Once a Minnesotan, always a Minnesotan. Every issue, Starting Up North interviews someone in the startup world who grew up or attended college in Minnesota but no longer calls it home. We spoke with Bay Area–based investor Solome Tibebu about her journey from teen founder to major figure in behavioral health technology, and what excites her about today’s digital health startups.
Every venture capitalist has a list of things they look for in companies they might invest in. The list can be long or short and often includes things like the make-up of the team, the size of the addressable market and more. For investor Solome Tibebu, that list includes the usual suspects, but she’s also drawn to a founder’s passion for and personal experience in the subject they’re building a business about.
“While it’s not necessary, I do tend to empathize with people who have a personal connection to whatever the content of the startup might be. I think that’s fairly common in a lot of digital health startups that I meet with, though not required. But a depth of understanding is absolutely a requirement.”
“The amount of effort it takes to be successful with a healthcare startup, you really need domain expertise and a strong network in the space,” Tibebu continues. “Some of those things, certainly investors can add value from that perspective, but seeing someone who really understands their topic unlike anyone else, that’s the kind of things that really stand out to me.”
When you learn about Tibebu’s story (which started in MN) and hear about her own passion for digital, and specifically behavioral, health, it’s clear to see why she values those characteristics in other entrepreneurs.
First Steps of the Journey
Tibebu was born in St. Louis Park, MN, and grew up in Eden Prairie. While in high school, she used her own experience with mental health to start her first organization.
“I had really bad anxiety as a teenager, and there just wasn’t anything online in my time of need—terrible panic attacks and OCD throughout middle school and high school,” Tibebu shares. Unable to find a solution, she decided to propose her own. At age 16, in tenth grade, she launched Anxiety in Teens.
“It was really just a blog for myself, but over time it evolved quite a bit so other youth with lived experience could contribute. This was before social media, so it was really one of the first resources for youth by youth with lived experience with mental illness.”
Anxiety in Teens was also an introduction to areas that have proved to be main focuses in Tibebu’s career. “It was really my first taste of entrepreneurship and the Internet and healthcare,” she says. “By the time I got to St. Thomas [University, in MN], I knew I really wanted to pursue entrepreneurship.”
Tibebu had caught the entrepreneurship bug, and while at school in 2010, she started Cognific, a mental health tech startup.“It must’ve been junior year that I applied for the Minnesota Cup and won the student division for this concept, which was basically mental health homework for patients and analytics for providers.” She did an incredible amount of research on health systems and, in her words, ‘drank from the fire hose’ of entrepreneurship, but “by the time we figured out a business model that could have worked for a fee-for-service population, which was really what my customer base was, it was more like a day too late, dollar too short sort of thing.”
The company may not have succeeded, but the experience has paid dividends as her career has continued. “I’ve had different jobs at other startups and larger companies. Definitely my own style informs my perspective so much—more than anything else, frankly, when it comes to my current role.”
It was while launching Cognific that Tibebu noticed a hole in the Minnesota startup ecosystem.
“Pete Kane, Thompson Aderinkomi and I got together, as we all were launching healthcare startups at the time. We didn’t feel like we had a sense of community, so we decided to go ahead and start one.” They launched Healthcare.mn, an innovation group for Healtchare IT startups.
“Healthcare.mn was really special in the sense that it really did bring all stakeholders from every corner of healthcare, technology, innovation startups,” Tibebu says. “There were entrepreneurs, but there were also clinicians and government officials and designers and technologists and investors. It was really unique in that sense,” says Tibebu.
Despite the large network she had built in Minnesota, after wrapping up Cognific, Solome was drawn to New York, in part because of a promise she had made herself in elementary school.
“In Mrs. Cane’s second grade class, she made us write in a little journal that said, ‘By the time I’m 25 years old, I will have done these three things.’ And my journal had said, ‘By the time I’m 25 I will have been a famous singer like Mariah Carey, a famous gymnast, and finally I will have moved to New York City.’
She moved in 2015. “So one for three. Not too bad,” Tibebu laughs. While in New York, she worked at Netsmart, a company that designs, builds and delivers Electronic Health Records (EHRs). While she says she learned a lot in her role in enterprise sales, in a couple of years, Tibebu was ready to get back into startup life.
Back to the Startup World
Years earlier, before leaving Minnesota, Tibebu had done a short stint with the Minnesota Angel Network, and it made a lasting impression. “I always thought, this is really fun to be able to support medical device and digital health startups. I remembered what a great relationship I had with my angel investors and thought it’d be really neat to potentially explore the investor side one day. So, when that opportunity came along, I just went for it.”
In 2017 she made a move to the Bay Area where she remains today. She began working with a Medicare startup but eventually got connected to a fund that was helping to invest in and acquire digital health and government tech startups on behalf of a partner. It was her way back into investing—something she had been interested in for years.
Tibebu eventually landed at Launchpad Digital Health, an early stage investor in digital health, where she works on investor relations and sourcing and evaluating companies that are seed stage to series B for the fund. It’s been a good fit so far. “In terms of meeting different founders and hearing about what they’ve been building for the last few years, and their passion around a specific topic, you really can’t pay money to hear these types of things, learn these things anywhere else. In that regard it’s really a special opportunity.”
In addition to working on the investment side, Tibebu has been following her personal passion for behavioral health. In partnership with Dr. Steve Ramsland, she launched ReThink: Behavioral Health Innovation, a monthly newsletter that highlights the latest in behavioral health and digital technology. She also keeps her hand in behavioral health by serving as an advisor for Bring Change to Mind (a national nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging dialogue about mental health) and Telosity (a venture fund that invests in extraordinary founders using technology to improve mental health and wellness outcomes in young people).
Indeed, Tibebu’s passion shows through when she talks about what she thinks we’ll see in the future of behavioral health. “I think that we have plenty of opportunity for refining the coordination of care for people who are struggling with behavioral health issues in addition to other physical issues. There’s plenty of research that demonstrates that addressing the behavioral health issue really makes a huge difference when it comes to impacting a patient’s chronic issues. So I think this generation of startups that are now coming up are starting to figure out that integrated care. I’m super excited to see that evolution.
“I think that there’s so much opportunity when it comes to peer support. How can we leverage peer support for improving mental health and wellbeing? A lot of startups have been focused on serving the younger generations, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity in figuring out how to serve the senior markets. What can we do in that space as it relates to peer support and mental health?”
Perhaps some of the companies that figure out those business models will be based back in her home state of Minnesota, and Tibebu plans to be watching. “As much as I can maintain relationships with entrepreneurs and investors in the space, that’s absolutely a priority of mine. I do come out fairly frequently still. I am super excited to do more, not just because valuations seem to not be as high as they are on the coast, but just because so much action is happening. So I definitely hope that we are doing more in the Midwest.”
Maybe one of those companies will be led by Tibebu herself, and she’ll bring her personal passion for the behavioral health space to a new company. “It’s hard to say. But at some point, one day, maybe when it’s long enough since I’ve started something that I’ve forgotten how hard it is, I can definitely foresee being back in that situation.”