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Why Sperm is the Sixth Vital Sign

Episode 289

Recommended Book:

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Best Way to Contact Greg:

Linkedin – Greg

Company Website:

Sandstone Diagnostics, Inc.

Why Sperm is The Fifth Vital Sign with Greg Sommer, Founder & CSO at Sandstone Diagnostics, Inc. (transcribed by Sonix)

Welcome to the Outcomes Rocket podcast where we inspire collaborative thinking, improved outcomes, and business success with today’s most successful and inspiring health care leaders and influencers. And now your host Saul Marquez.

Saul Marquez: And welcome back to the podcast. Today I have the outstanding Dr. Greg Sommer. He’s the founder and CSO at Sandstone Diagnostics. He’s a PhD-level engineer, entrepreneur, and executive in consumer healthcare and clinical diagnostics. In 2012 Dr. Sommer co-founded Sandstone Diagnostics, a Bay Area diagnostic and digital health company developing sophisticated connected wellness products that allow consumers to measure, monitor, and improve key health maker’s markers at home. He was recognized in 2015 as the Bay Area’s “40 Under 40” by Diablo Magazine and has won numerous entrepreneurial competitions. He’s also a co-inventor on 18 patents in microfluidic and clinical diagnostic technologies. And he’s secured over 6 million in research grants as principal investigator for the NIH, DOE, USDA, DOD, the list goes on and on. He’s an accomplished individual and it’s a pleasure to have Greg on the podcast. Welcome my friend.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

Saul Marquez: Absolutely. Now is there anything that you want to add to the intro?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Oh not really. It sounds pretty comprehensive. Thanks for the kinda well it wasn’t in there as is kind of the male fertility space of our companies focus on you know really helping men become dads which is what I’ve been doing for a large part of last six years I guess.

Saul Marquez: Absolutely and I’m excited to dive into that some more for sure. So to kick things off. What got you into the health care market?

Dr. Greg Sommer: It really kind of started back in college and grad school I guess. I’m a mechanical engineer by trading and the healthcare field is an area that has so much room for improvements and innovation and the kind of early in my academic career exposed to some startup companies developing new tools and was really inspired by the opportunity to just develop medical devices and healthcare tools that can you can really see an impact. And you know I also had experiences in developing or you know working on machines that make tape for example and it just didn’t have the impact or the you know the end of the day success that the medical projects did. And I think you know the way healthcare is run, bringing new innovations into the market can be slow and time consuming and for that reason feels a little bit behind compared to other fields. So the idea that there’s just so much room for new tools and technology and innovation in healthcare really helped me craft my my focus in this area.

Saul Marquez: That’s great. Yeah I agree with you completely. It’s definitely gratifying to be in a space Greg where you could get that instant gratification from the things that you’re doing and I mean what’s more valuable than impacting people right. Frankly.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Yeah. But it’s actually delayed gratification. Like to bring anything to market and medicine is just such a long time consuming process. There’s so much red tape and regulatory hurdles to it that you really have to be pee driven. That kind of you know that’s a double edged coin I guess and.

Saul Marquez: That’s true. Abbreviation focus. You’ve got to see it.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Yeah yeah. There’s a lot of better ways to do it. You have to be committed to bringing it to fruition which you know it’s one thing if you’re developing an app you can almost release an app overnight. But to bring a medical tool a market you’re looking at years and millions of dollars so it’s kind of a longer road I guess. But the impact is exponentially better in my opinion.

Saul Marquez: And while yeah hey we’re utra-marathoners here in healthcare

Dr. Greg Sommer: Here we go

Saul Marquez: We’re ultra-marathoners.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Gluttons for punishment maybe Saul.

Saul Marquez: That to. A little sadistic I think. So Greg what do you think you know a hot topic that needs to be on medical leaders agendas today and how are you and your organization approaching that?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Well I think specific to us. It’s something we’ve been really encompassed in over the last several years is the idea of a preventative and proactive steps to improving one’s health and having that showed improvement in outcomes down the road. You know we work in the men’s health and fertility space where we developed and now we sell a tool that allows men to measure and track their sperm count at home. And it’s focused on couples trying to conceive that you know infertility is becoming a big problem than men are half the cases. But you know until now men haven’t had a whole lot of options in this space. So the home test kits and a way to measure and track improvements is somewhat of a different new approach to fertility but it’s also got these layers of additional benefits where we’re dealing with a customer set to the patients sets that really doesn’t get any health care at all. These are young men who a lot of them are otherwise healthy and you know young guys still don’t go see the doctor at least not regularly. It’s gonna take a big accident or something to go see a doctor a lot of the times but unfortunately as later a lot of bad outcomes down the road men die on average seven years earlier than women and are much more higher risk of developing chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. And that’s partly due to you know not taking care of themselves. You know we kind of we show this kind of trough in men’s health care expenditure where you know they tend to get a lot of health attention early when they’re young boys and then later in life and all these things flare up and in the middle there’s this huge gap where if we could fill that gap with some incentives and motivations to take care of yourself we think that has a big outcome down the road. And being able to work in the fertility space is unique in that we’re kind of able to address health care in a very motivated and incentivized manner for guys who are trying to serve our family is trying to become dads. You know what part of what we preach is that if you get take care of yourself you get a little bit healthier. You live a little bit better you’re going to see an improvement in your fertility and your chances of conception and you know that’s much more motivating for a lot of guys than you know just losing a few pounds or being able to see an improvement in your pants size. You know the motivation to start your family is really motivating effect. So I think in terms of what that means is one of the biggest problems in health care is the cost. Right. And health care is just so astronomical. Well if we can find ways to cost effectively and efficiently improve health care and behaviors early in life we think that’s going to have a dramatic impact in the long run as these men and women get older and have more health concerns that can be diminished by those proactive steps.

Saul Marquez: Love it. Yeah it’s so interesting right. I mean you’re helping men and with their fertility and it’s sort of like that sperm count for example is the symptom but then you end up running into opportunities to help with their wellness so you end up helping them improve their overall health by helping them with what they’re experiencing.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Exactly. Yeah. One of the advisors we work with called sperm the sixth vital sign. All these research and on showing that sperm are really important just beyond fertility and conception where most of the attention with sperm quality goes. But there’s all this research and data showing that sperm is an important health marker that if you have a low sperm count you’re at a much higher risk of these other diseases that I mentioned earlier and of dying earlier in life than other men who are fertile. So then we start to see sperm count. Look at a little bit differently I think over the next several years as this research continues to come to fruition and we’re in the midst of a it’s already kind of happening that there’s all this data showing that sperm counts are plummeting with the average sperm count in men has dropped by over 50$ or the last four decades now. And so now the scientists are saying well not only what’s going on or what’s causing it but what does this mean. You know I think it’s probably a little too early to sound the alarm bells but people are talking about well this is going to be an economic problem. You know low fertility rates already at an all time low in this country if our sperm counts continue to plummet how low is going to go. What does that mean for sustaining an economy?

Saul Marquez: The records are as fascinating man. I mean the records for sperm count reduction. That’s U.S. base. I mean I haven’t done any comparative studies to other countries. Is it a human problem is it a U.S. problem.

Dr. Greg Sommer: It’s actually it’s a worldwide problem. The study that came out last year really kind of put an end to the controversy and naysayers too you know kind of did this big meta analysis of of all the fertility studies have been done. It’s actually a bigger problem in the western world and some of the more industrialized nations which kind of points to it being a problem of pollution and the plastics that we use that we’re drinking and eating from and you know there’s always serious is probably at the end of the day kind of a multifactorial cause of what you know we’re more obese, we’re more we’re sitting around more than we used to. There’s issues going on that are definitely causing this problem. You know sperm you mentioned is a symptom. It’s not like low sperm count has other symptoms if you’re feeling low I feel like my you know I’ve been kind of drowsy I like my sperm count is low. There’s no way to know unless you actually get that and most men aren’t getting tested. You know the only reason you

Saul Marquez: Or anything.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Your sperm count tested as if you’ve been trying to get pregnant for many months or years and finally muster up the will to go see a fertility clinic or a doctor and they’ll test it. So we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to say you know this is a big problem. This is a common problem that a lot of men and couples are having. The earlier you can get tested see where you’re at the better your outcomes and chances of success. Because especially in the fertility game where time is on your side you know this is a fortunately something that you know as you age you’re not going to get more fertile and get less fertile. So you know the sooner you can take some steps the better your chances of success.

Saul Marquez: Love that. Nah so great. And you definitely have done the work here Greg. Sort of be able to speak to some of the results that have been found. Can you share with the listeners a time when you and your your colleagues made a mistake or a setback and what you learned from that?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Oh yeah. Let’s see. How much time do you have. Well worth we’re a startup company. So you know I started this company with two co-founders. For all of us it was kind of our first company. So we jumped in headfirst into the startup world and started building sperm counters in the garage. I think one of our mistakes that fortunately we learned early on was that things take a lot more time and money than you expect them to.

Saul Marquez: Yes.

Dr. Greg Sommer: You know part of being an entrepreneur is I think you’re ambitious and you’re kind of a glass is half full and you’re very optimistic type personality. But when it comes to setting a plan and a strategy and raising money and you know hitting the milestones that you need to hit as a business and a startup company especially in the medical space it’s really important that you set realistic expectations and whatever you think it’s going to take multiply it by a factor of four and then add a few and see if you can still tell if that’s still going to make sense for you to do it because that’s just the reality of how things go. I think you always want to one of the lessons learned early on was it’s always better to under promise and over deliver. So set yourself up for success by keeping that bar achievable.

Saul Marquez: I think it’s a great call out for sure I’d say meandering system and it takes time. What would you say one of your proudest moments in healthcare has been to date Greg?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Oh you know the proudest moments come in daily and that’s the success stories that we have with our customers. We launched this product last year. It’s a consumer product. People buy it on our website on Amazon and you know it’s kind of changing the fertility game for a lot of couples who…

Saul Marquez: What’s the website Greg?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Oh it’s that trakfertility.com. The product’s called the Trak Male Fertility Testing System.

Saul Marquez: trakfertility.com folks if it’s something that you’re working through by all means check that out and more we’ll provide a link on the show notes as well so you’ll be able to to find that easily through our website. But anyway you’re saying the daily stories Greg.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Yeah well you know fertility is an interesting space of health care where it’s mostly elective. It’s mostly out of pocket a lot of fertility isn’t covered by insurance although that’s getting better and you know this is an issue that doesn’t just affect affluent people who can afford twenty thousand dollars a month for fertility treatment. There’s a lot of people out there struggling with infertility and don’t have a whole lot of options. So when we get these stories and of you know these thank you notes from men and their partners who use our product start taking process to get healthier and get pregnant that’s you know it makes those late nights and early mornings are all worth it.

Saul Marquez: That’s awesome man. I can imagine too. I mean that’s because I’ve talked to a lot of people struggling through this and when they finally make it work it just it’s such a great thing.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Yeah it’s one of those I guess coming back to you know delayed gratification and if you’ve struggled with fertility and then you’re finally you know I’m a dad, I have three three young girls and I can’t imagine life without them. You know it’s if you struggled through it and you’re finally successful and you’re starting your family I think it’s a feeling like like none other. It’s a really special time in people’s lives that we’re fortunately able to be a part of.

Saul Marquez: That’s beautiful man. You’re doing great things for awesome people. Tell us about an exciting project or focus that you’re working on today Greg.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Sure yeah. As a company where we’re looking and working very heavily in a kind of tangential area of health care. So our device the Trak System is kind of a new way of doing sperm counts is based on centrifugation. So when you buy a product you actually get a little centrifuge. It’s a little kit that comes to your house and you don’t have to send your sample and you run this all yourself and you run it with a little centrifuge there’s a motor in it. It’s got a couple of runs on two double eight batteries. Is your reading of your sperm count but…

Saul Marquez: It spins right?

Dr. Greg Sommer: It spins. Yes about five minutes at about seventy five hundred RPM. So it’s been pretty quickly and show you what your sperm count is. We are now expanding this technology in the area of blood plasma preparation. So instead of spinning you know a man’s semen sample we can take blood samples and use the system to really rapidly isolate plasma from blood cells. And the reason that’s exciting is that you know the majority of blood tests that are run today the clinical diagnostics are run on plasma. They’re not run on whole blood. In fact the blood cells that are in your blood can cause a lot of issues and contamination with diagnostic tests. So there’s various ways of removing those cells. Most of them though are confined to little laboratory. So what we’re building is a system that can be used when blood is collected. You know if you today if you go have a tube of blood collected you’re go to full bottom is still they’ll draw it and then they’ll send it to a lab. The problem is that blood cells you know they stay connected to the plasma and a whole blood tube for some amount of time. Sometimes it’s minutes sometimes hours or days that it’s in that tube and it’s degrading all along. So or developing is a system that can replace that tube to spin down the blood immediately isolate the plasma and then physically separate it before it sent to low lab. And we’re seeing that has really dramatic impact in the quality of the diagnostics we can run on the plasma sample by getting those contaminations out of there. So we’re we’re spending a lot of blood these days and really excited the feasibility data that we have already from this system is really outperforming other solutions in the blood collection space and something that we’re really excited about.

Saul Marquez: Amazing. Good for you guys and how did you guys make the connection with that? I mean that’s brilliant. When I saw the device I thought about it and then it was kind of just like a fleeting thought. I thought about plasma and all those stuff that they do like when they do the. Like for instance the total joint procedures or you know in office stuff for four joint clinics.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Yeah. So as a company we, we’ve been spinning things for a while. One of my co-founders and I we were at a national lab for about five years developing devices for biodefense applications, handheld deployable system like be run by first responders if you know some nasty agent were to be released in a mass populated area. We were doing a lot of blood tests there. So spitting down blood samples and doing things like white cell counts and now so we’ve had some projects in this area ever since and this actually came from somewhere working with just asks us well you know we’re having a really big problem. This was a partner that we’re working with. So we have this big problem where our samples are coming in or we have to throw a lot of them out because they’re just not high quality enough samples they take too long to get here and these cells degrade so quickly. Can you guys you know develop a plasma system and say yeah well we could separate plasma and did all research a little homework and show it well you know this is this is something that is worth pursuing. So we’ve been putting a lot of emphasis there recently and at the same time you know growing the trak business. So there’s a lot going on in a lot of different areas but it’s it’s an exciting time for sure.

Saul Marquez: That’s awesome. Yeah that’s great. You never know when when the efforts that you’re putting in to develop the technologies you develop they might have different applications and it becomes exciting when those applications come up on the keys just to stay in the game long enough to see that happen. Going back to Greg’s point of multiply it by four whatever time you’re expecting and add a little bit more. And if you just stay in long enough you’re going to start seeing that success. It’s a fascinating product that you’ve developed. You guys are doing some fantastic things Greg will definitely be able to share this think and a big part of it is knowledge right. Because before I did some background on you I did know all about it. And how do you get the word out. You know and that’s key to it.

Dr. Greg Sommer: It sure is. Yeah that’s a question that I ask myself every day.

Saul Marquez: So all right we’re getting close to the end here Greg. Let’s pretend you and I are building a leadership course and what it takes to be successful in the business of health care. It’s the one on one crash course with Dr. Greg Sommer. I got four questions, lightning round style followed by a book that you recommend to the listeners. You ready?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Sure.

Saul Marquez: All right. What’s the best way to improve health care outcomes?

Dr. Greg Sommer: I’d say get the costs out. Anything that can bring the costs out of health care is is likely to be successful if you take the cost out you improve access to care and people are gonna get healthier.

Saul Marquez: What is the biggest mistake or a pitfall to avoid?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Like I said earlier I think setting your expectations too high. So something reasonable is something you can achieve and make sure you knock it out of the park.

Saul Marquez: How do you stay relevant despite constant change?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Make sure you’re market driven so keep your eyes and ears on what the market is telling you what your customers say they want and need and make sure that you’re delivering to make sure you’re not going blindly. Just listen to what the customers are telling you.

Saul Marquez: What’s one area of focus that drives everything in your organization Greg?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Innovation. You know we tell our employees there’s better ways to do everything. Challenge the status quo and if you see a problem something that needs to be solved and then let’s solve it.

Saul Marquez: What book would you recommend to the listeners?

Dr. Greg Sommer: Peter Thiel wrote a really good book called Zero to One. It’s a quick read. You know he’s a PayPal fame but it’s a lot of nice lessons a lot of takeaways and that can be applied to a lot of businesses in there including health care.

Saul Marquez: Love it. Great book totally recommend that as well. And folks you could find links to the book, links to the trak website. We could get a kit for your own testing system. Go to outcomesrocket.health/trak. You’ll find all of our show notes there including a full transcript. So before we conclude Greg I’d love if you could just share your closing thoughts and then the best place for the listeners could get in touch with or follow you.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Yeah thanks. Well I think my closing thought would be you know part of what you mentioned was getting the word out that male fertility is a problem. It’s something that a lot of men and couples struggle with and it’s still a taboo subject. So you know I appreciate you bringing me on to build some awareness and like you said everybody has either been through it or they know someone who’s gone through infertility and the more we can just keep the awareness out there and the conversation and communication open. You know it’s okay to talk about these things and to take steps to address it. And if you do that you’re going to be much more likely to be successful which in this case means becoming a dad. And you know we have a lot of resources that can help trakfertility.com and reach out any time we are small, we’re nimble, we’re hungry, and you know we’re here to change the way that the couples get pregnant.

Saul Marquez: Outstanding Greg. It was a pleasure to to showcase your amazing work and we’ll definitely be sharing and spreading the word. So keep up the the awesome work my friend.

Dr. Greg Sommer: Thanks Saul, appreciate it.

Thanks for listening to the Outcomes Rocket podcast. Be sure to visit us on the web at www.outcomesrocket.com for the show notes, resources, inspiration, and so much more.

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