We sat down with C. Light co-founder and CEO Christy Sheehy-Bensinger for the first installment of our Meet Our Mavens series.
Q: As someone with a Ph.D., you’ve spent years in rigorous academic study. What aspects of that journey have been unexpectedly valuable as you built your startup?
Surprisingly, working within academia as a Ph.D. student and postdoc has provided me with a skill set that has positively impacted me as a first-time founder. Many people assume that academia only prepares you to become an expert in one very narrow field, leading to a job as a scientist or a professor. However, I’ve found that academia was one of the best jobs I could have had to prepare me as a founder.
Q: Speaking of being a first-time founder, what skills do you feel have been crucial to your success and development?
There are three crucial skills that I have found to be the most important as CEO and founder—all of which came out of academia. The most important of these skills has been problem-solving. For a scientific study, you don’t know the results at the start of the experiment, but you take the data you have researched to make an informed hypothesis of what you aim to find. And all along this journey to discovering the answer, you are bound to hit roadblocks. Things rarely go exactly as planned, and so you get used to having to think through difficult problems, pivot if needed to improve, and keep moving forward to get the answer. This has been the most valuable skill that I have in my toolkit.
The next skill I’ve found to be invaluable is adaptability. In academia, I needed to adapt quickly to working independently and within groups, sometimes taking the leadership role and other times supporting my labmates and team. Adaptability also applies to the ability to shift to other projects if a current path or project loses funding or perhaps collaborate when the scope of your project grows, requiring additional expertise.
Finally, writing grants has actually been really useful as a founder. There are small business grants that we have applied for that have enabled non-dilutive funding for our company and early clinical validation. We’ve successfully secured 3 NIH grants, bringing in ~$3M in additional funding. Grant writing also taught me how to budget for projects, including personnel and timelines, which successfully can translate to your startup’s financial projections and expense reporting.
Q: It sounds like academia truly impacted you in a way people do not expect when starting a journey. Let’s shift a bit and lean into the world of venture capital. What’s one thing you’ve learned from our GP at our firm that you didn’t anticipate when you first started our partnership?
As a scientific/engineering founder, thinking through how best to make money from my invention wasn’t necessarily instinctive. In that same vein, though, being open to learning and executing new skill sets has been something I’ve been doing my whole life.
Creative Ventures really stepped in to work with us early on how best to frame our revenue and growth potential—both for ourselves as well as for the clinicians buying the device and accompanying software. The team showed me how not to get hung up on the dollars and cents of the product pricing or even the reimbursement model but rather the big picture of where a platform technology could go and how it can change an entire healthcare sector for the better. They asked, “What needs to happen for you to create a world where every clinician needs your technology and can’t clinically live without it, and how can you streamline adoption to get here?” This shift to big-picture thinking helped me get out of the weeds where I felt I was stuck and showed me how to create the big-picture healthcare investment that people were waiting for.
Q: Can you share a moment when our firm’s involvement truly made a difference at a critical juncture for your company?
Creative Ventures provided us with our lead term sheet for our Seed funding round during the height of the pandemic. They continued to support us (with our other major investor) through a bridge round at a critical junction for our company—just prior to our FDA clearance. I feel extremely grateful to have had Creative support us for the last two years as we transitioned our research-grade device into a viable commercial product.
Q: Can you elaborate a bit on how our team has helped you and C. Light over time?
Creative’s support has been more than just monetary. The team’s support—which has come through advice received at board meetings, during Zoom calls, and frequent Slack messaging—has enabled us to create an entirely new stream of healthcare data.
What has surprised me over the years is that it isn’t just an individual at Creative providing C. Light support. Not only do we work closely and in-depth with our lead investor, James, but we also have had frequent input, warm intros, and support from Kulika, Champ, and Alex. Knowing that each one of these individuals is a lead for their own portfolio companies but still makes the time to provide help and advise us when we need it really sets this firm apart. This level of support has helped us think through manufacturing roadblocks, component and sourcing delays and deciding on viable revenue strategies.
Creative Ventures has been the “gut-check” we need to periodically ground us in reality and create a solution with the potential to really help people while optimizing return.
Q: If you could go back in time to when you were starting out, what advice would you give yourself, especially knowing the partnership you would go on to form with our team?
As a first-time founder, I imagined that working with a VC firm would result in me losing the ability to execute and share my big vision and that it would slowly morph into someone else’s. I learned early on that Creative wasn’t there to take over or even micromanage me or my team. They were there because they believed in our big vision for healthcare and me as a solo founder at the time. They gave me and my team the perfect balance of independence and space to think through problems on our own while also providing a nearby life raft if needed.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself not to be so worried about working with VCs—that there really are firms out there that care about you and your mission and want to support you as you build something life-changing. I would tell myself, “Take that term sheet right away. It’s going to be one of the best decisions you will ever make.”
It’s been a blessing to have James as C. Light’s GP; his openness and honesty are refreshing and ground our ideas in the realities of our market. He’s quick to tell you what you need to hear when you need to hear it and genuinely shows care and support in his leadership.
Q: What advice can you give budding founders dipping their toes in a world saturated with startups and VCs?
It is so important, when looking for a VC firm to work with, that you do your own diligence on them just as they are going to do on you. Talk to their portfolio companies and founders that they work with on a regular basis.
During early discussions around Creative, there was consistency in all of the feedback I was hearing: they were good humans who treated their founders with respect, gave them the independence to achieve their goals, and supported them when facing a roadblock. Most importantly, though, Creative didn’t just support the company. They supported the founders themselves. For me, this was huge. I had heard of other investors in the space only putting money in to move the company forward but didn’t trust or support the founder or their capabilities to grow. This type of dynamic is extremely difficult, leaving founders not feeling good enough or supported.
Know that if you work with Creative, someone in your court is undoubtedly rooting for you.