Corinne is the CEO and founder of SMARTCharts, a startup to support people of all ages and backgrounds throughout their path to betterment, development and recovery. She created SMARTCharts, a web-based application to help speech, occupational and physical therapists automate documentation while creating patient-friendly, intelligent visuals. At its core, the intuitive tool simplifies goal writing, streamlines documentation and visualizes progress for all stakeholders along the continuum of recovery in therapeutic rehabilitation.
She was named to Incino Venture’s 2022 Rising 100 Latinx founders to watch. In 2022, SMARTCharts was selected for Techstars Chicago powered by J.P. Morgan Chase and won the Techrise 2022 Finale Competition, People’s Choice Award for IFundWomen of Color Competition and will compete in the 2022/23 Prime Health Innovation Challenge to support safety net populations in California making them a Top 6 startup of 450+ applicants.
Corinne earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Actuarial Science from the University of Illinois, a Bachelor of Science from Utah State University and a Master of Science in Speech, Language and Learning from Northwestern University. She is a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist and holds her Clinical Competency Certificate from the American Speech and Hearing Association. She currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.
How do you go from being an insurance actuary to a speech therapist to a health tech startup as a nontechnical founder?
How do you recognize the right time and place to bring your idea to the world?
How do you then walk the tightrope between what inspires and drives you and what the market is telling you about the opportunity?
In this episode, founder and CEO of SMARTCharts, Corinne Vargas, talks about what prompted her to change careers from numbers to words to ideas, how her unique background and experiences led to her startup idea, how she stays motivated and true to mission while still being pragmatic, and much more.
- How to let our current realities guide you to the future
- How to use big, shared problems to create entrepreneurial opportunities
- How to validate good ideas early and cheaply
- How to recognize key inflection points in the development of your idea
- How to transition from a paying career to entrepreneurship the financially smart way
- How to clarify and test your “it” with the least risk
- How to minimize funding needs when developing your product
- How to evolve with agility when big, worldwide events hit
- How to learn critical entrepreneurial skills quickly and effectively
- How to effectively build a tech startup as a nontechnical founder
- How to balance vision and economic reality effectively
- How to create and expand long-term strategic growth options
Links and Resources
SMARTCharts: Corinne’s startup that helps clinicians spend less time documenting and more time with patients.
P33: Tech hub in Chicago
TechStars: One of the largest pre-seed investors in the world
Matter Chicago: Chicago-based healthcare incubator
Shubha Chakravarthy: Good afternoon, Corinne. Welcome to Invisible Ink! We are just very excited to have you here today.
Corinne Vargas: Hi there, how are you?
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m great. You’ve had a pretty interesting background. You started off in actuarial science and then moved to speech pathology. Walk us through your journey and tell us how you ended up being an entrepreneur.
Corinne Vargas: I was an actuary for about eight years. I started out my career really interested in the financial aspects and business side of the entire workforce. After a couple years of doing that, I had the privilege of opening an office in India with my former employer, Deloitte.
I realized that I was not only interested in working on inter and multicultural communications, but also on those smaller components that actually come with the actual process of speaking and interacting and how we actually perceive different types of information.
So, my thought process was to go back to school and kind of learn how to do that. I knew I was doing it well socially and wanted to figure out the science behind it. So, essentially, I went back to school and became a speech language pathologist, and really had the intention of starting my own business as an executive coach and that is where the entrepreneur journey started.
Shubha Chakravarthy: There are a couple of things there. First of all, you are actually doing actuarial work. What line of work were you in? It is my old line, so I’m interested.
Corinne Vargas: So, as an actuary I was on the consulting side, so I worked for Deloitte for eight years. I was also an intern there and I was on the property and casualty side.
I always like to describe it as buildings falling or people slipping and falling maybe within different commercial large tail retailers as well as things like tornadoes and vehicles falling. So, it is doing a ton of different types of work and financial modeling as well as claims modeling.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Then about this interaction with folks while you were setting up this offshore centre in India, what parts of those interactions fascinated you?
Corinne Vargas: There was just so much there. I was just excited to learn about a new culture and to learn different ways of doing things and practicing business around the world. I appreciated just getting to learn different perspectives and then how that actually worked with our operations in the United States.
I realized that there was so much talent across the world, but sometimes what is holding us back from reaching our ultimate potential happens to be smaller things like differences in accent or differences in the way that we communicate needs or even abilities.
So, that was the precipice for me to say, “I really want to figure this out and I think I can go back and do that.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: After that you got another degree and then you wanted to start a coaching business.
What made you take that leap from being an executive coach, which is like a personal services type business to something that is much more scalable?
Corinne Vargas: The goal was to be an executive coach in international communications as well as the individual kind of presentation and overall communications at different types of C-suite levels. Throughout that journey, in terms of going back to become a speech language pathologist, I wanted to get my speech degree and license.
When I was in grad school, I was seeing patients belonging to different backgrounds. So, although I wanted to focus on accent modification as well as technical careers and technical talent, I got the opportunity to work with little kids with autism all the way to seniors post-stroke and I realized that there was a commonality in terms of the way that the information was taken.
We were required to write goals in a specific way, and the notes that come out of those goals should have been written a certain way as well. I can’t even remember how long I was into the program, I just realized how tedious that process was. It was cumbersome and repetitive.
So, with my Excel background from my actuarial days, I decided to create a more or less sophisticated spreadsheet to help me automate my notes and automate the way that I wrote goals.
So, by automating the right way that I wrote goals, the notes would be generated very specifically and very quickly post-session. Then I was able to turn those same notes into pictures which then helped my patients.
I realized that since speech was a soft skill, it was really hard to recognize the progress that patients were making. So, it was a win-win. It saved me time and it made sure that I was checking all of the boxes in terms of the requirements for what would be good quality documentation.
Then finally, it really allowed me to get buy-in from my patients. Like I said, you could really see a difference in the performance of patients of all ages and all diagnoses.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What was that one moment that triggered it and you said, “This could become something bigger?”
Corinne Vargas: There is one exact moment that sticks out to my mind, as you asked me that question. I had an 11-year-old who had habituated “R” so a very different sounding “R” you might think of this as just the inability to fully make that sound and there are different characters on TVs and such that have this difference.
Everyone kind of notices but can’t really understand what it is. He was never in speech before and was really interested in remediating this speech disorder and difference at this age. He was entering a new phase of his life, a new level of social interaction, and had new expectations when it came to school and stuff.
So, it became somewhat of a nuisance for him and the thing about the letter “R” is that it happens in over 13 contexts in the US language. So, as you think about that, that is 13 different ways that a patient has to figure out how to say this specific letter and that is pretty daunting.
So, I tried to figure out how I could motivate him to actually see the progress and know that 13 feels like a lot and there are a lot of different levels to really knock out what we would call each block.
So, for each large goal I just asked him what his favorite color was and it was green and I started creating basically bar graphs that would get darker and taller and as we were able to – what we called topple them or tackle them, they would fall off.
So, that huge landscape in the first week brought it into a small purview and then knocked off each individual goal. You could just see that he was getting more and more excited, but also that he was really engaged and what I mean by really engaged is that he knew what he was working on and why he was working on it in that moment, but also after the session.
My supervisor at the time had been with the Northwestern for quite some time and had seen a lot of different patients throughout her entire career but noticed his excitement and some of his change as well as the acceleration of the change. So, I was lucky enough to stay with him for three-quarters and that’s a pretty quick time to remediate in our difference when a child is over 10 years old.
So, it was just this culmination of turning progress into pictures that helped every single one of us understand what we are doing while motivating us. The more that I got removed from that situation, and then the more that some of my peers and other students in my class were asking me to use this spreadsheet, I realized maybe this is something.
Quite frankly, looking back on it, I know that that was one of those big “Aha!” moments as well. But at the time I had just thought, “Hmm, this is something we should be doing, and if I can make it work for now, then I will.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: What does SMARTCharts do?
Corinne Vargas: So, at its very core, SMARTCharts helps clinicians automate their notes and turn those notes into patient friendly pictures, graphs, and charts.
We are serving speech occupational and physical therapists in outpatient settings and that is where we are starting at the moment. That is actually where that little kiddo and all of my patients were when I was on the Northwestern campus.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Right down the street from me, actually, and so close to my heart.
Then, going on, you can see that something is happening, there is potential here. Walk me through what happens and what is a moment at which you decide, “I’m actually going to dive into this?”
Corinne Vargas: So, that moment didn’t happen until at least seven years later.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Seven years?
Corinne Vargas: Yes. I was in grad school in 2014 and 2012, and I really didn’t think seriously about doing anything with that. What that spreadsheet, which internally now call a golden spreadsheet until the end of 2018, and the precipice for that was I was at a speech and hearing conference actually here in Illinois and there was another individual that was looking over my shoulder and she essentially was looking at one of my reports for one of my executive coaching clients.
She was asking me, “What is that?” It essentially looked like a lot of dots on a larger graph. But she could see that all these things were moving as I was just typing in numbers, and I told her that that was my speech report.
That was how I was reporting progress to my client. She was like, “That is pretty cool!” We got to talking and the more that we got to talking, the more I learned about her small practice and she asked me, “Do you think that we could potentially test this or use this?”
So, from my perspective, I just never thought about bringing this to a commercial level until that moment and it was just one of those serendipitous things that made me start thinking, “Okay, how do I do this? Or how would I do this?”
Shubha Chakravarthy: Then how did you figure that out? I mean, there is clearly a big product element and there is technology. How did you put all of those pieces in place and how did you come to a point where you could test a product with somebody?
Corinne Vargas: I definitely didn’t think about any of that. So, for the product part, the roadmap part, and the core customer – none of that.
I really thought about it from the fact of, “Hey, when I was in grad school and now, what would I do without this tool?” Essentially it was like, I just felt like there was a lot of time that I was putting into information that wasn’t usable to my patient.
In my real life, in my executive coaching life at that point, it was usable to every client I had because it was super streamlined and really easy to talk about as well as something that had undeniably real information to the patient that could show them that they were making progress even if they didn’t feel like it.
So, the journey just really started out with talking to a bunch of different development firms around the United States as well as here in Chicago and trying to figure out who was going to be the best partner for me, not only to help me create this product, but also to support me in a way that because I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I’m a non-technical founder. So, what are those things? What was a product roadmap and where did this need to go? How do you mock up different components? That is how the journey began. So, I picked one group and kind of just went with it after a couple different meetings.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Did you have any entrepreneurial support? Did you belong to any group? Did you have the advice of other entrepreneurs? Like how do you go from being an executive coach to figuring out even what questions to ask or who to talk to?
Corinne Vargas: That is a great question. So, from the business side, I’d been running my own books and creating my own financial plans and sort of those things, but it is a very different model on the executive coaching and consulting side than it would be for a SaaS program.
I did a lot of research for the executive coaching side and made some good contacts. So, I just really called upon a number of different mentors in different spaces to ask them really high-level general questions. I don’t really know that I solidified this as an actual product when I was talking to the majority of them, but those who got it got it and then those who didn’t, really didn’t.
So, there was a lot of learning in terms of “How do I even describe what this is?” I can tell you that I’m that much closer today to describing what this is, but I’m continuing to learn from our customers as well as my mentors as well as my peers about how best to describe a new product that hasn’t necessarily existed in this space before.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, where are you in the product lifecycle? Are you at launch, post-launch? Where would you describe SMARTCharts is today?
Corinne Vargas: SmartCharts is actually available for individual use for individual clinicians right now. It’s out and anyone can sign up for it at mysmartcharts.com. Right now, we are actually providing it to them for kind of a free model, just individuals who need it to serve their clients, their patients, and their students.
But we are serving small and medium sized businesses and we are working on our beta and alpha launches into the enterprise levels.
So, it is a really exciting year coming off of last year. We are just really coming off of fun and interesting experiences that are helping us get the word out there.
It is just so imperative to actually get this to those larger levels so that we can help that many more people both from a patient side, but also from the clinician’s side and in the long run too, for all of us to understand, the progress that we are making post-diagnosis.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You are not in full commercial launch yet. So, to go back, you’ve talked to your development firms, you figured out a good firm to work with.
What happens then? How would you describe your startup roadmap and then how did you figure out the successive milestones and what you needed to do and how much resources you needed to make all of that happen?
Corinne Vargas: Okay, so this is a great question. I had picked the development firm in late 2018 and I didn’t have a functional product until late 2019.
In terms of that process, it took a really long time. So, I like to think of my career as if there was the actuarial side and then there was the speech language pathologist coaching side, and then now there is this tech side.
So, I feel like I had to learn a new language with every single one of those facets, and it definitely took some time to get on the same page and be able to communicate what I was looking for in the actual product itself.
It was pretty cool that in late 2019 we were able to launch at a national conference for speech and language and hearing, which is the ASHA conference and at that conference all I did was that I simply got a booth and had a bunch of iPads with stands out and I was just testing to see what people would think it was.
There was a lot of interest and there were a couple different people actually trying to pay me on the spot and it was like, “Okay, now I have something right? So, this is validating.”
That was pretty cool because it did take a really long time to get there and what had existed in Excel was obviously not the prettiest version and we needed to make it super user friendly.
So, 2020 comes about. I had opportunities with a couple different school districts here in the Chicagoland area as well as some testing in some higher ed levels as well. Then we all know what happened in 2020. So, that was cool because I thought education and healthcare, that is recession proof. Boy was I wrong.
In 2020 with all of our case studies that were running and testing and efficacy and outcome and all of the plans that we had were basically put on hold – at that moment I had to really adapt and think through how will I continue to move this forward.
So, that’s essentially when I went to the general market and in the private Facebook groups and I said, “Is there anybody that would be interested as a therapist in automating their notes and turning those into pictures that their patients can understand?”
That was the simple line and then we had over 450 signups in under 48 hours from that post alone. So, in my mind, that was more validation to keep moving forward with this.
Luckily, at that time I was still coaching, and I continued to do coaching for the most part actually through the middle of last year. So, I was continuing to keep the livelihood up and keep the lights on while pushing the product forward.
So, from 2020 till the middle of last year, there wasn’t a huge propensity for hospital systems or hospital organizations to really pick up new health technologies and the education systems were really just getting back on their feet as well.
So, I took that time to do a lot of product testing and development based on those users and continuing to adapt the product for those small and medium sized businesses and learn from them in terms of the product and where it sits.
Now a little bit more succinctly, as we do have a good fully-baked functional product for small and medium size practices, veteran speech, occupational and physical therapy, they are just not integrated into their electronic medical records.
The version that we are working on is the enterprise level, which is launching this year, which will be integrated into those larger electronic medical records.
So, it’s exciting because we are finally, hitting that stride and I think we are at a space in the world now where health technologies and med technologies are getting a little bit more of an ear than they were in the times that we were just coming out of.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Pun not intended?
Corinne Vargas: I didn’t even put those two things together!
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, you mentioned that you were going through with your day job. I’m sure that provided some financial cushion.
Was that enough and if not, how did you think about and approach the whole funding question as you are still not at a fully commercializable scale yet, and development costs money?
Corinne Vargas: Absolutely. So, even to get off the ground after that independent company and that woman came to me at that speech and hearing conference in Illinois, I went to my family and was like, “Hey, you know, I think I want to give this a shot.”
It is ingrained in my mind because I was so afraid to talk to them about this. It was not a significant amount of money but enough to just help me with what I had saved or put together. They were all supportive and there were a lot of different reasons behind this, but that little bit of seed funds and family money that we had pulled, and founder money got me through those first couple years.
I was really diligent about how I was creating contracts and really thinking through those financial aspects. But as I continued to move through the process, I realized that building technology is expensive and that I wasn’t going to be enough.
So, I was working through funding last year in terms of angels and investors, and this year we will be going for seed funding for our first larger round and substantial funding to move us forward.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You also won a pitch competition – I saw Alex’s post today – for a hundred thousand dollars. You want to tell us about it a bit? That’s awesome!
Corinne Vargas: Yes, absolutely. It’s so crazy because we are only in the second year, second day of this year. Last year was a very exciting year. We were able to participate in a number of different competitions and the most recent one that you are referring to is actually Tech by Chicago.
That is a really awesome organization held by P33 here in Illinois, which is meant to support, BIPOC and women founders at the earliest stages from idea to early-stage products to get the funding that they need to get their solutions out there.
This was a culmination of actually the entire year of competitions. They provide non-dilutive grant funding all year in weekly competitions. So, check that out.
But also secondarily, at the end of the year, it is a culmination of a lot of those ideas coming together in terms of a people’s choice kind of competition. So, from there, you get to that stage by getting voted to a popular vote and then in the top 12 and then an independent VC vote.
So, it was a really exciting thing. It was held on December 1st. It was a really exciting day. I was actually quite sick coming into it.
So, it was a bit nerve-wracking for me, but I got to get up there and tell my story. I described at the very beginning of never really having the story super clean or as relatable and I worked extremely hard throughout that process. But also, we were lucky enough to get into Techstars last year as well.
Through that process that we finished in December as well to come to the stage despite being sick with a full story and have the kind of impact that I was looking for with SMARTCharts.
So, it was a really cool moment and a culmination of diverse founders, but also the idea that I could tell the story in a way that I had not been able to tell it before was exciting to say the least and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Congratulations. That’s a very worthy victory. You mentioned friends and family, then you mentioned angels, you mentioned accelerators, and you mentioned pitch competitions. Those are big strategic choices you need to make.
Certainly in the case of pitch competitions, there is a tradeoff in terms of time and effort and how much you disclose and all of that stuff.
How did you think at a high level, “Okay, am I even going to do pitch competitions? Am I going to do accelerators?” How did you make that decision? What are the learnings from that process?
Corinne Vargas: I don’t think there was ever a question whether I would do pitch competitions or accelerators. I think once I started really getting deep into the startup world which I would say was mid-2020 and when I started learning about what it takes to have a good pitch, what that actually means, what are all those components that you need to convey in 10 minutes and figure that out, I knew I needed resources and I knew I needed help because it was never a space that I was really involved with previously.
So, I had actually done the health equity and innovation accelerator at Matter Chicago, they were paired with the YWCA, and that was a really good first step. It’s really great to go back and look at that pitch and that information because like I said, it had come so far in just a year, but that opportunity really opened the door in terms of, “Hey, there is a lot that I need to learn and there is a lot that I need to shore up.”
So, from that point on, it was, “Where can I get funding? Where can I get the word out and what can I learn from every experience that I’m taking to that next experience to get the solution out there?”
I think with solutions that sit in these spaces that may not be completely explicit or a physical product sometimes. I think getting the idea out there and iterating on that idea with a diverse set of perspectives, whether it is accelerators, pitch competitions, or those that are around you is just really important in those early days because there is no better way to say it than – you just don’t know what you don’t know.
You do know your product and what you are looking to do so much better than everyone else that sometimes you can get so far in the weeds that you end up concentrating on the wrong things in terms of what you are conveying to specific audiences.
So, I would highly recommend that as that was a big game changer for me. It was also a lot of learning, a lot of painful learning, which I think was necessary to get to that end stage in December.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, I’ll come back to that in a minute. But before that, I wanted to ask one thing about the team. Everybody talks about how important it is to have a team, and clearly you are working on this, I assume full-time.
You have your dev team. Who else did you need and how did you staff up to those capabilities that you needed, but you personally didn’t think you could bring to the table?
Corinne Vargas: So, definitely development was the first step that I needed. I’m continuing to work through finding what those needs are, and those needs continue to evolve over time.
There has been a whole host of what I would call my team as a really big extension of my network and my personal support system as well. I’m a solo founder, like I said, on the non-tech side with a technical solution, so it is a very interesting space to be in.
I think being able to learn as much as I can about what I don’t know really relies on that larger network, whether it is about when you are hiring some talent and where they need to come from and then deciphering what those first big hires are.
So, the team has continued to evolve over time, and it is just such an interesting process because I feel like finding those first right strategic hires is extremely important but also really difficult.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Tell us the secret.
Corinne Vargas: There is no secret other than actually, there was a mentor very recently that I went to, through Techstars, who said, “You are going to make mistakes in hiring different types of talent and that is just normal. You’re going to make mistakes in every single part of your business.”
Being able to accept those mistakes and actually make quick decisions is really important.
On the flip side, being able to retain the talent that you know is going to be a game changer for you and or being able to attract that talent is really important too.
So, the idea of being very explicit and clear on what your expectations are but also sticking to what that means, whether that means that expectations weren’t met, and it is time to separate or that we are killing expectations and we need to continue moving forward. How do I get you to stay ?
Shubha Chakravarthy: Were there sources of talent that worked better for you as a founder that you think other founders should be looking at?
Corinne Vargas: The definite number one source of talent would be networking. In terms of using your network to find who those people are that would fit in the right roles.
So, as part of executive coaching, I worked with a lot of individuals in terms of getting to their next levels or the next stages within their careers and one of the secrets is that you actually get most of your opportunities through your secondary and tertiary circles.
It is the same exact way with finding talent I have found on the flip side. So, that is the number one way that has worked and helped me.
The other piece that I haven’t utilized quite as much, although I will be utilizing in 2023 is the team around me in terms of having them help me interview people.
So, finding those questions, and asking those questions that I may not foresee or that they have a different perspective and also know the mission of SMARTCharts.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Also, on the question of funding, I think you mentioned angels and other outside investors. You are a non-technical founder so technical expertise is at the core of your startup.
One of the things that has actually been flagged as a potential risk is when an investor looks at a startup and sees a core technical product with the technical expertise residing outside the firm.
How have you been able to handle that and how do you think about managing that risk given that all the development resides outside of your firm?
Corinne Vargas: Well, we have internal developers now. But initially there was a lot of talk about the fact that I needed a technical co-founder and if I’m going to be honest, there is a lot of conversation around that.
Even currently, my answer to that is, “I’ve made it this far. I know exactly what I want to do with this product and if the right technical co-founder were to come about, I’m not opposed to taking that person on.” I am very open to that when it comes from VCs, but you find me that person and I will give them an opportunity.
However, it is a big role, and it has to be a personal and cultural and technical fit in terms of that component going forward. So, I haven’t found that right individual yet.
Until I do, I have got the roadmap and the talent to support in terms of all of those use cases and needs. So, there are Chief Product Officers, CTOs, all of these fractional, and/or consulting groups, two of which have been there since the very beginning of SMARTCharts.
It is not a concern for me at this moment and there are contingency plans and we have continued hiring to make sure that we are filling those needs as we go forward.
But my answer is, “If you find me the right person, I’m open to it.” But it has just not happened quite yet.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’ll keep my ears open for you for sure. Thanks for answering that.
So next, coming to the business model, that is the critical heart of any startup, how did you think about the business model, particularly your revenue model, your go-to-market strategy, and your pricing? Can take those one by one?
Corinne Vargas: So, the business model is highly informed by the financial model and the financial model is highly informed by the price. It’s all interrelated.
So, there has been so much to learn in terms of who is actually using our product, figuring out why they are actually using our product, and is it the intended use of what I actually created? Is it in line or is it a little bit different?
So, it is really leaning into what is working and what are we delivering as a value proposition. For us, that means time and what does time mean?
That actually quite literally means money in a lot of different situations. So, in our space, that means time that clinicians or therapists are documenting notes. If you, for example, are in physical therapy, you might see your physical therapist typing away frantically at the end of your session or maybe throughout your session. We are trying to remove that entire process.
So, saving time on the documentation in and of itself is there and there is a whole communication process that comes along with any sort of therapeutic interventions or rehabilitation. What does that mean?
Your physical therapist is telling you how you are doing, right? Your speech therapist is telling you how your child is doing as they are getting better throughout the process. That is a lot to disseminate without a reference. So, we are deciphering how much time we are saving in communications with the care team.
So, that would include other clinicians, the doctor, et cetera. The family – that includes caregivers and parents, the patient themselves, and then also just being able to pick up a new patient and kind of run with them.
Then finally there is the component of data interoperability. We all know that there is a huge issue on the healthcare side and the continuum of care is definitely disrupted by the idea that you really can’t read other institutions’ notes very quickly or notes in general. We are really tackling those problems.
So, from a time and profitability side, that is where our pricing comes from. Does it cost to pay a clinician? How much are we expecting out of our clinicians’ given limited time? How much time can we get them back? Then how much more can we get reimbursed?
That is where the pricing model really has come from – in terms of when we think back to how are we actually charging or what kind of business model did we go with? Like I said, we were testing in higher education, education, and small and medium size clinics.
The healthcare industry is much more condensed in terms of the tools that they are using at the enterprise level. I do believe that this solution needs to be a top-down solution for that data interoperability component, but also because at those smaller levels of care, there are a ton of different options just like there is an education and for us to adapt and actually really make a difference in terms of creating data sets and databases that will do predictive modeling and machine learning for all of us to help us get better faster.
We need to enter at a space that makes sense not only from a business stand for point in terms of pricing, but also an impact. What does that mean? Getting enough data?
Shubha Chakravarthy: It sounds like the enterprise model is almost one where you almost have to do it. It is inevitable for you to be able to expand into these markets, achieve that kind of scale, and get the kind of data you need to keep continuing to improve the product and its impact. Is that a fair position?
Corinne Vargas: Yes, absolutely. Is it absolutely necessary? No.
But as I worked through making those decisions, the idea of getting the product as defined and as applicable to as many people as possible quickly, those are the levels that we need to tackle, which is those larger spaces that the electronic medical records live in and that’s great.
Electronic medical records(EMR’s), by the way, are not going anywhere, but we are there to supplement and help those electronic medical records work that much more smoothly in cases that they necessarily were not exactly built for. So, like I said, speech, occupational physical therapy, post-stroke, or post autism diagnosis, or anything like that.
There is a huge gap there and there is a huge opportunity to create savings in terms of stopping re-hospitalizations, but also maybe continuing care so that patients don’t necessarily have to go back or that they can reach an even a higher potential of betterment.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, in terms of your customer acquisition strategy, you have multiple different segments. You have the school districts, you have the healthcare facilities, and now potentially you have the enterprise – large healthcare systems and things like that.
So, how have you thought about acquiring customers in each of these segments and how is that strategy evolving over time?
Corinne Vargas: Initially it was anyone that I could get to pay attention. It was healthcare and education and everything in between, which is a lot of different types of institutions.
Now it is really a focused effort on healthcare and that enterprise level or those larger rehabilitation institutions. How did we get there? It was essentially just analyzing the market and really understanding what those market needs are but what are those market needs at those different types of levels? What product components do we need that would be most applicable to the most amount of people in the shortest period of time?
So, it’s a little bit like a frequency-severity thing, right? How frequently would we need to change things, but how much impact would we make?
For me, it was so much more about, “I want to make as big of an impact as possible and then be able to adapt to get those smaller segments and everyone on board to move forward in terms of a larger scale.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m hearing that it is tending more towards “You do whatever changes you need to do to make sure that you actually are maximizing, you are solving for impact.
In other words, no matter what the effort is provided, if it makes financial sense and it is going to continue to give positive returns to you and to any investors who are there today or may be there tomorrow.”
Corinne Vargas: Yes, with a focused effort. So, the difference is, as we are looking at these larger organizations, they tend to be focused on 3-4 different electronic medical records that are in those spaces.
That is only 3-4 electronic medical records that we need to integrate with and/or use partnerships to integrate with. Comparatively speaking, if you step down into medium and smaller size organizations, the number of options for electronic medical records and documentation exponentially grows. There are a lot of different players in those markets. That is a lot of different adaptation that would need to happen to reach more clinicians and patients to help them.
So, it is a frequency-severity in terms of its pointed meaning that we are really trying to touch points that are very laser focused on the specific electronic medical records within specific settings for now – outpatient to prove efficacy and outcome and then we will start to expand the product to serve more electronic medical records, but also to serve more patients at different stages.
Right after you get out of surgery for example, like home health and beyond schools. For example, in the future, education is an entirely different industry, but right now laser focused based on the conglomerate of how you think about the smartest and most efficient way to tackle the market.
Shubha Chakravarthy: In terms of these EMR providers, is that just something that you can independently program for? I’m not a technician or technical person but do you need to have any kind of partnership or collaboration or cooperation from these guys and does that offer additional challenges or hoops that you have to jump through to make sure that you are actually able to enter into these large health systems?
Corinne Vargas: Absolutely. That is a great point and a great question. So, the electronic medical records, yes, it is a pretty significant barrier to entry because they house the majority of our patient data and in that way being able to connect with them is obviously imperative.
For example, our 12-to-24-month runway and outlook on what we are looking to do is actually connected to these larger electronic medical records through a third-party intermediary. What does that do? That allows us one connection point to reach these multiple electronic medical records by just having to connect to one API.
The goal here is to prove efficacy and outcome and once that is done, then we’ll build directly into partnerships with those electronic medical records. There are probably other types of strategies and types of acquisitions or components that might make sense at that time.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It is just fascinating once you get into all these large players and try to get it to your market. So, thanks for walking through that.
One other question. Moving onto funding, is there any IP involved because you came up with this method from scratch and clearly technology is facilitating that, but there is a thinking behind it and the logic in terms of how you translate that note into a visual representation.
What are your thoughts on how much IP there is and to what extent has that figured into your business model? Have you done anything to protect it?
Corinne Vargas: That’s a great question. There is a proprietary algorithm, which I know is such a buzzword, but it is actually true here.
What is actually happening on the back end of SMART Charts is that we are really evaluating different components that go into writing a goal. A goal, for example, has five to seven different components in terms of increasing your ability, your skill, and decreasing the supports that you need.
We are basically matching information based on different types of levels of change and by doing that we are creating a database that allows us to figure out through AI and machine learning what would be the specific factors that will impact different individuals?
For example, I had four knee surgeries when I was 16 versus if I had four knee surgeries, at 60 years old, what would my expectations be and what could I expect to see in terms of that betterment process? It is not linear. We are never getting better. You are never able to just start running 10 days after a knee surgery.
But having the idea that when you get hurt, it is like, “What does this mean to me? How long is this going to be?” Really turning that into expectations based on norms that are centered around us as individual people and characteristics is what we are working to do.
So, there is the IP there on the backend that is this evaluated and intricate system that creates data to do the AI in terms of protecting that IP. Right now, we are just using it as a trade secret and, I’ve had numerous conversations in terms of what to do with those components and there is a little bit of that being driven by investors too, in terms of trying to understand where this fits and what can we protect and what we can’t.
That is an ongoing process as I feel that the entire startup process is a lot of learning and figuring out along the way. But at the moment, it is just a trade secret and it is internal to our employees.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, we talked about investors and this ongoing process. When did you first start getting an understanding of the funding landscape?
How did you get up to speed in terms of different sources of capital? What were your biggest learnings and takeaways as you moved through that process that helped you get off to a funding start?
Corinne Vargas: Wow, this is such a loaded question. I would say that the funding journey is not unique to me. So, there was just a ton to learn about and from people within the community. That first accelerator through Matter Chicago and YWCA was so huge.
It allowed me to create a community of other founders and entrepreneurs that were in the health tech space and med tech space, where every solution kind of has its own hurdles and its own barriers. It was really great to have a community to go to and to ask those questions and also just be honest about what you did and didn’t know.
There are one or two that I particularly really relied on that I’d met through that process who introduced me to that landscape. Then from there it was a ton of research about figuring out what this is. What do I actually need? How do you build an appropriate financial model? Every model should be very specific to the business, different components like that just take time and a lot of research as well as a lot of humility, I would say.
Being able to ask those questions and putting your fear aside of, “I may not sound like I know what I’m talking about.” Well, frankly, you don’t if you are asking some of these questions or if you don’t know what you are talking about, just admitting it and leaning into it to try to figure out exactly what will arm you in those conversations with those funders.
Then figuring out those resources. I don’t know that anything exists out there right now. Quite frankly, there are a lot of different tools and there are a lot of different websites that you can go to but that give you a larger scale perspective on who you should be matching with and what you should be doing.
There are a lot of different types of programs based on geographic location and the solution type. But it is just a lot of research and a lot of networking. I think it is really important to lean into those second and third contexts and ask those questions specifically when it comes to those introductions to make sure that you are talking to the right people and that your interests are aligned.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Any learnings that came from that, that would have made it more efficient for you whole looking back in terms of that learning?
Corinne Vargas: I would love to say yes, but honestly I think that the funding process is extremely difficult. If you haven’t been through it before, I would say, getting involved in what has helped other founders that are not first-time founders being able to walk you through their experiences helps.
So, hopefully you can talk to me in 5 or 10 years when I’m on the second or third company and it is a little bit different. But the idea is that as you’ve gone through it as a founder once before you have a little bit lay of the land.
You have got more context and it helps a little bit more in terms of understanding. I think that anybody with experience going through fundraising is helpful to any new founder just starting the journey.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One last question on funding and then I want to talk about your personal experience through this. You talked a lot about financial models and how central the whole model and projections are to your strategy and obviously to fundraising as well.
You already have experience in building amazing Excel spreadsheets, I’m sure. What were your learnings and big takeaways in terms of the financial modeling that you think entrepreneurs should keep in mind?
Corinne Vargas: Well one component is the fact that every business should have its own financial model. Being able to understand your own model and articulate your own model has been invaluable to me as a founder and I think that it really allows you to be a lot more confident in terms of all of those components that we have touched on already.
What does that mean? Projections? That means go to market strategy. That means what customer acquisition costs as well as what you are going to be charging for your product and what those projections are into the long term for what you’ll need in each round.
I know that seems like a lot for a non-Excel founder, so there are just tons of resources out there and there are additionally a lot of different programs that they can use to get started at least.
But being able to tweak those models and really understand how your business is different, what tiny, factors might be nuances that you should add or detract from the models that you are building or starting from is really important.
I think that makes a founder stand out when they are talking to potential investors, but also with the idea of creating a model that works with you as you are continuing to grow, if you don’t know how it works, you can’t continue to update the information in real time to help you figure out what those next steps are or what the potential red flags are around the corner.
Shubha Chakravarthy: There is a perception among some women that they are afraid of numbers, or I that they don’t want to deal with the math.
What counsel would you give them to say, “Here is the bare minimum and here is how to wrap your head around it in your user-friendly terms – whatever they might be, even if you are not an Excel nerd.”
Corinne Vargas: I think I’ve always gravitated towards numbers. I like the idea of being able to play with them and knowing if you are right or wrong and it is a safe space. So, knowing that, “Hey, if you want to go on Excel and figure there are a ton of resources on Instagram and reels and whatnot that are just short little clips of figuring out shortcuts and things like that, which seem really silly, but I continue to still watch those things to learn little tips and tricks.”
Secondarily, again, leaning on your community. Who are those people in my group of friends? I’m that nerdy Excel friend and I just lean into it and they all know even in my entrepreneur circles that I would be more than happy in terms of figuring out what feels like very overwhelming stuff.
I know that there are a ton of Excel nerds out there and data nerds just like me. So, I would say leaning into other people, but asking those questions, having the humility, and also taking the idea that we can’t do something out of our vocabulary.
So yes, you can do a financial model. It is possible. It’s going to take time. It is the same process as anything else.
I’ve had to be humble and learn a lot of hard lessons along the way that feel really heavy and really difficult to start. But looking back, if I had not had some of those moments of, “Oh man, what am I going to do?” Or “I don’t know what to do. Whom do I go?” It is just about being determined to find the right person and to find the right resources.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Has there been one example of a heavy lesson that you just mentioned that you care to talk about?
Corinne Vargas: There have been so many heavy lessons. It is so funny. I laugh because during the pandemic, and I don’t want to keep going back to this, but it was such an unfortunate time for me to be launching an education and healthcare application at that time, which even based on this conversation, has evolved into a straight healthcare solution at enterprise level only.
That took 18 months or even longer for me to come to those solutions and to come to that conclusion and to come to that level of specificity and continuing to refine what that means now.
I think the hard lessons for me were when I dug in, I really thought this was going to be an education solution and being able to think dynamically about what that solution means, even if it wasn’t in the space that I wanted it right away was something that I fought for a long time and went down a path that look where I am now, education is in the future.
We’ll get there. Teachers can definitely use it. It is set up for that.
At the current moment, I think looking back and the COO/CTO of the development firm, would laugh at me for this, but we have got just an inside saying of, “Now think really hard, are you really stuck on this?”
It is always one of these jokes that I stuck on for way too long and maybe brought us down a path that was a mental sticky note versus actually looking at what the data was telling us that “Hey, there are tons of other clinicians in these other spaces that are looking at your solution organically.”
So, that was a hard lesson and that was a hard pivot for me. Now it is just a matter of “How do I help as many people as possible and get this out there to help as many people as possible, as refined and focused and as profitably as possible to make sure that we can make it to those next stages?”
Shubha Chakravarthy: I just love the example you gave because it is at the heart of the conflict between what keeps you going as an entrepreneur. It is this ability to see that 11-year-old kid and being able to impact one life and that is where your heart was pulling you.
Then having to switch to the more rational side, let’s look at the numbers. That is a tough one for any entrepreneur. Was there anything that helped you make that transition, that made it easier? Was there any flipping point and any inflection point? Anything that other founders could maybe benefit from?
Corinne Vargas: So, with all honesty, it was fear, right? It was fear. When I went back to, “What did I build this business for? Why did I start this right?”
I have this clear mission now. If you see me on the street here in Chicago I can tell you exactly who I wanted to help and why I want to help them and why I’m going to make a difference and where this is going to go and why it will be the next big conglomerate that is taking over a new level of data that most people aren’t looking at.
Anyway, I digress.
It was fear. It was fear of not being able to help people with my ultimate goal. It was the idea that there are so many people out there struggling. For me, it was after my knee surgery and not understanding what was actually happening in the process.
I was depressed and I was frustrated, and I could never see myself playing soccer again. I went back to that person, to that 16-year-old little girl that had to quit after the fourth knee surgery. I was reimagining who I was at that point because after too many knee surgeries I just didn’t have the ability or the fight to turn around and keep going. Quite frankly, I just couldn’t do it anymore physically.
So, the idea of “How do I help that little girl?” and then there’s an even earlier story with my mother that as I think back on my journey is what really has driven me throughout. I really believe I was built to do this.
So, the idea behind that is that fear – that I couldn’t help patients in general at the worst times of their lives. My mom actually had a stroke when I was three years old and she had to learn how to walk, talk, read, and write and she had a journey that was long, difficult, frustrating, and very confusing.
My mom and I grew up together as she was recovering, and I noticed all of these types of struggles that she was going through while she was going through speech therapy as well as physical therapy. She ultimately never finished her full course of therapies, which only 1 in 10 patients do now.
As I grew up to think through how this has all came together, I was really on a mission to make sure that nobody else had to go through what I went through personally, what she went through personally.
I do believe the reason she didn’t finish is because she couldn’t see the incremental change at the end. Those small differences now today still impact her in terms of having a drop foot in terms of some slips and falls, now in her mid and in late seventies.
The sad thing about that is nothing has changed in over 30 years and that can’t continue to happen. So, the fear of not being able to help patients like that 11- year-old or a 4-year-old with autism that I saw come up with her first functional sentences or that 80-year-old with his first meaningful request with words.
Being able to see those changes and that impact it didn’t matter to me which patients I was starting with as long as I could start somewhere. So, in terms of when I think back to what it was, it was fear that I would never get the solution out there and that I would never be able to help people like me, like my mother, and like those amazing patients that I was able to work with.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I love it. It totally makes sense. I think that is something that I personally can relate to as a founder myself, being able to dig into your past and digging into your motivation to make sure that they meet the market needs. Thank you for sharing that.
One question on the product as you were talking through applications in areas beyond speech therapy. Are you seeing the ability to expand the utility of what you have created to other domains? How much of a stretch is that to take it outside of speech?
Corinne Vargas: Oh, absolutely. So, right now it is a functional product in three different domains or what we call disciplines. So, speech, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. We also have a little bit of functionality audiology as well. Right now, being very focused on making sure that we are delivering on that value proposition within rehabilitation settings.
So, this is for individual that are post-diagnosis, for example, like my mom who had a stroke or maybe it is a knee surgery or hip surgery, or things like that to be able to see their incremental progress across all of their goals.
So, it’s for those three disciplines currently and within the healthcare industry now we are hyper focused on actually developing the product towards that.
That doesn’t mean that in the future there isn’t an opportunity in education. Industries that I see us moving into the future would definitely be the higher education and such research industries, but you also have a disability in a clinic setting. As a little kid, you definitely have a disability at school as well. So, being able to provide SMARTCharts in those settings as well.
Then we are actually continuously working on adding gamification into SMARTCharts right now to increase at-home-practice and at-home therapy for speech and occupational physical therapy.
Then beyond that, wearable technologies and being able to combine the information that we know, for example, in physical therapy, to start to inform even more in the SMARTCharts realm and help the clinician make even more precise decisions in terms of plans of care going forward.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Excellent. I love it. You talked a little bit about some of the challenges you have overcome in terms of making pivots and so forth. What have been some highlights, some beautiful moments that made you feel like this is totally worth it and “This is why I’m doing all this hard work?”
Corinne Vargas: Yes. I hate to keep bringing it back to the tech race competition, but it is one such honor to participate in. But secondarily, I do think, any founders in the Midwest that are BIPOC and female should definitely look into applying for it. It is just such a great resource not only as a platform, but also for information as we talked about earlier, for first time or early entrepreneurs.
But through that competition, my mother actually came to that competition and that was the first time that she ever got to see me pitch. My larger pitch is a big part of the story, and I actually really reframed it for that competition itself and now continued to reframe how I introduce her.
It is kind of the purpose of behind SMARTCharts, and it was just such a special moment for her to be there while I was not only pitching, but also just for the culmination of everything that I’ve been working on for so long.
She has seen the struggles and understood the long hours or over Thanksgiving break, working on some of those slides. She got it and I feel like the audience got it. So, I finally feel like I got my messaging right that night and people really understood the impact this could have not just for clinicians and just the patients that I spoke about. One thing I always say about SMARTCharts is that it touches every single one of our lives.
I don’t know in a room that I’ve ever spoken to that if I were to ask, “Do you know anybody that has been in speech occupational or physical therapy?” that there isn’t one person that raises their hands because it is everything from multiple sclerosis to cancer to covid long hauler to developmental differences in diagnoses.
So, to see that she could actually grasp what I was doing and why I was doing it and how central she was, whether her or I knew it way back then until even now was really, really huge. It was definitely one of those moments that you are seeing yourself from out of body and you think, “This is supposed to happen, right?”
So, that’s the number one. I still get goosebumps talking about it, but yeah, it was a really great shared experience because she was finally able to see what I was doing, why I’m doing it, and see where I am now with everything.
Which is so funny because that’s how I describe SMARTCharts. It helps patients see what people are working on, why they’re working on it, and where they are in their process. So, it comes full circle.
Shubha Chakravarthy: This is fantastic. I got goosebumps while you were telling me the story.
So, looking back, it has been a long journey and an eventful one. Is there anything you would do differently starting over?
Corinne Vargas: Oh, what a great question. Funny enough, I was listening to a podcast earlier today and I don’t think that without going through all of the experiences that we’ve gone through make us who we are.
For me, it has allowed me to come and bring myself, my full self to the table even more. I think even a lot of entrepreneurs do struggle with confidence at certain points in time. Like I said, learning what that model meant and learning how to describe that model and learning what this is and how to describe it to other people and not with my clinical terms and not my actuary terms, but in real world terms.
I think I’ve had to go through a lot of difficult moments and a lot of self-reflection moments and a lot of developmental moments. I’m so thankful for mentors and my network who have just been real with me, but also so supportive.
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everybody and that is such a cliche, but had I known what I was going to go through, I’m not sure I would still be here. But now that I’m here, now I’m like somebody who would say, “Try to take it away from me because I’m going to fight for this.”
I really believe in what I’m doing and I really know what I’m doing. It’s the right path for me and the right path, for healthcare right now.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Just to conclude, if there is one non-obvious tip or hack that you would offer to other entrepreneurs maybe earlier in that journey that you are on, what would that be?
Corinne Vargas: Find your personal mantra. What gives you goosebumps or what is such a great moment? I’m weirdly enough, as a speech pathologist now, all about words.
There have been different phrases or sentences or words of encouragement that mentors or my network have given to me and I write them down. Then I use that. I use that until it is exhausted, until the next one sticks out to me.
So, I’m constantly repeating to myself different types of mantras that are given to me, not that I’ve devised. I don’t know if that is the right way to do it, but it is definitely when I hear it from other people and then repeat it to myself that it just becomes that much more. It allows me to bring my full self to the table.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What is one that you are working on now or one that has really worked for you in the past?
Corinne Vargas: I may have said it during this interview. “I was meant to do this” and that was given to me by another member within the Techstars community when I was going through that cohort.
So, that is the one I’m working with. It has been about five or six weeks. So, we’ll see what comes next.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That works for me. Thank you very much, Corinne. This has been an amazing conversation and a moving one, so I know for one that I’ll be rooting for you and I’m pretty sure many more will be. All the best! Thank you so much!
Corinne Vargas: Thank you!