raised a small friend and family round, as well as a $20,000 investment from Ad Astra Ventures, a female-focused accelerator program. The startup is currently raising a Bridge Fund of $500,000 to close out its pilot program with its first customer, University of San Diego. “Our goal is to validate our MVP through our pilot program and gain insight. Once we have validated data, we will be better positioned to raise our $1.5M seed round in June 2019,” Chen said.
Resources: Taking full advantage of opportunities, Chen was part of StartR Inclusion program in 2016, which helped her build the foundation when Hydrostasis was just an idea. Additionally, she said the mini-MBA course in Rady School of Management offered to UCSD postdocs has proved to be incredibly helpful for her business.
Accelerators: Chen has participated in two San Diego accelerator programs — Hera Labs and Ad Astra. Startup incubators can provide invaluable clarity, as they help founders develop the right go-to-market strategy and product-market fit.
“Hera Labs provided me with the business structure and helped me think through all the aspects of the business that I needed to understand to build the business. Ad Astra really helped me learn what my strengths are as a founder and how I can lean into those strengths when pitching and talking to investors,” Chen said.
Mentors: Chen said there are too many helping hands to thank. She also credits her fellow seasoned co-founders for teaching her the startup ropes. “I have many mentors from all areas of the community, although at any one time, I usually have three-to-five main mentors I work closely with. I’ve met most of my mentors from Hera Labs, Ad Astra and USD’s the Brink. It is incredibly important as a female founder to find female mentors. Ladies such as Dr. Silvia Mah, Allison Long Pettine, Vidya Dinamani, and Mysty Rusk are all daily inspirations to me, ” she said.
Leadership: Looking back, Chen shared that a major obstacle she had to overcome during her entrepreneurial journey was her self-doubt and stepping into the leadership role.
“I knew I had a good product, I knew the market was there, but I had a tough time deciding that I was the right person to lead the company. But along the way, I realized that this company is built on my experience as a scientist and athlete and that the team and culture are built on my core values as a founder. There is no one else better fit to lead the team.”
What’s Next: Hydrostasis is working to validate its product with local collegiate teams and then expand to the top tier Division 1 teams.
“We’ve already talked to several top-ranked Division 1 teams that are interested in buying our product. Once we get validation and traction, we will be pursuing 510k approval from the FDA and exploring our initial Healthcare verticals,” Chen said.
Entrepreneurial Advice: “Whatever you’re thinking about doing, just do it because you never know what it’s going to look like until you give it a try. Find several mentors and fellow founders that you can ask for help, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Foster early investor relationships without asking them to invest. Then, when you’re ready to raise, they will have seen your progression, dedication, grit, and potential.”
SD Startup Scene: Chen confirms that San Diego is a great place for female entrepreneurs. “Everyone is incredibly helpful, from mentors to fellow founders; we’re all out to see how we can support each other and put San Diego on the map as the place to be as an early startup. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”
Tacos: Chen’s go-to spot for great tacos is Tacos El Gordo. “I’m always mesmerized by the show put on by the staff. Besides making tasty tacos, their hand-eye coordination is incredibly impressive. I always love to see people take pride in whatever job they are doing.”
Off the Clock: When Chen is not working, you can find her either at the gym preparing for her next amateur Muay Thai fight or at home with her husband and two kids.
Keep up with Hydrostasis on social: Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on UC San Diego students (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem-solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.