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After experiencing seven rounds of in vitro fertilization and an untold number of pelvic exams, Ceek Women’s Health, CEO and founder, Fahti Khosrowshahi, and a team of female designers set out to develop a better speculum that provides advantages for physicians and, more importantly, a better experience for women. After 800 rounds of prototypes, her perseverance paid off. The product — the Nella NuSpec — was named a top 100 innovation by TIME Inc. in 2020.
According to Khosrowshahi, the speculum is used about 60 to 90 million times a year in the U.S.
“I always say if we hadn’t updated it, the speculum that was used on my grandmother, on my mother, on me, could be used on my daughter. It was just time for change,” she says.
The Nella NuSpec, which is made from medical-grade polymer, was designed to “give doctors visibility without compromising patient comfort."
"And the whole thing happens without a sound,” she says. “Some of the products that are being used on women today were developed decades ago, or the speculum — about a century ago. I found this to be ridiculous. I started Ceek Women’s Health to bring the latest in technology and advances to products that are being used day in and day out on women, which had not been updated in a very, very long time.”
In this WoW episode, Khosrowshahi shares her passion for introducing a growing portfolio of products that are designed by women for women, what it takes to make a breakthrough in women’s health, and some of the rewards and challenges of being a first time CEO and entrepreneur.
Listen to the podcast or you can also read the transcript of the conversation below.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Fahti Khosrowshahi, CEO and founder, Ceek Women’s Health.
Taren: Fahti, welcome to our Woman of the Week, WoW podcast program.
Fahti: Thank you, Taren. I’m excited to be here.
Taren: Well, I’m excited to dig in with you. I know a little bit about your background. I know that you are passionate about bringing innovation to women’s health. Quite frankly, challenging the status quo. By doing do, introducing products that are designed by women for women. What feeds this passion? What got you involved in women’s health and innovation?
Fahti: Well, I’ve always had a passion for women overall since my days in college. I was a very strong feminist and support the women’s rights. But you graduate and you get in the workforce and you focus on your work, that kind of went in the back burner for me until I got married and my husband and I had to go through infertility treatments.
It was about three years and we went through seven rounds of IVF. It wasn’t until I had my second daughter and I was reflecting back on this kind of crazy journey that I had, I couldn’t believe how backwards the pace of innovation was in women’s health especially compared to the world around us.
I mean, look at the cell phone from 10 years ago versus what you’re using today. In contrast, some of the products that are used on women were developed decades ago, about a century ago, the speculum. I just found that to, honestly, be ridiculous. That was why I resigned from my job and I started Ceek Women’s Health to bring the latest in technology and advances on products that are used day in and day out on women that had not been updated in a very, very long time.
Taren: Well, thank you for sharing that very personal story with us. Certainly, your personal struggles and having these children led you to this place, but at the same time, you really were a futurist and as you said, enough is enough. Tell me about Ceek Women’s Health and your award-winning design and I also want to know how did you come up with the company name.
Fahti: Yeah, that’s interesting. The two e’s in Ceek stand for my two daughters – Emma and Elsa – and Ceek meaning seeking betterness, seeking more for women. That’s how the name came up.
Taren: I love that. That is awesome. You formed Ceek after having a very successful career. Tell me about the speculum.
Fahti: Yeah, we actually have five products in our portfolio. We really started by – the company was founded to update the speculum but as we got deeper into women’s health and the products that are used for gynecological exams, we realized there was really a need to update a full slew of things, one of them being the speculum. But the speculum is a product that’s needed in about 90% of procedures. Anything that is not minimal, invasive surgery or requires the use of robotics will use the speculum.
The speculum is used about 60 to 90 million times in the US on women. If you think about the – I always say this which is the speculum that was used on my grandmother, on my mother, on me, if we hadn’t update it, it could be used on my daughter. It was just time for change.
In developing the speculum, we want to make sure that the patient was the focal point of the design, and then we worked with a group of clinicians to develop a product line. We went through about 800 rounds of prototyping and then we would have each prototype be tested by our clinicians to give us feedbacks. Anything from the width of the speculum, the fact that the speculum had to work with both right-handed and left-handed individuals, that had to work with both men and – fit men’s and women’s hands was tested, and that’s how we developed the speculum.
After we were kind of close to the prototyping, we did a clinical study, testing our product line in women. There are two attributes we looked at which was really important. One is can the clinician actually complete the procedure, can they actually see the cervix, and the second one was patient comfort – was the patient comfortable during the procedure? That really is the fundamental factor behind our product is really combining both efficacy of the product with patient comfort.
Taren: That’s a lot of rounds, 800 rounds of development there. It takes a lot of patience. How did you manage through all of that and then I want to talk about the fact that your company won an award for this new design.
Fahti: Yeah, well, it takes a lot of patience. But I wanted a good product, I didn’t want to introduce a product that was sub optimal, that didn’t work, that had shortcomings in it. We had to go through this process and be patient about it. I had a fantastic group of designers and engineers.
One of the things actually I want to emphasize is that we did not partner with a traditional medical device engineering firm. We actually worked with a consumer product design and engineering firm. That’s largely because I wanted the patient to be the focal point of the work, and then we worked with clinicians to get their feedback.
That was kind of the approach we took but it takes a lot of patience to do that. It was a one year process. But until our clinicians said the product was go, we weren’t going to go. That’s why I think the – we won 7, actually 9 design awards now. We’re proud of all of them. Every single one of them was very special.
The one that I remember precisely was the Time Magazine award. That one was really a validation for the work we’ve been doing because every year they come up with a list of the best 100 inventions of the year. I remember when I started the company I took the magazine and showed it to my designer, Maria Lalli. I said Maria, I want us to be in that magazine. We were, we were and so it was extremely gratifying and rewarding to win that award.
Taren: I would think so and congratulations. I know that all 9 awards as you said are important but that Time Magazine one really put you on the map, and in such validates your efforts towards improving women’s health. Did you get a lot of phone calls after that and say hey, I read this and I’m interested in the product? Did you see an uptick from clinicians?
Fahti: Well, unfortunately, that happened right bang in the middle of the pandemic. But even despite that we did actually, both from clinicians and from investors. It was from both sides. Definitely, a big stamp of approval for our products and yes, it definitively helped us.
Taren: Excellent. Yes, as you said, right smack in the middle of the pandemic. Darn, pandemic! But I’d love to know – like you said, you designed this product with patients in mind especially obviously, women, what has been that feedback from those who have been involved with the old speculum compared with the new speculum, are you getting 5 stars? Is this like a Yelp?
Fahti: It is.
Taren: Are you getting 5 stars?
Fahti: It is. It’s funny. I’ll tell you, right before the pandemic, we went to our scientific meetings both at a national level and a local level, and that was really to introduce Ceek to clinicians. Because I thought well if we’re going to launch the product in a few years’ time, I want them to be familiar with the brand and who we are, and we would take our prototypes to these meetings but the reception we got from clinicians was so positive that it really allowed us to enter some lucrative supply agreement very early on.
That process is actually very arduous where it’s not like one clinician likes the product that takes you in. If one clinician likes it, they try it. Then their colleagues try the product. Then, if they like it, you can be added as a supply agreement. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and both on the clinicians’ side and the patients’ side. I always say this you’re comparing my device to a device that was developed 100 years ago. I hope I’m better than that device you’re using 100 years ago.
Taren: Yeah, let’s talk about the device itself because I think we kind of skimmed over that. It’s really a reusable smarter speculum. Can you give us a little bit more specifics about the design?
Fahti: Yeah, thanks for asking that question, Taren. What I think that was really important to me when we were developing the product line was really to minimize our impact on the environment. Building a reusable product, if we could do it was very important to me. It’s reusable. It’s made from a very strong plastic that’s used in the orthopedic space. But it really never been used as a material for a speculum. It’s a very sleek material so it glides inside the body very easily.
Clinicians can choose to use a lubricant or not use a lubricant but even without a lubricant, it’s very comfortable and easily glides into the body. One of the things that’s very special about our speculum is the narrowness of the bill. The bills are smaller than a regular sized tampon. If women can handle a tampon, they should easily be able to handle our speculum. Then, it has integrated side wall retractors that gently push the tissue back so that the clinician can have easy access to the cervix.
The other aspect about our speculum is that it’s quiet. It makes no sound. The material is temperature neutral. It’s not cold on touch and it gets sterilized the same way existing specula are sterilized. There’s no difference here. The process is the same except it’s a lot easier to clean the speculum and it’s a lot easier to sterilize it, and it goes back to temperature neutral instantly versus the existing metal speculum that can take upwards of two hours to cool down.
Taren: Oh, that sounds very good. All of it sounds far more comfortable than the current situation.
Fahti: It really is. I mean, it’s funny, it’s like we’re all women so we’re kind of the guinea pig for our specula and for the Nella new spec, and yes, I have tested this. Actually, I was talking to my head of sales and marketing this morning, and she was coming back from her ob-gyn and she was like, yup, I walked in and my ob-gyn had the Nella new spec on the tray. She knew she had to use it on me.
We’re all the guinea pigs for our product too, and so it was really important for us that the speculum could work on most women, different body types, different BMIs, different cervixes and still be comfortable on them.
Taren: Well, thank you on behalf of women for making an uncomfortable process more comfortable. I’m going to circle a little back to where we started our conversation and that’s about your desire to help women and to be interested in what happens with women. Why do you think there’s been so little attention paid to advancing women’s health. If we’re talking about a device that has not been updated in a 100 years, we know there are other things that also have not been updated for decades. Where are we falling short as an industry and as a society maybe?
Fahti: I get asked that question often and I thought about it quite a bit. I think – my perspective is for two reasons. One is I think funding is really difficult to come by for women and specifically in women’s health. Even in my journey, there have been – it’s hard for men to grasp like what a gynecological exam is and how uncomfortable it is. I just feel getting funding and continuous source of funding is difficult. I think specifically in women’s health it’s harder.
There’s now some buzz going women’s health is front and center on things, et cetera. I just can’t imagine how it would have been 10 years ago. If good as we have it now, I can’t imagine what it was 10, 20 years ago. I think that’s definitely one aspect of it.
The second aspect of it I think is what you alluded to earlier, Taren, I feel as women we put up with things, and the mentality for us is if it doesn’t kill you, you can put up with 5 minutes of discomfort like in the context of the bigger good, you can put up with 5 minutes of discomfort. That’s I think how we’ve been brought up and how things are, at least how I was brought up. I think that contributes to this too.
I’ll give you another example. When I was going through IVF, I got diagnosed with endometriosis. I was in my late 30s when I was diagnosed with endometriosis. I had been going through very painful periods since I think I was 17. It wasn’t diagnosed until I couldn’t get pregnant. I had to have an ultrasound and they figured out I had endometriosis. That’s just backwards.
Honestly, it’s backwards. I cannot believe that was the case. A solution was always well, why don’t we put you on birth control pills and why don’t you take Advil and it can help you. No, it was endometriosis and I had to have surgery and a whole slew of factors. To me, it’s sad. It’s a little bit sad, but I hope it’s changing and I hope the new generation of women just don’t put up with the status quo and they can question things and change things.
Taren: Five minutes that can change the world. Tell me a little bit more about your pipeline.
Fahti: We actually have a product that is designed for women who have a history of rape or trauma and it allows them to have control over their exam and that product should be launching soon. Then we have another product that is kind of a variation of our existing speculum. It’s one sided and it allows more complex procedures to be completed.
Taren: Wonderful. Earlier you talked about the investor piece of this, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk in to an investor meeting, you’re probably the only woman in the room and saying here’s my speculum, this is what I’m trying to do. Do you get like – do the men’s eyes just like bug out? I mean, they obviously don’t have experience with this but if they have wives, they might understand. What are those conversations like?
Fahti: Oh my gosh. I have to say I have interacted with both men and women, and some men are fantastic. Our existing group of investors, they’re a group of men and they just get it. They’re like Fahti, we went and talked to our wives, we talked to our daughters and they’re like yes, we get this.
I don’t think this is a universal things for all men but I was also – one of my painful moments when I was fundraising a few years ago was I walked into a room, I think about 50 people, all of them were men, which really took me back because I had no idea it’s going to be like that. I had to talk about the speculum and what we had, et cetera.
It’s funny after the meeting ended, the person who organized the meeting came to me and said I wish you hadn’t talked about the product, you should have talked about the market opportunity more. Yeah, anyway.
Fahti: Right. It really isn’t easy. You learn from these experiences and you move on. That was one of the cringe – I would say cringe-worthy moments when I was exploring funding. But yeah.
Taren: I just think it is an uncomfortable topic but at the same time, maybe it’s time for everybody to get a little bit uncomfortable to be more comfortable with it. These are difficult conversations but they need to be had.
Taren: It’s time to get on board. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe you are a first time CEO. Is that correct?
Fahti: That is correct.
Taren: What has been the most rewarding aspect of this experience for you? Leading a company?
Fahti: It’s been super fun. It’s been really fun to set the direction and the vision and execute against it. I think it’s very fun because we can speed through timelines. That’s one of the feedback I get when we go external – talking to people, like I can’t believe you were able to do your study so quickly, et cetera, et cetera.
I think just really believing the product and our vision and being able to go through a lot of the bureaucracy very quickly has been very rewarding for me. I also loved the fact that I can hand pick the team I work with. That’s because they become your family and you work with them. That aspect of it, building a team and working with the team is also equally rewarding.
I think the third thing for me – I was in the corporate world for about 15 years before I started Ceek, and being able to trust my instincts, it came back to me again. Because when you’re in a corporate world, there are so many people controlling things. It’s really hard to do that. It wasn’t until I started Ceek that I realized there are some situations where you can make the call based on your instincts and what you feel is right. I had completely forgotten about that. Those are the things I love about being a CEO.
Taren: That’s fantastic. Let’s explore that. As you said before starting Ceek, you were in a corporate world. You were a managing director, commercial center of excellence at inventive. Trust your instincts, but what else were you able to pull from that experience you had in that more corporate world?
Fahti: Yeah, I did manage my consulting and we worked with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies across functions. I love my work. I have to say one of the things I love about it was you never get bored. I felt I was always working on cutting edge projects with really smart people across amazing companies. I love that part of it.
I think getting bored is one of the reasons to exit the company, the fact that I could stay there for 15 minutes and love it was because the work was really challenging and brain teaser all the time. The second one being uncomfortable in uncomfortable situations and really enjoy solving problems. That’s another aspect of it that I really liked. Working with people, consulting with a lot – working with my team, very smart people, very ambitious people as well as working with the client team who were equally smart or smarter than us.
Just navigating that was very rewarding for me and learning how to work with people in different backgrounds, companies, et cetera.
Taren: Wonderful. I’m familiar with inVentiv Health certainly. I know the work that you did there was very important. As you said 15 years, to stay in one company, that’s not nothing. That is certainly something. Kudos to you.
You know I want to circle back a little bit too about your role as a CEO. You talked about the three really important things that are most rewarding. What are some of the challenges that you’re facing as a CEO? How do you navigate through those?
Fahti: Yeah, you have to live by your decisions, good or bad. Like you realized the consequence of your decisions and I think that’s a really important factor into it. The second aspect of it is hiring people. Hiring good people is extremely important. When you’re a small company, you can’t afford not to hire good people because everybody contributes. That’s I felt – for me was also, probably the biggest thing because I tend to like people and so, making the call on who to hire based on their qualifications or if they didn’t work out, letting them go quickly as a CEO is really important. I would say that was my challenge.
Taren: You also were challenged to put together an advisory board and how did you go about that task? As a CEO, that’s really one of your responsibilities.
Fahti: It is. On the clinical advisory board, we worked with a group of clinicians and I really was able to pool together clinicians who were well respected in the industry but also passionate about women’s health overall. One of them actually has developed a device himself so he understood the nuances of what we’re doing.
But the biggest challenge for me was really putting together a strong boards together that could support us as we grew, and that really took some work. We actually approached it like a consulting project where I had recommendations from various people that I knew. I talked to them, kind of them interviewing me and me interviewing them for the position. Ultimate in having a checklist of who could help us. I wanted somebody with a strong finance background who could help us with fund raising and our growth, I wanted somebody with a strong clinical background. It was a very methodical process and I think we were able to pull together a very, very strong boards together.
Taren: That’s great insights for some of our audience who are listening who might have a great entrepreneurial idea and what it takes to get a company off the ground and having that really diverse board is so important. Obviously, as a woman CEO, would you classify Ceek as a medical device company?
Highly unusual, right, to have you in the C-suite spot there. You really are carrying this mantle of responsibility as a role model, what does it mean to you, as other women look to you for advice in how they get started and if they have a great idea, what do they do? What are some of the things you tell those people?
Fahti: I think it goes back to the fundamentals which is first off, women shouldn’t settle. I think that’s really important in everything both personally and professionally. Two, I think they need to believe in themselves and not be shy of being ambitious or wanting to further their careers. I think that’s how I look at it.
Taren: Well, that’s good advice. Thank you for that. You also had to have developed a particular leadership style as you were moving up the ranks throughout your career. What are some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received and what are some of the best leadership advice you give out?
Fahti: I believe in collaboration. I am a strong believer in that. I think if you have a strong team you get the best ideas out of people through team work and collaboration. That’s my number one advice which is hire a strong team and bring the best out of the team.
I think the other one is giving the team a chance. People makes mistakes and they should be forgiven. It’s not a one – you have one shot and you’re out. I strongly believe that by giving a team a chance and helping them develop is really important. They make a strong investment in the company and we’re equally held accountable in making an investment into them.
Then, the other one is be accepting of change. Change happens and have an open eye towards it and use that to innovate and move forward. I think sometimes we get stuck in what we’re doing and I think as women especially we need to make sure we’re not always comfortable enough that we don’t pull ourselves out of it and push forward.
Then, the last one actually, Taren, somebody told me this. I remember in my other job, he says it’s not personal. I thought about that a lot. I think your work should be personal because you put so much time into it. It’s a nice chunk of your time during the day or for me, at night too that the work does get personal. The important thing is to have a balance in life across everything both in work, exercise, mental health, physical health, but I think work becomes personal for a lot of us and that’s okay.
Taren: I couldn’t agree with you more. As you said, you spend a great amount of your time doing a job and just because it’s not personal to somebody else doesn’t mean it’s not personal to you. I think that is a great distinction. You bring so much of your personal self to the job that it has to be personal on a lot of different levels. But I also agree with you. I think it all requires balance and maybe it’s not personal, sometimes take your ego out of it. It can still be personal and you can still make it ego less so that doesn’t feel hurtful if somebody pushes back too hard. During your career, did you have anybody who mentored you? Did you have a sponsor as you were going through your career?
Fahti: I did. I don’t think I necessarily had one mentor. I think in different phases of my career I had different mentors helping me go through – I think one of the people that actually came into my mind, front and center, was actually John Campbell who is the CEO of Campbell Alliance. To me, he was kind of – I think of him as a lion. He was kind and fair and was willing to take the risk. He was really helpful to me during my career especially very early on. I’m grateful for him for that, navigated me through a lot of things, yeah.
Taren: That’s a shared connection we have. I also know John Campbell and I think that’s such an apt description of him as a lion. His face immediately popped into my mind when you used that descriptor. I was oh, I agree. Because this is our WoW podcast, tell me about an accomplishment or a wow moment that either shaped your career or changed the trajectory of your career.
Fahti: Yeah, there are actually two. I would say the first one, honestly, was that Time Magazine award. It was such a validation of the work we were doing. That was one. I think the second one, for me, was – because I have put really everything that I have into Ceek to make it successful.
The second part was actually a patient tried one of our products and she reached out to me because our product – this was a cancer patient, had such a big impact on her comfort when she had her Pap smear and she wrote me this long e-mail. I talked to her and I felt, I thought we were doing good. I love the fact that she reached out and shared her personal experience with me was really important. I would say those two really stood out for me as having a big impact on further developing Ceek and on my career.
The third one actually, Taren, this was really again early on in my career, and it actually goes back to John. John Campbell has started Campbell Alliance and one day he walked into my office and he said, I’m so excited, Fahti, and I looked at him like why. He said I love what I’m doing, I can kiss the ground every day because I love what I’m doing. For some reason, that just stood in my head and I always thought gosh, I want to have a career that I could one day say I want to kiss the ground because I love what I’m doing. I feel like I have that at Ceek now.
Taren: Oh, that’s wonderful. Talk about coming full circle, right, and starting Ceek and you have such an entrepreneurial mindset and taking your company to the next level with these great inventions that are intended to improve the lives of women is just tremendous. You should be kissing the ground and you’re doing way more than just good. Look at that patient reaction, you’re doing great.
If you can impact like one person like that, that’s just such validation and so rewarding. Congratulations to you. I look forward to see what Ceek does in the future. Keep up the good work as you said but you’re doing great.
Fahti: Thank you, Taren. Thank you for having me. This is really fun.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit PharmaVoice.com.