Today we have the pleasure of featuring veteran entrepreneur, Tom Coyle who started his own AI-based medical company along with his wife, Isabel Otero. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army and served as an Artilleryman. Following his military service, he continued to serve the country as a Diplomat in the U.S. Department of State.
We’ll take a look as he shares his experience as a veteran entrepreneur below.
- Tell us a little bit about Sciencella. What got you into the industry?
So we are at the very early stages of the company and have been developing our technology. I apologize for not being more specific at this time. However, we are focused on helping people better integrate healthy nutrition into their lives with the assistance of technology. But the basic idea is to better track what you are eating and assess risks to your health based on diet. Specific to myself, I am a cancer survivor and part of my recovery involved consultations with a dietitian. Furthermore, in 2010, I was close to being prediabetic based on my bloodwork. That was despite still being able to run sub 17 minute 5Ks. I was freaked out and the doctor asked, “so what are you eating?” I told him “pasta.” He explained the sugars in pasta and how I needed to stop that. I did. Today, I cannot run anywhere close to what I was running then, but my bloodwork has never been better. So I have always been interested in nutrition ever since that incident. Furthermore, my wife and cofounder, lost 45 pounds in 60 days just by changing her diet. As a result, others came to her to do the same thing. She started a business, Become the Ultimate You to help people live healthier through diet. Observing some of her struggles and her client struggles with manual processes, we decided to leverage my knowledge of AI to make a more efficient system, so we formed Sciencella. Since starting the company in May, we have participated in an NIH codeathon and we have partnered with Inova Cancer Center in Fairfax VA to develop our technology.
- What would you say drove you to start your own company?
Both my wife and I have entrepreneurial interests. We co-Founded Adventures in Leadership, an experiential leadership company, which focused initially on the youth market and then we expanded into serving corporate organizations and government institutions. My wife, who spent 15 years at NIH/National Cancer Institute, later formed Become the Ultimate You, a preventative health company focused on nutrition. When COVID hit, I shifted Adventures in Leadership to focus on AI instruction with my “AI for Decision Makers” classes. This led to me being picked up by AI company DataRobot where I worked directly for the CEO as Director of Strategic Initiatives and helped shape our Government Strategy, taught AI classes, and worked with tech teams to bring AI solutions to life, including some of our COVID related projects. When DataRobot’s CEO moved on, I decided it was time to do something different. My wife and I had been talking about how we can better collaborate our strengths, my knowledge of AI with her knowledge of preventative health. We had just published a cookbook, and thought, “let’s combine this into something.”
- How did you get involved in AI? What programming skills do you have?
So I have always been interested in technology. While I majored in International Relations at West Point, I had several classes in computer science and systems engineering. Throughout my career, I have built technology solutions to problems by understanding the problem and being able to communicate to technologists to bring the solution to life. In 2010, after serving overseas, I started taking a more active interest. I started going to events like Tech Cocktail, a DC based event where startups networked and pitched. I got involved with a startup called Clicksposure, a sort of meet up meets match. We did not succeed, but I learned a lot. Along the way, I started taking online classes in python, computer vision, and machine learning through AWS, DataRobot, OpenCV, and 365DataScience. All these skills came together, and I was at an event where I met the CEO of DataRobot. Initially, he wanted to hire my leadership company to provide coaching for his team. As the conversations continued and he learned more about my background, he asked me to join DataRobot and help him shape the government strategy and use my knowledge to help shape AI solutions for the government.
- What resources have you found the most helpful from day 1? Do you have any tips for aspiring veteran entrepreneurs?
People. Call as many people as you can. You can be surprised who knows who. Veteran entrepreneurs and investors have been fantastic. They have made themselves available for pitch deck practice and feedback, connecting us with team members, providing feedback on the business, and taking the time to share their lessons learned. But I would also encourage veterans to widen the scope a bit. For example, go beyond the veteran network. The good news is many non veterans today are very willing to help veterans. Also, there are so many virtual networking groups geared toward veterans. Service Academy Business Mastermind, Lions Pride, and RingKnockers are a few groups. Herb Thompson is somebody I recommend people connect with on LinkedIn. He is very passionate about helping veterans and, even if you never talk to him directly, publishes some fantastic content. One tip on this subject – be humble and open minded. Don’t screen people out because of what they did in the military. For example, I was a Captain when I left, but one of my best resources is a former E3 he worked for me who went back to school and is very successful in the financing/investor space. I’m glad I treated my soldiers well. Finally, read books about successful entrepreneurs. You will really learn from them and more importantly, learn from their mistakes. Referring to my remarks above, by taking classes and learning new skills related to AI, I was able to get a job, and now found a startup, based on AI. So if something interests you, find a way to learn it. During the pandemic, 365datascience offered free classes. You can also find low cost classes on Udemy and youtube has some great free resources. Then of course there are more traditional paths like college, but the bottom line is there are multiple ways to learn and demonstrate new skills.
- What has been the biggest challenge thus far as you’ve looked to grow your businesses?
In some ways, information overload as it pertains to fundraising. You have to be agile here as different investors like to see different things. About 80 percent of it is the same, but it is getting that 20 percent correct to please the person you are pitching. This ranges from simple pitch deck formatting to describing specifics of your solution. I always look for ways to learn as much as I can about a specific investor so I can tailor the deck. But at the same time, you have to be careful. You can be paralyzed by getting too much feedback. Eventually, you just have to listen to everyone, and then pick a course of action and go with it. A good rule of thumb is success comes down to 1% idea, 49% team, and 50% execution. Remember, Apple did not make the first smartphone, tablet, or MP3 player, but yet the iPhone, iPad, and iPod became the most popular products on the market, crushing the existing competition.
- How would you say that your military service prepared you for your role today?
I think the real tangible skills I learned were my ability to manage my time, solve problems, and think on the fly. I also learned valuable team building and teamwork skills. As veterans, we are also hard working. I know it sounds cliché, but it is true. We are used to long hours, we get things done, and we give our word. If we say we are going to do something, we will get it done. We find ways to get through or around obstacles.
- Any Final Thoughts you’d like to add?
I am a published author. You can find my book, Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg on Amazon. My wife and I also have our cookbook, Tom and Isabel’s Guide to Nutrient Dense Eating, also available on Amazon. I am very passionate about sharing my thoughts on a variety of issues, whether it is healthy eating, foreign policy, technology, and sports. You can connect with me on LinkedIn and twitter, and I am a writer on Medium. Finally, I am just a guy who is passionate about solving problems and exploring the world and trying new things.
As veterans, I want to encourage you to really take the time to figure out WHAT YOU WANT. During the military, our assignments were dictated to us. Now we have a chance to really think about what we want to do in life and build ourselves around that. SO take the time to ponder; talk to people who know you. Get ideas. And don’t think you have to figure it out the day you leave service. I have taken a circuitous path and I have had several pivot points since leaving the army. If you take on an opportunity with the best of intentions and decide it is not what you want to do, don’t be afraid to change course.
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