Iulian Circo is a serial entrepreneur and recovering humanitarian operating at the frontiers of technology and impact. He is the co-founder and head of operations for Hyfe, the global leader in AI-powered cough detection and classification. Hyfe maintains the largest cough dataset in the world enabling the building of powerful models to track, manage and diagnose respiratory illnesses. It is the world’s most sophisticated acoustic AI, used daily by researchers, medical professionals and thousands of people around the world.
Circo has founded and took to scale global impact ventures in health and fintech among others. In previous lives, he led unique, action-packed operations in some of the world’s most challenging environments. These included dozens of humanitarian missions as well as building and running country operations for global organizations in places such as Somalia and Mozambique. Circo is also actively involved with several impact-minded ventures, either as cofounder, adviser, investor or board member.
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Table of Contents
We are thrilled to have you join us today, welcome to ValiantCEO Magazine’s exclusive interview! Let’s start off with a little introduction. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your company.
Iulian Circo: Hyfe is a sophisticated AI-powered cough detection and classification platform. The basic premise is that while vitals like blood pressure, temperature, pulse and respiration rate are measured to an exact degree, cough has never been measured with any accuracy. Studies have shown that when asked by their doctor, patients have no idea whatsoever as to the frequency of their coughing. Knowing how often someone coughs and the type of cough are critical factors in diagnosis, treatment and prevention. This is what Hyfe does.
Through a smartphone app, Hyfe can tell how many times someone has coughed in a given timeframe, when they cough the most, whether their cough rate is increasing or decreasing from previous periods and other details. In addition, a short recording of each cough is retained that can be heard by a doctor.
Hyfe also maintains the largest cough-sound dataset in the world with 265M+ cough sound samples. This data has been gathered from clinical trials and users in 83 countries across all continents. An individual’s cough can be compared to this large dataset for diagnosis and early detection of a variety of conditions and respiratory illnesses.
Hyfe can be used by pharmaceutical companies to determine the efficacy of medications, medical researchers to develop new treatments, government agencies for tracking diseases and large-scale monitoring, health care providers to better diagnose conditions and track treatment progress, and by patients to understand their cough and communicate more accurately with health care providers.
Hyfe’s tools require minimal infrastructure and no active user participation to function. They can be deployed using any smart device with a microphone. Now patients can track their coughs, doctors can finally use cough as an objective clinical finding and researchers and drug developers can use cough as an endpoint for trials at any scale.
2020 and 2021 threw a lot of curve balls into business on a global scale. Based on the experience gleaned in the past couple years, how can businesses thrive in 2022? What lessons have you learned?
Iulian Circo: 2020 up to today has been highly disruptive of established models and that is great news for innovators. The global pandemic has been a massive black swan event by itself, followed by international conflict and a potential deep economic crisis, all happening with climate catastrophe looming and a powerful generational shift.
I truly believe future generations will look at the early ‘20s as a pivotal time that put our global society on a very specific trajectory. The last few years have been tough, and times might get tougher still. Yet for all its grimness, times like these are big equalizers. Large incumbents find it much harder to adapt than small businesses with an insurgent mindset. Business models that were safe bets for decades stop working. This is particularly relevant for sectors that have been traditionally conservative and resistant to change, specifically health care.
The looming economic crisis brings along a particularly challenging set of problems for young companies with capital needs and low cash flow. Investor money is drying out, valuations are dropping, and big companies are cutting their innovation/higher risk funds which hits small innovator’s already thin revenue streams. These are stormy times and innovative startups will be hit disproportionately.
Even if their coffers are full, these companies will struggle in an economic crisis because they will not be able to maintain the high valuation, never mind return tenfold value to their investors. Many of them will wish they would have raised less at lower valuations so they can bring in returns in successive rounds, even in a crisis.
This is good news for companies such as Hyfe. We kept a cool head during the silly money times and made sure we built strong fundamentals and we now become attractive because of these fundamentals. We resisted the urge to raise money at crazy valuations and instead built a strong product we validated at a high cost. We now have commercial scale partnerships with industry leaders and can generate our own runway without depending on investor money. This is the best place to be for a startup during these unpredictable times.
The pandemic seems to keep on disrupting the economy, what should businesses focus on in 2022? What advice would you share?
Iulian Circo: Disruption will go way beyond the pandemic and the current economic crisis that is already affecting small businesses. We are all having a realization that we need more sustainable business practices that will redefine the economic framework and trigger a desperately needed wave of innovation.
Again, this is good news for small businesses that can operate from principles and are more in touch with the modern consumer. Here are the things I think should be prioritized:
Trying to take a step back and understand the big trends (macros). Big, profound changes never happen in a vacuum. Keep looking at the big picture and try to catch these big trends early and when you do, pivot accordingly.
Challenge/ ignore established assumptions. Instead, follow the signal from customers. If the market points in a certain direction and you can go in that direction, do it regardless of your industry’s “common sense.”
Pay attention to the generational shift. The current generational shift is going to be more impactful than previous ones because the macroeconomics are different. The looming climate crisis is top of mind for young people. Their consumer behavior is different. This generation has learned to navigate chaotic, noisy global information. They have built meaningful relationships across the world. They understand the global realities better than their parents. Their decision making and journeys – as consumers, voters and entrepreneurs – are all different. No startup will survive without adapting to them.
Focus on fundamentals. In times of uncertainty, strong fundamentals are a superpower. Focus on the customer. Listen to the market. Keep iterating. Don’t make promises you cannot keep. Don’t be a jerk.
How has the pandemic changed your industry and how have you adapted?
Iulian Circo: Health care has been stubbornly resisting change for many decades. Even while most every other aspect of our lives moved online to some degree – shopping, banking, learning, dating – health care has remained unchanged. You book an appointment. You fill in forms. You do some lab work. You get some medications. You call back with reports.
The pandemic has accelerated a much-needed transformation in health care, at least at the level of interface. Social distancing has forced a partial digitalization of the interface and accelerated an interest in virtual health care. When we were founded as the pandemic was starting, we made a bet this would happen, and it turns out that was a good decision.
We also bet on the fact that a global respiratory pandemic will bring more awareness around cough and will drive curiosity and innovation surrounding. In addition, it would advance what we can learn from this most common of symptoms which is ridiculously underestimated and not fully understood by modern clinical science. In that sense our timing was great.
In a way, we did not “adapt” to the pandemic, but rather were a pandemic-native company. We started from the get-go as a 100% remote team with everything virtual. We shipped early and often and have become global market leaders in cough monitoring. Along the way we managed to define a whole new category, called acoustic epidemiology, which now sees new developments almost daily.
Meanwhile, as we all begin to desensitize to the pandemic and social distancing starts to relax, we already see large companies insisting people return to the pre-pandemic normal. Come to the office, have in-person meetings etc. As a startup founder with an insurgent mindset, I kind of enjoy seeing this happening because that makes it easier for us to attract valuable talent.I think we are already starting to see companies that insist on a blank return to office struggle to compete with new generation businesses that encourage flexibility. This is not about in-office versus work-from-home, by the way. It is about flexibility, choice and empowering a new generation of workers to optimize their lifestyle and perform better in the long term.
What advice do you wish you received when the pandemic started and what do you intend on improving in 2022?
Iulian Circo: I was taken aback by how utterly unprepared we were as a global community to deal with a global pandemic. And today, after two years of chaos, I am not sure we will be better prepared for the next one. It was also amazing how quickly a new normal set in, how fast people adapt to the most bizarre circumstances, how quickly we become tribal and how small things in a crisis divide us.
What I hope we will improve in and beyond 2022 is our need to act on data and science, as we will be facing further global challenges in the coming years and our ability to handle these challenges will define the world in which our children will have to live.
Online business surged higher than ever, B2B, B2C, online shopping, virtual meetings, remote work, Zoom medical consultations, what are your expectations for 2022?
Iulian Circo: I believe all of these were bound to happen anyway. The pandemic has simply accelerated the timeline. This means these trends will continue for sure. Sadly, it also means many of the companies at the forefront of these trends were over-valued during the crisis and I believe we will see many, including giant incumbents, getting a hit to their valuation.
I think we are already seeing signs of this happening. Just over the last few months we saw several high-profile companies tanking as well as the entire SAAS sector taking huge hits to their valuation.
Basically, anyone who raised capital in the last two years will struggle to grow their valuation at a pace that will satisfy their investors. This means we will see many good companies being forced into down rounds and being abandoned by investors. It will be tough, yet at the end of it a new generation of innovators will emerge, and the future unicorns will be among them.
The other thing that I believe will happen is the pendulum will swing the other way and there will be a premium for in-person services. For example, as restaurants optimized for takeout and delivery, we might see some of them building premium in-dining experiences.
We will also see a new wave of “old school” businesses, redefined. Local service type small businesses that are not traditionally technical but, in a new iteration are now built full stack like a tech business. Everything from construction to hospitality to small batch product businesses.
How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen?
Iulian Circo: I spend a lot of time in front of screens. But I also have a very strict policy of spending time outdoors every day and maximize quality time with my family. What I really struggle with is finding the right amount of screentime for my children. I am conflicted between clearly understanding the importance of acquiring online skills early on and formative learning in front of screens and getting my kids to spend as much time as possible away from their screens.
The majority of executives use stories to persuade and communicate in the workplace. Can you share with our readers examples of how you implement that in your business to communicate effectively with your team?
Iulian Circo: A compelling story is critical to an early startup. In fact, in the early stages, any startup is basically nothing more than a good story. Most people struggle with this, and my fellow innovators are some of the worst offenders. We often get sucked deep into the awesomeness of our own tech, and along the way lose touch with what people care about.
Turns out very few people care about cool tech. Instead, they care about improving their own life, doing things more conveniently, etc. The other problem with innovators is that often we try to build something for a world that does not yet exist. And then we get stuck trying to convince people how our tech fits into today’s world, which most people don’t see. Remember people laughing about that person trying to sell books online? In 1994 it would have been very reasonable to think selling books online will never be more than a small niche for a lifestyle business.
I am a big fan of storytelling where I am ignoring our own tech or product, and instead imagine a world where it would be possible to detect and diagnose disease using nothing but a smartphone.
Current diagnostics is a hassle. It requires dedicated, exotic infrastructure that is hard to set up and is crazy expensive. Because of that, people often avoid getting diagnosed until it is too late.
To make things worse, our current concept of diagnostics is based on a static sample of data; a drop of your blood Tuesday at 7 a.m. Yet our bodies are in continuous change and there is much more signal in how that change happens over time as opposed to a static sample.
The other thing is that disease sets in slowly. In lung cancer there may be an ever so slight cough that builds up slowly over months or even years. By the time the symptoms are severe enough to see a doctor it is often too late. Yet pattern recognition models running continuously on longitudinal data, such as on Hyfe, can easily detect such subtle changes.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Iulian Circo: Every phase of a company has its very specific challenges. Hyfe is now default alive, which means we generate enough revenue to survive and have found the proverbial “pull” from the market. That means there is a consistent interest in our products.
The challenges we encounter in this phase are very interesting and somewhat counterintuitive. Most of these challenges are rooted in the fact that we are a full enterprise, but with the infrastructure of a startup. As the team is growing, we find we need better internal processes. As our traction is growing it gets harder and harder to prioritize. As we raise money, we find we are too late for seed investors, yet too early for Series A investors.
As we contract with industry giants, we find our business processes and documentation need work. And as we get increasingly more inbound business, we learn we need to build a larger sales infrastructure.
In 2022, what are you most interested in learning about? Crypto, NFTs, online marketing, or any other skill sets? Please share your motivations.
Iulian Circo: I am very interested in macro trends. I feel strongly we are at a generational fault line where things taken for granted by previous generations are being challenged and redefined. In a way, if you look at crypto and NFTs first principles, you will find they very much reflect these macro trends, specifically a distrust of centralized authority. A need for transparency. A need for authenticity. A rejection of incumbent economics. This is mostly a positive thing. I also know that the outcome of this will be a tremendous opportunity for those who can build from first principles.
A record 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September in 2021, accelerating a trend that has become known as the Great Resignation. 47% of people plan to leave their job during 2022. Most are leaving because of their boss or their company culture. 82% of people feel unheard, undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace. Do you think leaders see the data and think “that’s not me – I’m not that boss they don’t want to work for? What changes do you think need to happen?
Iulian Circo: This is a tough one, and to some extent I think this trend is consistent with this redefinition of fundamentals. For generations people have normalized this idea that you must work an eight-hour day for some period and then enjoy your retirement. Maybe that made sense in an early industrialized world but that whole concept is kind of ridiculous currently.
People finally understand there is an alternative to this and, as a venture builder and employer, I think it is super important to build a workplace people want to be part of. And currently that takes more than decent pay and a foosball table.
On a lighter note, if you had the ability to pick any business superpower, what would it be and how would you put it into practice?
Iulian Circo: The biggest superpower would be to have a reliable sense of the mega-trends that happen every few years and are usually equal parts technology maturity and cultural shift. Getting only one of them is a good way to fail. Businesses that obsess with technology but ignore the collective cultural “nerve” often don’t make it. Those that obsess with cultural insights without understanding the technology landscape often don’t scale.
What does “success” in 2022 mean to you? It could be on a personal or business level, please share your vision.
Iulian Circo: I am really obsessed over Hyfe’s journey and much of my personal success, at least in the short term, is related to our company hitting milestones. Our work at Hyfe and how we managed to bring together an incredibly competent team that brings us all closer to the reality of quality diagnostics for everyone energizes me.
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Iulian Circo for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Iulian Circo or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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