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For Entrepreneur in Residence, Debbie Chen's time in the ring as an amateur Muay Thai fighter sparked the idea for personalized real-time hydration monitoring, changing the industry standard for better health and wellness. She is an advocate for female and diverse founders, and is passionate about mental health, especially the entrepreneurship mindset. Read more on her journey.

You have pioneered the movement of hydration monitoring. As an athlete, where did this motivation come from?

I wouldn’t say I pioneered the hydration monitoring movement. There have been a lot of people, brilliant minds, researchers, founders, and companies that have tried to tackle this problem before me. I think of myself as carrying the torch.

As an athlete, I was always cramping up. My coach would always say drink more water (after I started cramping – which is too late). Coming from an engineering background, I started looking for devices that would tell me how much water I needed to drink and when. That’s when I realized that human physiology as it relates to hydration is incredibly complex and that there isn’t a product out there that could accurately tell me the actionable information I needed to keep well-hydrated. At the same time, I could see that there is a huge clinical need as well, for people that are dealing with chronic heart failure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.

Since COVID hit, we have pivoted to the older adult market because dehydration is one of the top reasons for ER visits for older adults. As we are trending toward aging in place, we need a better way to let the older adults and their caregivers know in real-time how well hydrated a person is, so that we can prevent unnecessary hospital visits and keep chronic conditions in check.

"There have been a lot of people, brilliant minds, researchers, founders, companies that have tried to tackle this problem before me. I think of myself as carrying the torch."

You are an advocate for female and diverse founders. How do you value equity and inclusion in your mission and team – and within the larger San Diego community?

I’m keenly aware of the lack of diversity in tech and startup communities because I’m living it every day. I see how difficult it is to raise funds as a minority female and I hear the bias in the types of questions and comments I receive. To me, diversity not just a “value” to include in a mission statement. It is my own identity and a sense of belonging that I’m fighting for. And in fighting for myself, I’m also fighting for the rights of everyone else that feels that they don’t belong.

Within my team, I make sure to seek out qualified candidates with gender and diversity in mind. Diversity of thought is what I’m looking for and is often the competitive edge with high performing teams. With our product, we make sure we speak to customers from a variety of perspectives (including ethnicity, age, gender, skin tone, socio-economic differences). There’s been a long-standing problem with wearables not being accurate on users darker skin tones. It begs the question of: who were these products made for and who was programming those algorithms? This is why we need more diverse leaders.

San Diego is such a supportive environment for founders. Everyone is willing to help you in anyway they can. The challenge is to figure out who to ask and what to ask for. San Diego also has a very active support system for female founders as well, including Stella Labs, Ad Astra and the annual Women’s Venture Summit that brings female investors and female entrepreneurs together. There’s also an amazing cast of female leaders doing so much to advocate and support female entrepreneurs such as Dr. Silvia Mah (Stella Labs, Ad Astra Venture), Mysty Rusk (The Brink, San Diego Angel Conference), and Caitlin Wege (Tech Coast Angels). Accelerator programs such as the REC Innovation Lab (Tanya Hertz) and Connect All (Alex Waters) are great examples of programs with minority leaders, servicing under-represented founders.

How do you define the entrepreneurship mindset and what has kept you dedicated to the craft for nearly 20 years? 

I didn’t know what entrepreneurship mindset was until I started my company two years ago. But looking back, I think I’ve always had a bit of the entrepreneurship bug. It showed up in my academic research in a way because you have to be a little bit of a startup founder to complete a PhD thesis. You have to learn everything you can learn about a topic, find and collaborate with people that know more than you, have a hypothesis, iterate, and come up with a solution.

I was always a tinker-er. My favorite childhood toys were Legos. There’s so much creative freedom with Legos. I made entire towns and told stories that go along with the characters that live there. I think dedication to a craft is more about a learning mindset. It’s a never-ending quest to learn more about the world. I’ve always been curious about how other people think, and what their lives are like. So it’s driven me to solve real problems from an empathetic place, one of genuine interest.

 

Describe and share one of the most valuable lessons gained from a mentor in your journey.

My most valuable lesson gained from a mentor is to be yourself. It sounds easy but it’s actually extremely difficult in a world where being rejected and doubted is the norm. I had always tried to fit into whatever box I felt like I needed to fit into. So even with different groups of friends, I was a bit of a chameleon. I could fit into may different groups, but none at the same time. During these last two years, my mentors Allison Long Pettine and Dr. Silivia Mah have taught me that it’s OK to make mistakes (as long as you learn from them), I don’t have to be perfect, and that my best is good enough. I’m trying to teach that to the founders I mentor now because getting there is a challenge but once you trust yourself and your skillset, the world opens up and anything is possible.

"My most valuable lesson gained from a mentor is to be yourself. It sounds easy but it’s actually extremely difficult in a world where being rejected and doubted is the norm."

What interested in you sharing your passion as an Entrepreneur in Residence at UC San Diego?

Hydrostasis provides personalized real-time hydration monitoring for older adults

UC San Diego is a special place to me. I went to undergrad at UC San Diego in Bioengineering. I grew up at Warren College, met my husband in the dorms during freshman year. I still keep in touch with a lot of my friends from college. I left for grad school at Tufts University but then came back for two more Postdocs at UC San Diego Medical School, Dept of Pathology, and at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I joined the StartR Inclusion program (formerly known as MyStartupXX), which started me off on my entrepreneurial pursuits. I always feel that if I can make it a little bit easier for anyone else that is coming behind me, if I can link arms and march forward with my sisters besides me, then I’ve done my job.

Working with Connect All and the Rec Innovation Lab, what are the best ways to reach and foster innovation among the next generation of entrepreneurs? 

Giving back can look different for everyone. In the startup ecosystem, the most common ways to give back is either with your finances or with your time. If you’re not in the position to give back financially, by either donating to non-profits of your choice, or becoming an Angel investor, the easiest way is to donate your time. It is challenging to juggle the busy schedule of running your own startup and mentoring, but I’ve found that it brings balance and joy to my life. I’m also learning a lot from my mentees because you really need to fully understand something in order to teach it. Most of the time, the founders I mentor just need a person to listen to their challenges and to let them know that they’re on the right path. The other way to provide value is to open doors by sharing your network, connecting the right people. Sometimes, the founders I mentor don’t need a lot. They just need to feel that they are supported and that they belong. And then they have the confidence to go out and do what they’re passionate about.

Nobody reaches any amount of success on their own. Someone opened the door for you along the way, so I believe it is my duty to repay the ones that came before me by helping the people coming behind me. The best feeling as a mentor is when your mentees start mentoring others… that’s when you know you’ve passed the baton.

Want to learn more about Hydrostasis? Visit their website here or email Debbie Chen at d4chen@ucsd.edu.