5 Years and 100 Hats: Building HumanFirst from Idea to Acquisition

“How about I join the company in 1 year?” I naively asked.

“I’m the only full-time teammate at the moment. I don’t know yet if this company will exist in a year. I hope it does. If you join now, you can help me make sure that it does,” Andy laughed.

“Okay” I agreed a week later, intrigued by the challenge,“I’ll join.”

And spoiler alert: I made the right bet. I’m proud to say that earlier this year, HumanFirst was acquired by ICON. I’m excited to bring the mission of measures that matter to more patients through ICON, using their 90 offices in 45+ countries!

Outside of the founders, I was Employee #1 at HumanFirst. This would be the first of many conversations between myself and Andy Coravos, co-founder and CEO of HumanFirst, where I would be stretched well outside my comfort zone into the unknown. In 2019, when Andy asked me to join what was then Elektra Labs (eventually rebranded to HumanFirst) full time, I thought I was agreeing to a career in clinical research where I’d be extracting and analyzing information from peer reviewed papers into a spreadsheet. What I got was a front row seat to building and running a business and creating a product that customers want, with incredible mentorship from Andy.

Like many who join early stage startups as the first employee, my 5 years at HumanFirst gave me the opportunity to wear many hats and pushed the limits of my capabilities in every way, including:

  • Building an award winning software product that’s been used by 22 of the top 25 leading pharmaceutical companies alongside world class engineers and designers
HumanFirst’s Atlas
  • Ideating and developing a first-of-its kind measure ontology that spans 800+ medical conditions and 15k+ measures, using my prior research experience to build structured databases to assist customers in digital measurement selection
HumanFirst’s Atlas
  • Navigating customer relationships within large pharmaceutical companies with >$500bn in revenue, having never worked in the space given my background in academia
  • Growing from an independent contributor to manager of a diverse group of people responsible for hiring, firing and everything in between. Post-acquisition I manage a team of ~20 people.
  • Creating a company culture with values and norms that fostered employee engagement, high morale and strong retention

I almost always fumbled over any response to the frequent questions from family and friends of “what kind of work do you?” Because the honest truth was that most of this work was done without any official titles that described what it was I was actually doing. I could have answered that I was a “research associate” or “I work with our customers” or “I run day to day operations for the whole company” or even, “I work on any tough problems Andy throws my way.” But none of these could ever encompass the entirety of how I spent my time.

Five years is an eternity in the startup world. I stayed because I believed in what we were doing, was able to learn and grow daily, loved the team I worked with, and ultimately both hoped and believed that I could have an impact…and thanks to a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, our product and team became valuable enough to attract the attention of ICON, the world’s largest clinical research organization.

It is difficult to put into words all the ways that I’ve grown, both personally and professionally, at HumanFirst and how proud I am of what the team accomplished. As a poet admired by many at HumanFirst has said “..the battle was long, it’s the fight of our lives. But we’ll stand up champions tonight.”

To my HumanFirst colleagues, and especially to Andy, I am so grateful to have been on this journey with you all. It has been a privilege and I am thankful every day for that moment when I said “I’ll join.”