Shauny Ullman sat on a dock in Florida as she thought about her friends’ perilous health situation. She knew something had to be done about the lack of medical transparency and was determined to get to work. Little did she know, in just six months, that small passion would bloom into a full-fledged company.
After months of user research, Clear Bill of Health (“CBOH”) was born. CBOH’s platform operates as a COVID-19 vaccination and testing status facilitation tool. Clients upload their vaccination or testing status — depending on the COVID-19 security threshold of the gathering — to attend an event.
“We’re differentiated by our laser focus on transparency and community health outcomes,” says Ullman. CBOH is currently the only solution addressing the full life cycle of in-person gatherings, providing both hosts and guests with the information they need to know — pre-event, day-of, and post-event.
Shauny knew she was onto something as major companies began to look to her service to ensure their events went on safely. CBOH’s clients now include many of the largest nonprofits across the East Coast. She recruited a star-studded team filled with engineers, clinical informaticists, epidemiologists, and business professionals from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Michigan. In half a year, the company has already reached over $120,000 in ARR.
However, the vision is much bigger. California and other states have decided to offer a single source authentication for vaccine cards (i.e. a QR code that proves vaccine requirements). This framework has been open sourced and offered to several different providers across the United States. CBOH aims to deliver a product for the mass consumer market that digitizes personal vaccination records and integrates with state immunization registries. CBOH will be working on this application of their technology with the United States Department of Health and Human Services this spring through the PandemicX Accelerator, a joint initiative co-led by the Offices of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the National Coordinator for Health IT. CBOH will join fourteen other teams, selected out of a pool of over 400 applicants, as one of 24 MassChallenge HealthTech (“MCHT”) 2022 Finalists for the opportunity to combine digital tools with the data and infrastructure of the federal government.
I sat down with Shauny to discuss the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, the struggles of being a female entrepreneur and how she’s managed to balance building a start-up with the beginning of her MBA journey at MIT.
How did you get into starting your own company? Tell me a bit about the founding story.
I am a dual student at the Harvard Kennedy School & MIT Sloan and I was in impact investing before I came to school. I had a really romantic notion of working in public and private partnerships or the intersection of the two, but I quickly found during my time at HKS that wasn’t for me. I had to pay really close attention to the kinds of challenges that really woke me up in the middle of the night and made me want to get out of bed. I’ve been nursing an entrepreneurial impulse for about two years.
I watched several of my best friends struggle with precancerous HPV, which is a sexually transmitted infection. These women are incredible — just brilliant and accomplished. All three of them got HPV from partners and never had the sexual health conversation with those partners. Watching them go through this, I did some research and looked at the intersection of this problem with class, gender, race, and education. It really was a perfect illustration on how vulnerable young women are.
At that point, I felt that if I didn’t do anything, I never would. So I signed up over my winter break at Harvard to take Nuts & Bolts of New Ventures at MIT, one of the offerings in the January term course offerings. It got me to put my ideas on paper and start building a business plan. I then enrolled in the foundational course of MIT — New Enterprises — and it kind of snowballed from there.
I think what drives me to do this is the northstar of helping young women and improving health outcomes for that demographic. If you’re going to do this, you really have to thrive with total ambiguity and a sense of ownership. You have to have excitement over a blank canvas and you literally have to create value that wouldn’t exist otherwise. That was a very hard obstacle to overcome but then I got some wins and I became addicted to it. Since then, every milestone, every accomplishment gives me a renewed sense of purpose and possibility of what I’m able to do and the impact that I’m able to have in the world. I’ve been lucky and that the momentum of what I’ve been working on continues to build and it keeps getting bigger.
As a founder, you pivoted quite early on — tell me a little bit about the company now and the shift from sexual wellness towards a more COVID focused business.
When we were doing our primary market research, back in the beginning of 2021, everyone wanted to talk about COVID and how we get out of this. The people we were working with on this had insights into the young adult experience and the health consequences of isolation. I felt that we wanted to serve our core demographic of young adults and decided that we could do this if we shifted our focus towards a good facilitation platform for vaccination and testing statuses.
We had our first prototype done quickly and by August we had our first monetized pilot. Ever since then, we’ve struggled to keep up with demand for these services. We’ve focused our efforts on big non-profits in the Boston area like the Boys & Girls Club, but we’ve also done a bunch of weddings. There are a lot of different clients who are trusting us with the facilitation of this information which is very validating.
Clients use our technology stack to upload and share their vaccination information which we then transform and deliver back as a community level health status, like a dashboard of everyone’s vaccination or testing status at a given event. Then, we have this third component of shared in person experiences, which is tracking people afterwards to close the loop on the sense of accumulated risk of an in person event where breakthrough cases are no longer anecdotal.
We’ve also come across an unbelievable opportunity around credentialing and so we’ve positioned ourselves right on top of that wave. California is leading a coalition of states to build a data model and framework called smart health cards, which is a standard way to provide a digital credential that can be used in a variety of use cases. They have open sourced this so we can have access to the code and build a data model that is identical to the smart health card framework. We are now actively having conversations with various stakeholders and partnering with primary data providers to be their technical infrastructure for issuing smart health card credentials. Three weeks ago, five states announced their partnership and production of smart health cards but now we’re at nine states and likely 17 more to follow.
We’re working through the overall strategy on how to build this asset and how it feeds together with our other product line. Because of the events based service, we imagine the two products operating as a flywheel because everyone who comes to our platform for an event will automatically have a credential distributed back to them. We’re really focused on partnerships now and think this will be much more scalable than a services model (i.e. events).
You got started really quickly. Can you talk about your team and how you found passionate people to work on this with?
Our team right now consists of a chief medical officer, who’s the director of pathology at the University of Michigan, and two senior engineers. I also work with a part-time public health lead at Stanford GSB, and a few interns for product management and other functions.
I would say that the number one challenge, and I’ve talked to a lot of my peers who are startup founders about this, is the fact that students can be fickle. They have so much going on and so many opportunities that even after people sign up, they often move onto something else. Students have many shiny objects all around them and so to find people dedicated to your start-up is really hard. I’ve had various touch points with like 16 different people and there hasn’t been a great amount of continuity.
To be honest, it’s an area that I’ve really struggled with. I know our community, from a talent & energy perspective, are brilliant and capable, but I’ve not been able to activate them in a way that I would like. It’s an area that I know a lot of fellow founders have also struggled with. I don’t want people to come in and say that they want to participate but then are scared off by the mundane parts of entrepreneurship. It’s not always fun but we’re working on it and hopefully can inspire some more people to join.
When you’re running a company, there are often a number of different fires or issues to deal with and that can be stressful. How do you deal with that stress? Do you have a support system that you utilize to get through things?
I am very fortunate to have access to resources that allow me to do this. I want to be radically explicit that the inequity of being able to be an entrepreneur is a huge problem, especially for students who often don’t have a lot of resources. I have friends and family in my life who help deal with the chaos but I hate that I have to burden them with that. I have people who are willing to accept my whole self and the totality of what it means to be an entrepreneur. It’s important to carve out time for those relationships and be reminded that we are human. I’m practicing asking for help, but I think entrepreneurs have a masochistic element of suffering a little bit to get things done. The support system and resources are crucial, but having a mentor is also something that has helped me tremendously.
Talking about the financial elements of a start-up — I know you’re trying to currently raise a pre-seed round. How is it going? I know it’s a hard journey and I want to look at this from a lens of equity as well because women, unfortunately, do not get nearly the same funding as males do.
I appreciate you asking this because it’s been on my mind recently. When you look at the numbers, the chasms in funding are absurd. I have talked to female entrepreneurs and have tons of stories of ridiculous amounts of sexism. I have had investors who will position themselves to meet and then ask me out on a date. There is no safe space for women entrepreneurs and it sucks to be objectified — it makes me think that the guy who found me on LinkedIn felt that I had more to offer as a potential girlfriend than as an entrepreneur.
I have been exceptionally fortunate to be economically privileged so I was able to do things that so many other women or men aren’t able to. I find it a responsibility to change this paradigm and improve this even just a little bit. It starts with getting females more access to funding but it’s not just the funding — this is so internalized and ingrained in our society that you have to fight to overcome this internal belief system. As I start to fundraise, I’m mindful of the fact that people first see me as a young blonde woman and that is something that perhaps my male counterparts don’t have to deal with.
As a student founder at two very prestigious institutions, you obviously have a lot of resources at your fingertips, but you are also studying full-time. How do you balance the trade-offs between school and work?
MIT has been an exceptional entrepreneurial ecosystem to be a part of. I think you still have to be self-driven but the resources are out there and we are lucky to have access to them. I’m privileged to be able to have this opportunity and access. That being said, student life is a blessing and a curse. I get access to MIT and Harvard which has its advantages, but having massive responsibilities that are irrelevant to my start-up is burdensome. For me, there’s a lot of redundancy in the work — I’ve already done economics, accounts, and statistics so there’s not much new exciting material. I’m eager for next semester where I get to choose subjects that are more tailored towards my education.
Mostly, this is an exercise in ruthless prioritization. I am calendared from eight to eight or even 10 with very few breaks. In order to get everything done in a given day, I have to schedule everything from homework to social events. Being a student and part of this ecosystem is great from a resource perspective, but conflicts are unavoidable. You have to make a very conscious decision and stick to it.
Recently, some entrepreneurs have stated they found an MBA to be a bit of a distraction — similar to what you alluded to. Is that a harsh assessment or do you feel like business school has been a worthwhile investment for you?
For me, being at these institutions was absolutely necessary for me to be an entrepreneur. I have never had experience, and to be a part of an entrepreneurial community like MIT and Harvard has really helped me along the learning curve. I can see how it would feel distracting as every hour feels like it could be better used elsewhere, but the benefit of being a part of these programs definitely outweighs the negatives. I don’t think you need to get an advanced degree, but it definitely helped me.
What advice would you give to other student founders? Do you think you’ll do this full-time after graduation?
My advice for any potential student would be that you can do this. If you put your mind to it and you are resourceful, you can get anything done. I know it’s hard to get started and you’re definitely going to screw up, but all it takes is to keep trying and you’ll start to make progress.
I’m constantly hedging my life — working on a start-up while planning a wedding and doing core semester has been tough. I’ve applied to roles as a back-up career but CBOH continues to surprise me and I would love to do this full-time if it continues to grow.