How Ancora.ai responded to the pandemic by making clinical trials available to everyone
For many startups, the COVID-19 crisis was a reckoning that forced founders to reconsider their business models; for others, their existing platforms made it possible to respond to the pandemic with products that provided vital support. Ancora.ai, a clinical trial platform, was one of the companies that rapidly turned around their product to meet increased demand.
When cofounder and COO Dr Emily Jordan and her cofounders Danielle Ralic and Luca Jahreiss started working on Ancora.ai in 2017, their vision was to democratize clinical trials so that everyone could have access to innovative treatments as early as possible in their treatment journeys. A year later, their vision has evolved into a much greater reality: Ancora.ai has developed technology that bridges the complex worlds of medical professionals, patients and clinical research to improve access to trials. Since medicine has transitioned from face-to-face to remote and digital, this has been a critical time to improve the patient experience–and Ancora.ai was quick to respond. Emily says, “I think the pandemic actually revealed these big dreams for the company that we all had in the backs of our minds, that we had held back because we didn't think the industry would be ready.”
Emily found the right support from the Google for Startups Immersion: Women Founders program. Ancora.ai joined the program at a serendipitous time, because they had just begun to consider seed funding. “People on the program connected us to a lot of investors, and that has continued to happen since we left–every couple of weeks, someone will reach out and make an intro.”
As well as investor access, Emily also received practical training on topics including investor management, outreach and communication. Emily has also continued to benefit from Google for Startups’ online resources and talks for founders, all virtually accessible throughout the pandemic.
Aside from liaising with investors, Emily says that the biggest takeaway from the program was the network of founders both in Berlin and across Europe, and that “Just having a chat group of 20 women who are in the same situation has been so helpful. "As well as being a support network, the group is also Emily's go-to for finding experts:" Many times, When I've had a challenge, there's always been someone in the group I could ask for advice that had been through it or similar too."
“Investors will ask Danielle, who is the CTO, ‘Who is writing the code? Who is managing the tech team?’ I haven’t heard of a male CTO being asked that.”
Access to an investor network and strategies for investor communication were especially helpful once Ancora.ai’s dramatic acceleration raised “an existential question”: to VC or not to VC? “We've been purely bootstrapped so far and we're really proud of that,” says Emily, “but if we want to bring our product to scale, we can do that a lot more efficiently with venture capital.” Emily felt that having full ownership of the company gave them the independence to steer it the way that they needed to, and to respond to unexpected crises like the pandemic.
While this is a dilemma many founders wrestle with, Emily believes it is especially hard for women. For starters, she says, men see many male founders raising venture capital successfully and having equity in their companies, which inevitably makes it easier to follow their lead. Emily points out that we don’t see as many examples of successful women founders raising venture capital; if anything, she says, “we've heard more horror stories of deals going bad and founders losing control of the companies.”
Emily and her cofounders have been surprised by unchallenging questions asked by investors from a traditional venture capital background. “Investors will ask Danielle, who is the CTO, ‘Who is writing the code? Who is managing the tech team?’ I haven’t heard of a male CTO being asked that.”
Emily's experience corroborates the findings of the 2020 Female Founders Monitor, published by Google for Startups in partnership with the German Startups Association, which finds that women founders have less access to investor networks and are likely to face significantly higher systemic barriers when fundraising. To date, only 1.6% of VC funding has gone to women-led startups and of those, only 5.2% of have received more than €1M—compared to 27.8% of male-led startups.
What advice does Emily have for fellow entrepreneurs navigating similar challenges? “Get comfortable with uncertainty”—and have a good team who will support you through it. Emily attributes her natural discomfort with uncertainty to her role: “A COO is typically someone who likes to have Plan B and Plan C. Throughout the pandemic I’ve really internalized comfort with uncertainty as a mantra to help me keep moving forward.”
Navigating a crisis has also taught Emily an important lesson in teamwork: “I would never do this alone. I have a really great team that never panics–we are able to readjust and even if we have to scrap something completely and move forward, everyone has a good attitude about it.”
Overall, Emily is happy to be where they are. “The past year hasn't been a fair test of what we do–and that has been really hard, but at the same time we're really proud that we're still here.”
Founders Book Club
What’s your recommended reading for founders?
I don't read entrepreneurship books, to be honest. Ever. I don't really believe in them. My advice is to actually talk to as many founders as possible–knowing other founders in the ecosystem is the best resource.
What book are you reading right now?
I'm a news junkie so I mostly read the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian and the New Yorker. In terms of books, I'm in a book club–recently we’ve read Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and Educated by Tara Jane Westover (fun fact: Emily went to grad school with Tara Jane Westover).
Immersion: Women Founders is a 12-week, skill-building mentorship program for high potential women-led startups selected from startup communities across Europe, including the UK and Israel. The program aims to address predominant challenges for women founders in the startup ecosystem with the aim to close the gender gap, ensuring more equal access to funding, and leveraging strong professional networks.
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