An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Gunnar Schaefer (co-founder and CTO) of Flywheel, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Flywheel – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
In 2011, I started working as a Senior Software Engineer at a new medical imaging center at Stanford University, the Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging (CNI), directed by my later co-founder Dr. Brian Wandell, who has been a professor at Stanford for over 40 years.
While working at the CNI, I realized that the size and complexity of medical imaging data pose a technical and organizational challenge to researchers. To bridge this gap and to help accelerate research, Dr. Wandell and I developed the vision for a domain-specific data management and collaboration platform, which we originally called NIMS (for Neurobiological Image Management System).
Based on this open-source software platform, Dr. Wandell and I founded Flywheel in 2015, together with Minnesota-based Invenshure, a well-known biotech incubator. I have since served Flywheel as Chief Technology Officer.
Scientists want to solve scientific problems, not IT problems. We often hear that 80% of a researcher’s time is spent building data infrastructure and troubleshooting, while only 20% can be devoted to actual scientific progress. Today, Flywheel helps the world’s leading life sciences organizations, medical device makers, research institutions, and hospitals collaborate and accelerate medical innovation. Our research data platform increases productivity by ingesting imaging and related data from multiple sources, curating it to common standards, automating processing and machine learning pipelines, while providing for secure collaboration and regulatory compliance.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Research, in general, and medical imaging research in particular is an underserved market, ripe for disruption and innovation. However, due to the technical and organizational complexity of the space, finding the right match for outstanding business, product, and sales leaders who can see beyond the complexity and recognize the tremendous opportunity seemed like an insurmountable task at times. Today, I feel lucky to work alongside Minneapolis-locals Jim Olson (Chief Executive Officer), Sarah Fazio (Chief Operating Officer), and Travis Richardson (Chief Product Officer), as well as more than 70 smart, hard-working team members who are helping accelerate innovation in research and healthcare.
When your product defines a new category, you not only create an incredible opportunity, but also an incredible challenge. Standardized sales and marketing approaches are unlikely to succeed. We found success in consultative sales and treating early customers as equal partners.
What does the future hold for Flywheel?
Our goal is to connect the world’s best minds, data, and technologies to accelerate medical innovation and precision medicine. Our cloud-scale solution will organize and process additional data types and support federated sharing and seamless machine learning workflows, so that our customers gain access to unprecedented amounts of high-quality training data, without compromising on data privacy. In doing so, we will accelerate drug discovery and the development of new therapies.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Minneapolis?
Although I continue to be based in California, having our headquarters in “Medical Alley”, a center of healthcare technology and innovation, provides access to a community of thought leaders and a rich engineering talent pool that help us grow our organization and have a bigger impact globally.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you have a vision, stick with it. Focus. Aim to disrupt by defining a new category. Not fitting into an established category is a great thing, but be prepared to do a lot of explaining.
Not all money is created equal, but all startups need liquidity. Take time to understand your financing options and find investors who not only share your vision, but are willing and able to actively support you.