Listen to the podcast episode here, or read the transcript below for Ear Care Company Founder Heard the Call of Entrepreneurship.
Kelly Scanlon: Welcome to Talking Business Now. I’m your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us.
We’re Talking Business Now with Elyse Dickerson, the co-founder and CEO of biotech company Eosera, Inc. Eosera develops products that address underserved health care needs. In this episode of Talking Business Now, Elyse talks with us about her entrepreneurial journey and working as a female CEO in the biotech industry. Welcome, Elyse.
Elyse Dickerson: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Kelly Scanlon: Very interesting story. Tell us a little bit about Eosera. Why did you start the company, and what does the company do?
Elyse Dickerson: So, my co-founder and I, Joe Griffin, we both spent about 15 years at a large pharmaceutical company and I could say we both kind of grew up there. I was on the commercial side of the business and he was always on the R&D side of the business. And we were both laid off right about the same time in early 2015. And put our heads together and thought, you know what? We could start our own business. So first started with we have several product ideas, but we wanted for the market to tell us what the biggest need was, and then try to sell it. So we spent the first several months talking to doctors, any any doctor would take a lunch, dinner, coffee with us, we gladly shared that meal with them and asked them, you know, about their patients and about problems you see in their practice and remedies that they would like to see over the counter.
Kelly Scanlon: So good old-fashioned networking.
Elyse Dickerson: Exactly, exactly. And it really let us get to the heart of what was plaguing the doctors and what they needed to really make the lives of their patients better. And so, oddly enough, earwax impaction was a condition that pretty much every doctor we talked to said was a problem. So, we talked to pediatricians, geriatricians, regular GPs, audiologists. They all said millions and millions of people were coming into their practices each year to have your wax removed and said exactly what we did. And how could we potentially solve this? So we put our heads together. We spent about nine months in a lab here in Fort Worth, Texas, came out of the lab nine months later with a product that will dissolve earwax in about 15 minutes. And this was a real game changer for the category because the market leader in the category had a product that was designed in the 1960s and it was designed to soften the wax over time, so really, you’re supposed to use it twice a day for about four days. And then maybe the wax in your ear will be soft enough that you could pull it out. We wanted a product that would quickly dissolve the wax and rinse it clean.
Kelly Scanlon: All in one sitting?
Elyse Dickerson: All in one sitting. Exactly. So that was the first product that we developed. We had many good fortunes along the way. There was a business pitch competition right about that time that had a prize of $50,000. And I looked at Joe and I said, “I’m going to win that.” And we needed $50,000 to run a clinical trial. And so I set my eyes on that prize. And we got through the first round and the second round. And then the final night of the pitch in front of a panel of judges and a big audience, and we indeed won. And that set us down on a course that we could actually start a company, run a clinical trial and eventually bring the first product to market.
Kelly Scanlon: Which would have been the earwax. What is the name of that product?
Elyse Dickerson: EARWAX MD
Kelly Scanlon: Oh, so very, very simple name, EARWAX MD.
Elyse Dickerson: Very simple name, yes, get straight to the point. And so that launched in 2017. And then fast forward to today 2020. We have eight products, all in the ear care category, and we’re in over 13,000 stores nationwide.
Kelly Scanlon: So then you don’t have to have a prescription in order to get it? If you’re in 13,000 stores nationwide, is this an over-the-counter kind of product?
Elyse Dickerson: Exactly. All of our products right now are over the counter. So that means patients can self-diagnose and walk up to the shelf at their local CVS pharmacy and pick it up and take it home and use it.
Kelly Scanlon: Besides the layoff, what led you to take that entrepreneurial leap? A lot of people get laid off and they don’t start their own companies. They go look for another job. Why did you think entrepreneurship was the path for you?
Elyse Dickerson: So, a couple reasons. First, I had been donating my time to some local startups over the previous five years. And what I realized during that process, is I hadn’t given myself enough credit of how much actually knew about industry and about business and about health care. And so I’m coaching these startup companies that are getting funded and launching products. And looking at those founders and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I know so much more than them because of the training I’ve had in this environment. I never gave myself credit. I think I could potentially do this, obviously not alone, but with the help of other people. So that was the first thing.
Second thing is, in my final five years, I was helping evaluate technologies that the big pharmaceutical companies would buy. As companies get bigger, it becomes more difficult to innovate and it becomes easier to just go buy small companies or buy technology that small companies have already innovated. And so I was evaluating these technologies, evaluating the teams that had created these technologies. And again, reinforce this idea that wow, you know, they’re nothing exceptional. They’re smart people, and they’re driven people. But maybe I can do this. So when I was kicked out of the comfort of, you know, the corporate nest with all the benefits and the payroll, you know, the paycheck and all of that, it was my moment to take the chance. And I knew I could always go back and get another job at a big company. But I knew I probably would never have the opportunity to take the risk because I had already been kicked out of the nest.
Kelly Scanlon: Right. And before you got too comfortable again, it’s like, I need to try this right now.
Elyse Dickerson: Exactly. And I had a great business partner, friend, colleague—previous colleague—that had been laid off, and I knew together that we could do it.
Kelly Scanlon: You talked about the clinical trials. And so often in companies, there’s a startup period. But if you’re doing things right, you can get cash coming in pretty quickly, especially, you know, in certain industries, but in an industry like yours, where you can’t just immediately take your product to market and you have to have the cash to do sometimes, oftentimes, expensive testing. What would you say to entrepreneurs who find themselves with an idea, but in an industry where they’re not going to be able to see financial return anytime soon? It might be a matter of years, for example, to go to get product to market. What would you tell them about weathering that period? What tips do you have for them?
Elyse Dickerson: So, we took a very transparent approach with investors that we approach and investors that we ended up taking money from. We laid out a realistic timeline that did not overpromise. And that’s a big mistake that entrepreneurs get themselves into is a pretty aggressive timeline, thinking that’s what investors want to see, when in actuality, they just want to see, you know, what is realistic. And if you can beat that, that’s great. So being transparent. Also, we had proof of concept before we even went to raise money. And so by proof of concept, I mean, in the lab, not in humans, but in the lab, I was able to show time and time again that this product works. And that gave a level of confidence to investors to say, OK, it may take her five years to get a product to market, but she’s got pretty compelling data that this actually works.
Kelly Scanlon: You recently participated in a magazine panel where the topic was the art of risk taking. We’ve talked about that a little bit. Yes, granted, you were you were kicked out of the company that you were in. So you didn’t necessarily say, make that decision to walk away. But you did make the decision not to go back to it. Risk taking there. Risk taking in, you know, deciding to pursue something that was not going to have an immediate financial return. And so you shared your insights on this on blazing your own path. Do you have a history throughout your life of blazing your own path? Was this your first adventure, so to speak, into cutting the traditional strings? Or have you been that kind of that way your whole life?
Elyse Dickerson: So, I think it it’s definitely been a pattern through my life. And I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I got here. As a child, I was the ultimate tomboy. I was the pigtailed girl on the soccer field with, you know, all the boys playing soccer every day. And at that age, this is elementary school, I did not see a difference between boys and girls. The difference was purely cosmetic to me. And so I always had through sport, I had a level of confidence that developed over time. And so I wasn’t afraid to be in a room with all men, which would eventually become part of my life in upper management and these big companies. I’m often the only woman in the room. So there was that foundation.
And then there was also I was diagnosed in third grade with dyslexia. But between first grade and third grade, they continually told me and my parents that I was just a, you know, below average student, and probably shouldn’t expect too much from me in my academic career going forward. And so I had this seed planted at a very young age that the external world was going to tell me what they thought I was going to accomplish. But somehow, someway, by the grace of God, I had this internal drive that started very, very young, and I was going to prove them wrong.
And so part of it’s the combination of those two things. I think, throughout my life, they’ve continued to sort of pop back up—this continual drive to achieve more than maybe is expected of me. And then being able to sort of step through the fear of being either the first one or the only one to take on a challenge.
Kelly Scanlon: How has all of that applied to your role as a woman CEO in biotech. And I ask that because although women are breaking through many boundaries—there really are no, technically, there are no industries that are off limits to women anymore—but there are some industries where it is still a challenge. And biotech is one of them. So talk to us about being a female CEO in biotech, what the challenges have been, how you’ve managed to get through that, anyone who’s been a mentor—so that others who are listening today can perhaps emulate some of what you’ve been able to do.
Elyse Dickerson: So I will say, I have not gotten here alone. And I’ve had so many amazing men and women come in and out of my life throughout my childhood and career too to help develop me and mentor me. And right now, I have a mentor that she meets with me every single week. She’s retired from her contract manufacturing company, she sold it and is retired. But, you know, I learned something from her literally every single week about, you know, things she did in her business to grow her business. And imagine this was back in the 80s and 90s when women really didn’t exist at the top at the time.
And so what I would say now is being the founder and CEO of a company, I am able to curate the environment around me, which is a dramatic difference from being inside a large pharmaceutical company, and having no control over, really the environment. And so where I would be the only woman in the room and a lot of meetings, historically, now that I’m the CEO, I mean, most of my team is women. And, you know, I’m constantly trying to develop the young women and bring out their talents and build their confidence to as you know, hopefully, they’ll be running a company one day, just surrounding yourself … yeah …
Kelly Scanlon: Yeah, you’re able to open those doors for other women now that you were finally able to walk through yourself.
Elyse Dickerson: Absolutely. I take it very, very seriously because I know I haven’t gotten here by myself.
Kelly Scanlon: A lot of entrepreneurs that I talked to get paralyzed because they’re striving for perfection. They can get their product to a certain level or they can gather maybe 60 or 70% of the information that they think they need. But they’re still afraid to make a move until they get to the other 30 or 40%. And I do understand that in the industry that you’re in, in biotech, you have to meet certain standards and levels of testing before you can go to market. And so that’s something that you guys are constantly dealing with. Talk to us about success and perfection and the balance between the two.
Elyse Dickerson: So as an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to know that nothing is going to go as planned. And that’s pretty much going to happen every single day. You can plan to a certain point. But then you just have to start taking the steps forward and being ready to pivot and make decisions and make changes, really in the blink of an eye. And so that’s part of what I love about entrepreneurship is it’s always a new challenge, unpredictable challenge, but if you embrace it, it can actually be really fun.
So a perfect example when we first started out and launched our first product, your EARWAX MD, we were trying to find a contract manufacturer. We were trying to finalize packaging. But I decided to take a meeting with retailers to see just sort of judged the market and see if they were going to be willing to take this product on their shelves. So, I got a meeting with a buyer at CVS. And I really thought it was a long shot that they would take the product. But if they did take the product, I thought it will be in a very small select number of stores. I pitched the product, showed the buyer the opportunity that I saw within ear care, to really grow the ear care category and change the dynamics. And he agreed.
And he said, I said, “Well, how about you take it in 2,000 stores?” And he said “No, I think I want it in all 8,000 stores.”
Kelly Scanlon: Wow.
Elyse Dickerson: And it was a moment of pure joy but also pure terror because I thinking, “Oh my God, we don’t have packaging. We don’t have the contract manufacturer, you know, completely locked down. How am I going to do this?”
But if I had waited until I had everything perfectly lined up and perfectly ready to go, the buyer probably would not have taken the meeting with me. So it was sort of a, yeah, you just kind of have to ebb and flow and take a few risks. And so I remember walking out of the CVS headquarters calling Joe and saying, “Well, I have good news and I have bad news. Which do you want first?” So the good news first was CVS wants our product in 8,000 stores. And here’s the bad news: They need it in three months.
Kelly Scanlon: So let’s talk about that. Because you’re right, that feeling of pure terror. I’ve talked to other entrepreneurs who’ve had the same situation where they thought they were going to start small and, you know, introduce things incrementally and it just explodes on them. And that is a good problem to have. But it’s also a problem that can kill your business from the beginning. What did you do in order to meet that contract?
Elyse Dickerson: So, a couple things. One, like I had to really sit down and do the financial analysis, because you are exactly right. So many small businesses or startup businesses go out of business because they run out of money. And I did not want that to happen. So, I sat down, did the financial analysis, figure out exactly how much cash I was going to have to have in order to make this happen. Because the other dirty little secret within retail is that when you’re a new vendor with a retailer, they hold your money. And they hold your money for about 180 days. So that means you’re shipping product, shipping, you know, hundreds of thousands of units of product, and they are not paying you for that product.
Kelly Scanlon: So, about six months later?
Elyse Dickerson: Exactly, yeah, six months later. So, what I did is I went to the investor and I was, you know, transparent with them that this is how much cash we’re going have to have on hand to make this happen. It actually ended up being more than I thought, but I had the, you know, blessing of the ambassador, we’re going to essentially bleed down a lot of the cash to be able to ship all the products. And then six months later, we start seeing the revenue come in. So a lot of that came down to planning. And I’ll tell you, we have turned large retailers down because financially, we couldn’t bear the burden of them not paying that.
Kelly Scanlon: It is hard for business owners, especially new ones, to say no to potential customers. It sounds like you with your planning, with your emphasis on the financial side of things in addition to having a good product, and also just being transparent.
Elyse Dickerson: It’s exactly right. And some of the best advice I got when I started this business was with every update you send your investors, ask for their help. It doesn’t matter how big or how small. When we first started, I would send monthly updates to the investors and in every single email to them, here’s how you could help. And inevitably, one or two of them would come forward with a resource or with knowledge that could help us through the situation. And it might have been something as small as like, hoping to look at a contract to something as big as you know, we want to start our own manufacturing plant, help us. You know, having it also tied to that wisdom of there’s good money and there’s bad money. And don’t be afraid to turn down money if you feel like that investor is not aligned with your values and your vision. Because they can take a company …
Kelly Scanlon: It sounds like there’s a couple of things going on there. One is that you’re developing a two-way trust. They are learning that you are going to be transparent. And people like to help. So, by helping, they are starting to feel buy in and ownership more than just the dollars, you know, they start to have an emotional connection to the company as well. Is that what I’m hearing you say?
Elyse Dickerson: 100%? Yes.
Kelly Scanlon: Again, entrepreneurs, I think are a breed of people who are do-it-yourselfers, and very independent. But, it’s for so many reasons as we’ve discussed today, it’s very important to bring people along and to have that transparency and to not be afraid to ask for help.
As you said, Eosera is committed to conscious capitalism. So, I want to hear what you mean by conscious capitalism and how it manifests itself at Eosera.
Elyse Dickerson: When we talk about conscious capitalism, we mean having some higher purpose over just making money, and this was really brought to my attention while I was still working in a big corporate environment, and I, myself, and I know a lot of my colleagues, felt like we were just a number. And we were completely disposable as employees. And our only value was making money for the company.
And so I felt like there had to be a better way to do business. And so I started studying conscious capitalism. And this idea that there’s something more important than the money. And if you focus on that one thing, then money will follow. So for us with Eosera, we decided people were going to be our No. 1 priority. And when I say people, I mean, all people, all stakeholders within our universe. So it’s our investors, it’s our employees. It’s our customers. It’s our vendors. Pretty much anyone that we touch, we put the people and their well-being at the center of every decision we make. If it comes down to a tough decision, whether, you know, we’re going to financially benefit or we’re going to do someone wrong or put another small business at risk because we want profit from … I don’t know exactly a scenario, but we decided we will put people at the center of every decision we make. And fast forward five years, we’ve seen the difference that can make.
Kelly Scanlon: Give me an example of a question you might ask yourself, you know, a decision that you’re trying to make and the type of question that you would ask yourself to put people first.
Elyse Dickerson: So for example, we are passionate about having a positive work environment. And we have had to make difficult decisions in terms of the people that we hire and the people that we decide to let go. For the health and well-being of our workforce, we do not accept toxic behavior, and anyone that’s listening to this knows what I’m talking about. Within corporations around the world, there’s toxic behavior. And it just takes one person to bring that negative energy into the office building, and then it permeates, and it really sucks the life out of the company.
As a leader, you have to make the really tough decision, “Do I let that person go because of the behavior, even if they have great work, and I, you know, I love their work product, but their behavior is to the detriment of the rest of my workforce?” And so we’ve had to make those decisions. And it is painful because I do care so much about people. It is personally painful to have to say goodbye to people that don’t fit with the culture that we’re trying to create.
Kelly Scanlon: But again, it’s better when you stop and weigh the question what is going to be best for everybody? That’s the right decision.
You are a fairly new company. You’ve already, by your own definition, you have already achieved so much success, but there’s so much more, so much more potential. Where do you see Eosera going? What’s your future look like?
Elyse Dickerson: So we, our first goal was to launch an earwax product, then our second goal was to max out the ear care category and really bring new innovative products that expanded what consumers could historically find within ear care. And we’ve done that. Now we have products for pain and itch and daily hygiene of your ears. Our next goal is to look at the nasal category because we feel like within nasal there are a lot of unmet needs that we could potentially address.
Kelly Scanlon: That’s another important point. You’re expanding, but you’re not straying too far from your core.
Elyse Dickerson: Yeah, and that was some other advice that I got early on, even before we raised capital, was do one thing really well. And then move to the next thing and don’t try to have three balls in the air when you haven’t even succeeded with one. And so we’ve been really true to that model. We’ve launched one product at a time and one category at a time. And then then we branched into that.
Kelly Scanlon: You mentioned that you have these in, what was it, 1,300 locations throughout the country? And are they available on your website?
Elyse Dickerson: Yes.
Kelly Scanlon: OK, and your website is?
Elyse Dickerson: EARcareMD.com
Kelly Scanlon: EARcareMD.com. Go out there and you can take a look at the products. And just so happy that you came on the show to share your entrepreneurial story. Some great tips for our listeners today. Thank you so much, Elyse, and best of luck to you.
Elyse Dickerson: Thank you. It’s a true pleasure.
Kelly Scanlon: And I’m your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thanks for joining us today. Be sure to visit the Talking Business Now website at TalkingBusinessNow.com for access to all my podcasts and to sign up for the weekly “Talking Business Now” newsletter.