#12 Marina Pavlovic Rivas – Co-founder & CEO at Eli Health on blending creativity and communications with AI

Marina is the co-founder and CEO at Eli where they enable women to take control of their health across their lives, by providing them with powerful information on their daily hormone profile.

#12 Marina Pavlovic Rivas – Co-founder & CEO at Eli Health on blending creativity and communications with AI Get Your AI On!

Ciprian Borodescu: I’m here with Marina Pavlovic Rivas, co-founder and CEO at Eli – a Techstars Montreal AI 2019. I’m super excited, and it’s an honor to have you on this podcast. Thank you so much for being here.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Thank you, Ciprian, for inviting me.

Ciprian Borodescu: Absolutely. So I suggest we dive right in. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional journey leading up to founding Eli?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, so my background is at the intersection of different disciplines. So I did first a Bachelor’s in communications and during my studies, I was working with a startup doing analytics, so digital analytics, but also creating content, digital strategy. And that’s really where I discovered the world of data, to understand better the work that I was doing and to optimize this work. And I was learning by myself with resources online, but when I understood the potential behind data, and how it could really bring value in so many different verticals, I really wanted to dive deeper. So I did a Master’s after that in data science – so, it was very different from communication; two completely different fields, but that I felt were complimentary. And for me, there’s a lot of similarities between those two fields. Communication is treating information from the qualitative perspective and data science is treating information but on the quantitative side. So, for me, those two fields, how I was seeing it is that it could allow me to play with it in different industries. And for me, it was always something that I knew I wanted to do – not stay in the same industry all my life. So, when I finished my Master’s studies in data science, I started the first company that was combining those two fields – so the Communications and Media field and the Data Science field. So, the first company was free Machine Learning Services to creative industries. It was a great experience. And, at one moment, with my co-founder that is also my life partner, we identified a problem around contraception, around how having a better contraception method would change the lives of so many women. And with my data science background and his background in physics and engineering, we both had part of the solution. So at that point, it was a completely new industry, for me and for both of us, but we decided to go all-in and since then, it’s been a year. We’re working day and night for Eli.

Ciprian Borodescu: Excellent, excellent. And you’ve been doing data science consulting for various companies in Canada for about three years before founding Eli, right?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yes, exactly.

Ciprian Borodescu: What were your key learnings during this time?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, so in fact, this consulting was done under the first company I created, so there was a lot of learning. Of course, learnings on the data science side, but also learnings on the business side and what it means building a company, what it means to acquire clients, especially what it means acquiring bigger organizations as clients. So, one of the learnings I got from this experience is that, yes, the quality of the technical work is crucial, but as crucial is everything that surrounds it in terms of business and understanding how the technical components are part of a bigger picture.

Ciprian Borodescu: Absolutely. This is so spot on. Absolutely. And Marina, your professional background is an interesting blend of creative, technical, and business. Where do you feel these three areas intersect? And is this helping you today at Eli being able to access different dimensions of the day-to-day decision making? Or do you feel it more as an internal conflict? And you can be honest about this. Nobody’s hearing.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, so at first, when I finished my Master’s, I was feeling it was an internal conflict. I was feeling that it was so different and thinking about how to make it a strength instead of something that’s not positive. So, that’s why, with my first business, is really when I realized that it was, in fact, a strength and a differentiator. Because the first business I did, I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have this unusual combination. So, this is another learning I got from the previous experience that having those two, or even three components is an advantage. And on the day-to-day side, even with this company, with Eli, I still see it as a strong advantage because I can change hearts in the same day – go from the technical perspective to the business perspective, or even the creative perspective when I have to do a communications build deck, even doing the branding of the company. So I see it as a huge, positive aspect.

Ciprian Borodescu: I would be curious, actually, to understand how Thomas is reacting when you have your technical hat on, and you have conversations with him.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, so the technical hat is pretty straightforward and he’s an engineer, so we can talk on the same basis and really connect on this ground, so it’s going very well. I can understand his work as a CTO and even participate in the discussion and be an ally to him, someone that he can talk to when he wants to bounce off technical ideas. It’s more on the creative side – that it’s not something that he was used to but that he also learned and that he learned the value of this and that he sees. It’s something I believe he learned during the first month of the company how this creative side can add a lot of value to the business and to the perceived value of the business.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. And speaking of Eli, I’d be curious to see how the startup evolved since graduating from Techstars. What’s new at Eli? And how is this crazy year turning out for you, guys?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: So crazy is the right adjective. So when we started Techstars, to give a bit of context, we started the company last summer so it has been only a year. And when we started it really started around a need: a need to have a better contraception method for women but also to fill other gaps in women’s health. So then we had to really start from zero to build the technology, to build the clinical partnership, and the team to really address this need. So during Techstars, the support we got with the investment we got really allowed us to reach the first significant milestones. And since the program has been over, we had the chance to complete the prototype, secure IPs, complete the team, also, to start the fundraising. And a lot of those milestones happened during the pandemic. So for, I guess, like many business leaders, the first month of the pandemic was really a lot of confusion, a lot of uncertainty about what the world would look like and what it would mean for an early-stage company – so during that first month, we really focused around adapting our activities and adapting to the context and planning for the most pessimistic scenario to make sure we can survive. So that was the mindset in March. And then, we had the chance to have funding from non-dilutive sources, we received a lot of support from grants, from programs targeted towards startups and deep tech startups, so that helped a lot. And during the pandemic, we got the chance to complete the prototype, secured the IPs, confirmed clinical partnerships, and even kept growing our network and do it outside of Canada. So that’s an interesting point that since everybody is on Zoom and online, that the borders kind of faded, and it was easier to reach people and freed a lot of time that you don’t have to spend in transit. So it did really help. However, there are still some aspects that are going slower – for example, the hardware components, we had to adapt the timeline to fit the new reality. But globally, it’s going much better than we thought it would be.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. And so, I guess you’re still conducting a lot of research at Eli and I know that you’re collaborating with both academia and health experts. And I wanted to ask you, what are some of the do’s and don’ts of conducting these types of research, based on your experience? Is there a difference between doing research in academia versus in deep tech startups where speed is of the essence? Do you feel there’s a difference in approaches? Or maybe speed?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yes, I do believe there’s a difference in both. So, speed definitely is a huge difference. Another difference is the direction and the process based on milestones and having specific goals. Sometimes, in fundamental research, you do research, but you’re not sure where it will lead you but when you’re doing it for a business and to address a specific need, well, you have specific objectives, so you cannot just go with the flow; you have those objectives that you need to respect in a specific timeframe. So this is the main difference. However, we believe that having partnerships with academia is a great thing because there’s all this knowledge, there are people who are working for many years or even decades on some topics, so it would be a shame not to leverage this existing knowledge. So for us, the very important point was that when we meet with potential partners to really filter for that attitude aspect towards how they feel about reaching milestones and respecting a specific timeline, and how they feel about that. Is it something that seems to excite them? Or is it something that you see that they’re really not comfortable with? So when we see that it’s something that excites them and that they feel that they are part of something concrete, that they are part of a journey that will lead to market adoption in a pretty short period of time, some of them are really excited about that and it can lead to great partnerships.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point. I would love to understand a bit more about the technical side of the product that you guys are developing. Can you share more on that with our audience? And where do you feel like you have the biggest challenges today? How do you plan on overcoming them?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Oh, yeah, exactly. There’s no shortage of challenges, and I guess that is even more true with hardware companies, and maybe even more true with hardware companies in the medical sector – and our product is really a combination of different fields. So, how it works: there’s a device that measures hormone levels in saliva and there’s an application that interprets those hormone levels with machine learning. So to do the cartridge that collects the saliva, we need expertise in microfluidic, in chemical analytics, in biology; for the device itself that reads the cartridge, we need expertise in mechanical engineering, in optical measurement; and obviously, for the application, it’s expertise in software development and machine learning. So, one of the challenges is to bring together all those complex components in a product that seems really easy for the user.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah, for the end-user, it’s really easy, but it has to be complex behind the scenes. And I think it’s a challenge, but it’s also something really interesting.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Oh, yes, it’s definitely something very interesting. And I believe that sometimes having some more difficult challenges ends up making other things easier. For example, recruiting talents has not been a problem until now because some very motivated people and intelligent people, when they see this challenge, and that they have the opportunity to work with people in other disciplines in a way that they never got the chance to do before, to do something that doesn’t exist, it brings a lot of motivation. And even if it’s a complex challenge, the fact that it is complex makes it easier, paradoxically.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. I also want to pick your brain on the diversity topic, which is pretty popular nowadays. Where do you see things heading? Personally, I feel like there are more and more women involved in STEM, which is great. On the other hand, I also feel that if I want to have diversity at Morphl, for example, I need to be intentional about it, to be on the lookout for women that are interested in having a technical career in AI. And I’m wondering how the ecosystem feels in Canada versus the US and maybe Europe?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, so you’re right. You have to be very intentional about it and I believe we need to do the distinction between hearing a lot about women in tech and in startups and VC and seeing more women in those fields. And why I’m making this distinction is that I had the impression that we made huge progress over the past years, and maybe I was biased because I am a woman myself, I founded a group in Montreal that’s called Women in Machine Learning and Data Science, so I am surrounded by a lot of women in those fields, and seeing a lot of women entrepreneurs…

Ciprian Borodescu: That’s your own bubble, right?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, exactly. It’s my own bubble. But then I saw a report recently about women in entrepreneurship and women in VC. And even though we hear a lot about it, it was saying that between 2018 and 2019, we made an increase in women in VC from 1.2%, I think, to 1.6%.

Ciprian Borodescu: Wow, that’s staggering.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: And we have to validate those numbers, but I know that it was in the 1%, and still in the 1% the year after. So, it’s a topic that is trending, that we hear a lot about it. But then when we look at the data, there’s not always the progression that reflects the discussions. And the same thing for entrepreneurship. There’s so many programs to give mentorship to women and to provide mentorship and advice – that’s great. But programs to give actual money and investments, the numbers show that it didn’t progress that much, either. So it comes back to the point you were saying that we have to be intentional about it, but also be careful to not just talk about it, but take actions that really move the needles at the end of the day for the metric that really counts.

Ciprian Borodescu: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. That was kind of my impression as well. It’s interesting how you have an impression, and then when you actually look at the data…

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yes, that’s why looking at the data in any case it’s always the right thing to do because the impression and the facts, a lot of time, it’s not the same thing.

Ciprian Borodescu: Cool. Alright. So for the final special section on the podcast, lightning questions and answers, a series of fun, short questions that you have to answer really, really fast. Ready?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Ready.

Ciprian Borodescu: Your favorite woman personality.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: You know, I don’t have one in mind, but my favorite women are women who are really ambitious and move the needle by pushing the boundaries and showing to others what is possible.

Ciprian Borodescu: Do you like Brené Brown?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: I don’t know her.

Ciprian Borodescu: So, Brené Brown, you can find her on TEDx, and she wrote a couple of books on vulnerability and stuff. She’s super awesome. She has also a special on Netflix.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Oh, we’ll definitely look that up.

Ciprian Borodescu: The last book you read.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Venture Deals.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay. Was it read during this pandemic or last year?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: I started it during Techstars and finished it during the pandemic. And it’s funny because this book, since it’s about, well, the mechanism behind fundraising and that we are fundraising at the moment, sometimes I had to jump into another chapter to look at a specific term that we were discussing. So, I didn’t read it in a linear way. I had to do a lot of back and forth and I still do that back and forth today because even if I read it one time, sometimes it’s very useful to go back at it.

Ciprian Borodescu: And also, I know that Techstars has two sessions, kind of like bootcamps for Venture Deals – one in spring and one in autumn, in the fall. But now during the pandemic, they also did one in the summer.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yes. Actually, I didn’t do the course with them with the assignments, but I registered only to look at the video content, and it was very, very useful. Yeah, it goes back to the content of the book, but it’s told with another medium and in a different way. So, it just adds to the knowledge that you get from the book, and it’s a good refresher about some concepts.

Ciprian Borodescu: Okay, favorite man personality?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: That’s the same for the women question. I don’t have one in mind. It’s always hard for me to choose one. My interest goes towards ideas more than towards a specific person, but if I had to sum up, I love when there’s men that are accomplishing great things, but that are using those accomplishments and the power that comes with them to change things for other people and also to redefine norms that sometimes go with being a powerful man. So men that are aware of those privileges and that use them to really change and shape the society in a good way.

Ciprian Borodescu: That’s very wise. Bruno or Justine?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: You know, Bruno or Justine, it seems like it’s not a good word between… it’s really Bruno and Justine. Could you really have just one of the two?

Ciprian Borodescu: No, you cannot have Bruno without Justine. Definitely. And vice versa.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, exactly.

Ciprian Borodescu: What about your favorite health startup?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Oh, that’s another difficult one. I’m surrounded by so many amazing companies in the health field, so I don’t have one specific in mind on that side either, but I must say that I’m so amazed when I see all of those people tackling so important gaps in health sectors. And sometimes, those are technologies that we will probably only see years from now. And it’s so hard sometimes the startup journey that I just hope that those great innovations will see the day because they will change the lives of so many people.

Ciprian Borodescu: Well, I usually have an extra question for guests: cats or dogs? But I know that you love cats. Instead, I’m going to ask you to share with us the highs and lows of these past six months.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah, so the lows were definitely in March; we had a trip planned to go see one of our key partners outside of the city and we had so many things lined up. And in March, it was just everything that kind of went to trash, that we had to change. March was a month of uncertainty and it was stressful, actually.

Ciprian Borodescu: It was a month of very low lows.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Yeah. March was the month of the lowest lows and it came… I mean, we’re used to stress and ambiguity and not knowing what the future is made of, but this was kind of another level. And it was not just about the business; you know, there’s the family and making sure everyone is okay. That came with some stress, so that was definitely the low. But the high: as soon as April… I mean, during all March and April, we kind of just worked all of the time without raising our heads to see what’s around. We were just focused on bringing things back on track and finish the milestones that we wanted to finish. So when we lifted our heads up and saw that we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, that was a huge high, to see that despite the pandemic we were able to reach our milestones. It was definitely a huge high. And another high we had was when we realized that despite the pandemic, our mission still resonates with people, with women, but also with investors. Because if it was not the case, then it’s a huge game-changer. But to realize that it still resonates with all the people it needs to resonate with, that was a huge high as well. But I have to admit something: we are not the best at celebrating smaller milestones and even the bigger ones. And it’s kind of, we reach the milestones, and it’s already, Okay, what’s the next one? And focusing on working. We’re not good at taking breaks to celebrate when we know that there’s so many things ahead. However, it’s something we feel it would be beneficial to work on and still celebrate all the small positive steps because this journey is not about the end goal and it’s about all the processes that enable us to reach that goal. So we are working on that.

Ciprian Borodescu: That’s excellent. This is an excellent point to finish the episode with. Marina, it was a pleasure to have you, and thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me and with us. How can people reach out to you for ideas and comments?

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: They can reach out to me at marina@eli.health or on LinkedIn. I’m reachable there, too. So thanks to you, Ciprian, for inviting me on the podcast.

Ciprian Borodescu: Absolutely. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Marina Pavlovic Rivas: Thank you.