I’m taking a break from being a founder and CEO, so consider this my cover letter to the world.
This is a really emotional event for me. It’s been something I’ve been giving a lot of thought over the few months. And if I’m being honest, it’s something I’ve really struggled with. But being a founder has taken a physical and emotional toll on me, that for my own wellbeing, I need to take a break from.
I got burnt out. I stopped finding any joy in the work I set out to do. More-so, it was making me miserable, and potentially even a danger to myself.
I was having increasingly frequent and intense suicidal thoughts and bouts of deep depression. On top of that, in the last week of October, I was admitted to the hospital for what now appear to have been stress-induced temporal seizures.
Work can never become more important than your health, your happiness. And it’s something that I let happen to me.
So, I’m taking a step back, leaving Izzy Care and taking a short break to re-focus on my health, my happiness, and spending time with friends and family.
My hope is to then, by the end of the year, have secured a new, different role at the intersection of healthcare + technology, where I can apply what I’ve learned over the past few years launching my own ventures in the space.
I feel confident leaving Izzy Care in the very capable hands of my team, under the guidance of my co-founder, Joswell Valdez, who will now serve as Izzy Care’s interim CEO.
So what happened?
My perception of my own self-worth had become entangled with how I perceived the “success” of my business. New customers, new milestones…I was worth something. Setbacks, deals that fell through…I was worth nothing and would be better off dead. And all the successes and failures of the company were solely on my shoulders.
I constantly told myself that when I was finally “successful”, I would pay off my student loans in full, buy my mom a new house, pay for college for my younger brothers, and save up enough money so that my future kids would never have to worry about a thing.
I felt that I needed to provide a solution to the millions of people out there suffering from depression or various other conditions, and that if I couldn’t, I was again worth nothing.
Dealing with Depression
For some context, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for the better part of my 22 years. I started receiving treatment for this college, but about three years into my undergrad, things got to the point where I even attempted suicide. I won’t go into the details here, suffice it to say that I blacked out and went into respiratory failure. When I came to, I was intubated in the Intensive Care Unit.
After about a day in the ICU, I would spend about a week in the ER, before moving to an intensive partial-hospitalization program. I was really quite fortunate to attend this program, as I received some of the best psychotherapy and psychiatric services I’ve had to this point, and learned a blend of techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that I could apply on my own to manage my self care.
Following this month, I then began the process of scaling down, following up with semiweekly therapy sessions and monthly psychiatry sessions, and was even able to return to school on time for the Fall semester of my senior year.
I’d then go on to have three years without incident. Not just without incident, but thriving in fact. I was doing amazing things with work, and had even gotten engaged to my best friend, Maria. I was truly, truly happy.
That was up until a few months ago, when the suicidal thoughts and bouts of deep depression reared their ugly heads again.
Solving my Seizures
On the other hand, I had my first seizure-like event almost four years ago now. I’m still not sure to this day what triggered it, but as my friends and I got back into the car to drive back home from the movies, I had an event that presented many of the symptoms typically associated with various types of seizures. However, every battery of neurological exams I’ve ever had done have come back negative for anything at all. So what the f**k?
Following this first event, I’d eventually have two more major incidents, with about a year and a half between each. After this third incident, I was prescribed a very low dose of an anti-seizure medication. Things were fine on the medication for about eight months until I started having these odd seizure-like events; lesser in intensity than the previous events, but with fewer time between them.
That brings us to recently when I was admitted to the hospital under round-the-clock monitoring, where the general opinion of my neurologist and his team was that these seem to be temporal seizures, triggered by serious lack of sleep, intense stress, and poor diet and exercise.
So What Now?
Now, I’m taking time to focus on getting my health back on track: meeting regularly with my psychotherapist, and following up with my neurologist; spending time with my friends and family; working out, eating right. Just enjoying life.
Looking Back Over My Time as a Founder
My time at Notre Dame (2013–2016)
It actually wasn’t until my Sophomore year (‘14/‘15) in my undergrad (studying neuroscience & behavior as a pre-med student) that I really became interested in entrepreneurship. I entered a Startup Weekend by Techstars event that the university was hosting, and pitched a voice assistant, “Hope”, for depressed patients.
Over the course of the weekend, I assembled a small team and we went in a different direction, building a social network of sorts for mental health we called MiWe (Mind + Wellness), which won the Best Social Impact award at the event. While this project itself didn’t necessarily pan out, it served as my first dabble into entrepreneurship and afforded me some important lessons I’d take forward into the future.
In my Junior year (‘15/‘16), I started working on a suicide prevention platform for students I called Safetap, connecting students to mental health, wellness, and emergency resources on campus and in the local community. It’s during this time that I first met Joswell, who would go on to become one of my closest friends and my co-founder/CTO in these ventures.
With Safetap, each high school or college campus had their own branded portal, where students could book counseling appointments online and even have video sessions with therapists right from their dorm room; access a hub of online resources including information on depression and other mental health concerns, incident reporting for sexual assault, etc.; share their location and message with emergency services and trusted contacts with just a single tap.
I entered the university’s annual McCloskey Business Plan Competition, where 100+ teams of students, alumni and faculty compete for prizes with their new ventures, and was fortunate enough to win top prizesincluding $20,000 in seed funding and space to work out of Innovation Park, Notre Dame’s (relatively) new incubator, and support to represent Notre Dame in business plan competitions across the country.
I had started receiving requests from people, fellow students and others, on how they could build and launch their own products, especially in healthcare.
I returned my senior year (‘16/‘17) with the full intention of finishing out the year and graduating. But whenever I was in class, I was constantly thinking about new products and new business plans, and thinking about how I could improve the existing Safetap app, constantly reviewing Mixpanel data and transcripts of user interviews.
On top of this, I had also started receiving questions from fellow students, early stage startups, and healthcare professionals on how they could build and launch their own healthcare-related products, which led me to start taking on paid projects for clients during the school year.
A short time into my Fall semester, I realized I would not be able to give my full focus to both school and entrepreneurship. I chose entrepreneurship, and dropped out to pursue business ventures full time.
Life After College (2016 — today)
Work for clients pretty quickly became my full-time job. I kept the brand name Safetap for this new “agency”, and again turned to Joswell — who had a long history in freelance/contract work for clients — to join me in this new venture. Under Safetap, we focused almost exclusively on digital health & healthcare technology, and had a small team of designers & devs we would subcontract. We tackled projects from custom electronic medical records (EMRs) to chatbots and consumer health apps for healthcare organizations and startups.
Some of my favorite projects to work on during this time were Doxy.me, one of the top clinician-rated telemedicine platforms on the market, and ItRunsInMyFamily, a platform for family health history tracking with a built in chatbot serving as a genetic counselor of sorts, both led by Dr. Brandon Welch, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
During this time, I learned what I could to help further my business ventures — deepening my knowledge of general business concepts (with the Harvard Business School CORe program) and design (the UC San Diego Interaction Design program). I dove deep into machine learning, deep learning and A.I., consuming every textbook, research paper, and online course I could get my hands on, and building, training, and fine-tuning different types of predictive models and neural networks in my spare time.
As a side project, Joswell & I started working on Izzy, who at the time was an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot assistant for psychotherapists, helping to on-board new patients, check-in with them between appointments, and administer assessments like a PHQ-9 for depression.
Slowly, Izzy became its own B2B saas startup, evolving into a total A.I. & blockchain solution for enterprise healthcare — automating outreach to patients, follow-up between appointments; implementing private blockchains for managing patient health records. We had partnership discussions with athenahealth, and even chatted with SolutionReach about acquiring us.
But as we continued to work with the enterprise side of healthcare, we began to feel we could do a better job of providing care directly to patients, and supporting the clinicians delivering this care, with the technology we were creating.
And so, we pivoted. We used the tech from our B2B phase to create a new kind of health system ourselves. First unveiled at HLTH: The Future of Healthcare Conference this past May in Las Vegas, Izzy Care is a direct-to-consumer membership offering integrated family medicine, psychotherapy, nutrition & wellness.
Here, our A.I. assistant Izzy, helps automate care team workflows, enabling our clinicians to focus on patient care. We began developing exciting blockchain use-cases as part of this new health system — from incentivizing healthy behaviors; to paying patients for access to their health data and providing patients other options for monetizing their health record; to enabling patients to vote for protocol changes, eliminating top-down decision making by healthcare executives.
This time focused on direct-to-consumer with Izzy Care afforded me some incredible opportunities, some of which I want to highlight here:
- I was able to publish peer-reviewed research on the tech-enabled, patient-centric care model I developed at Izzy Care in Blockchain in Healthcare Today, and present this research in a talk at Converge2Xcelerate at Columbia University.
- I got to speak at the Global Blockchain Forum in San Francisco as part of a panel on blockchain in healthcare, and pitch Izzy Care on the main stage.
- I got to be quoted twice in U.S. News & World Report on investing in techand CVS stock, and got to talk about Izzy Care in publications like MedCity News, Healthcare Weekly and CCN (cross-posted in Yahoo! Finance)
- I was interviewed in Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, on The Bitcoin Podcast, and for the upcoming follow-up to the 2017 Netflix documentary “Banking on Bitcoin” as part of a special episode on blockchain in healthcare.
- I was honored by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of 2018’s “Up-and-Comers in Health IT and Revenue Cycle”, and honored by Medium as a Top Writer in “Startup” — contributing to Hacker Noon, freeCodeCamp, and Tincture (and of course, editing Izzy Care), reaching over 1M subscribers across these publications.
- I founded ZERO55.vc, a tokenized fund to invest in my fellow under-represented founders in tech
Being a founder has been an amazing ride, and I don’t regret it one bit. But there’s no other way to put it — I got burnt out. I let my health and happiness fall to the wayside. My depression and my seizures got out of control.
That’s why I’m putting my health and happiness first again.
What’s Next for Me
Right now, I’m taking a break — focusing on my health, my happiness, and spending time with friends and family. I’ll also try to remain pretty active here on Medium 😸.
Your own health and happiness need to come first. Success can’t come at the expense of your health and happiness. Take care of yourselves, and don’t be ashamed to take a break, change course, and get yourself back on track.
But I’m certainly not finished in this space.
I’ve learned a lot over these past few years, and I want to bring these learnings to another venture at the intersection of healthcare and technology. My personal experiences and struggles with depression allow for a deep sense of empathy with patients. I know how to connect with patient populations, figure out their needs, and build solutions to suit those needs.
I want to come into a new role in the new year where I don’t necessarily have the full pressure of running a company, but can meaningfully contribute my knowledge, my skills, my experiences, and have more of a work-life balance. I have a lot of experience working with and leading remote teams — ideally, I want to continue working remote so I can stay in the Midwest with my fiancée and best friend, Maria.
None of this could have happened without one of my closest friends, my co-founder and CTO in these ventures over the past couple years — Joswell Valdez, who will now lead Izzy Care into the future. He’s an expert mobile and blockchain developer, marketer, and more importantly one of the most genuine, supportive individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and growing closer to over the years.
Before we met, Joswell had previously founded Sync.cr, a pioneering social payments app for crypto, featured in the WSJ. He also founded PocketSpace, leading engineering teams to build apps featured in top news outlets like CNN. He most recently spoke at CryptoTuesday for Social Good on blockchain for revolutionizing healthcare in Latin America. He lives in NYC with his beautiful partner Maria and his newborn son Nova. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org