Kate Cordell & Ken Knecht On Tackling Mental Health Through Health Tech

Rodney Hu's interview with Ken Knecht and Kate Cordell of Opeeka

Welcome to Health Tech Hustle. We exist to share stories of the brave entrepreneurs helping to solve the most important problems in digital health today. We interview top leaders in health tech and bring them on to our show each week to listen and learn from their story. With your host Rodney Hu, founder of 2.9 Digital.

Rodney Hu: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Health Council podcast. I’m your host. As always, Rodney Hu and today I’m joined by two very special guests Dr. Kate Cordell and Ken Knecht. Kate is the CEO and co-founder of Opeeka, and Ken is a CMO and co-founder of Opeeka. And I’m excited to have them on and give them an opportunity to kind of share what they’re working on in the health care space and just learn a little bit more about them. So that being said, welcome to the podcast guys.

Ken Knecht: Thanks, Rodney. Thanks for having us.

Kate Cordell: Yeah, thanks so much for having us.

Rodney Hu: No problem, let’s just jump into it. Give us a quick background of who you are, kind of how you got into this health care space.

Kate Cordell: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. So I actually started out at the lab bench doing some cell and molecular biology research on mental illness and mental illnesses, and spent some time looking at that mental illness through a medical model lens, but really identified that there was more of a social component that we weren’t addressing in the way that we treat mental illness. So I ended up with the getting my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in social welfare and then applied that experience that I had from the medical model lens and adding in that social view so that we can look at mental health and well-being more broadly through both a medical, biological, environmental, social and psychological lens altogether and really perform whole person care. So that’s a little bit about my background.

Ken Knecht: Yeah, and myself, I I have a technology background, I’ve been working with startups for a number of years, working in startups, managing development teams and met Kate in 2016. I was managing my own business he had her own business and she brought me in on a few projects that I just I was amazed of how big of a problem mental health and the data around mental health was. And so I was just fascinated with trying to solve the problem, do what we can to to solve this problem in mental health, which is such a big problem, especially now.

Rodney Hu: So bring us forward then to how we got into the the health tech space. That would be helpful.

Kate Cordell: Yeah, sure. So having taken that lens, I began to do some consulting work and realized that we were solving the same problem over and over, which is that when folks struggle with mental health and well-being, it also includes other areas in their life, like their social health, substance use, physical health and our systems are very uncoordinated. So we were doing a lot of consulting projects where we were trying to unify different systems to get a better picture so that staff could provide better care. But all the projects were one off bespoke projects, and after doing a number of those kind of, I got together and said, You know, there has to be a better solution for this, you know, piecemeal information together to get a whole picture of somebody isn’t going to work unless somebody out there creates an enterprise solution. So we set out to do that and we created person centered intelligence solution, which is about taking information and coordinating around the person rather than the system. Whether that system be a medical system, behavior health system, all of the systems that hold information out there are centered around the processes of the system. So we turn that on its head and we create a solution that centers around the person being served by the system so that all that information can come together around that person. And so that’s what our solution does.

Rodney Hu: So pretty much you guys were just doing these projects and kind of identified a pattern and kind of seen the same problem occurring that you guys are addressing and you guys didn’t see any other solution out there. So you guys essentially created it yourself. Correct.

Kate Cordell: Yeah, exactly, that’s right.

Rodney Hu: So how did you go about it? Like testing that and getting feedback from other people and kind of nudging down on what that one specific problem is because I know like in health care health tech, there’s a million different problems that you can focus on. But what was like your guys’s process of defining that one core thing that you guys wanted to focus on and tackle that?

Kate Cordell: I have the benefit of I didn’t mention also my background, not only my co-founder of Opeeka, but I was also a managing director of Mental Health Data Alliance, and that was what I did for about a decade doing that consulting work. But I’m also a assistant professor at the University of Kentucky Center for Innovation in Population Health. And so through those different endeavors, I’ve done a lot of speaking at conferences and speaking at different health organizations and giving presentations. And so really what I did was I would listen to my presentations, my ideas and get feedback from the audience over several years. So I built a library of ideas and concepts that included a person’s story map, you know, ability to have real time, flexible outcomes monitoring. And over the years of doing that work, things just became came together and and gelled. Not that folks, you know, were giving me feedback directly on my product. They were giving me feedback on my ideas. And so when I got to the point where I felt like we had a confluence of ideas, we began to build the product and we actually built the product in less than six months.

Rodney Hu: And then obviously, as a CEO, as a founder, you know that you had to wear many hats, but you can’t do everything yourself. And so how did you go about finding that team, like, put together that Avengers level team and bring on people such as Ken and other members of the team?

Kate Cordell: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great question. So we bootstrapped in the beginning. So like many founders, you know, we were doing the hustle of consulting over three mentor update alliance and then trying to do this in the background. And we actually got very lucky in that we got connected with a local angel investor. His name is here in Sacramento area. His name is Roger Akers. And he was really, really instrumental in identifying pathways to get these pieces done. He was careful with us, of course, because, you know, he had to see that we had grit and that we had the right knowledge and that we knew the problem and we knew the market and we knew how to solve the problem. It took a year between the time that we started working with him and the time we went to market. So I guess it wasn’t slow. But as a founder, everything feels too slow, right? Because you want to do it now. So when he started working with us, it was January, right before the pandemic, January 2020. We were pitching in the Bay Area and then, of course, COVID hit, and that ended our ability to fundraise and pitch. But we had met Roger during that process and actually Ken knew Roger from several years prior. Ken, do you want to jump in and just talk?

Ken Knecht: I consulted for many years in the Sacramento area, and I met Roger through a few of my acquaintances here and his work with other businesses. He had done some phenomenal work and when Kate and I started fleshing this idea out, I knew that Roger was one of the guys I wanted to reach out to to get his feedback and advice. I did, and I’m so lucky that we did it because he’s been instrumental in getting us to the point where at.

Kate Cordell: Yes, so to answer to your question, we were able to pull together a team in January and in May we began negotiating a contract with the technology team because we knew exactly what we wanted. I had written out the very detailed design specification more than a hundred fifty pages. We knew exactly what it was and we had prototyped it out. Ken’s excellent at creating virtual high fidelity mockups that really make the products look real. And so because we had all of that together, we were able to partner with a technology company that invested in us as well and was able to begin working on that in May of 2020. We actually met the technology partner at one of the pitches in the Bay Area. Like I said, they invested in us because we had laid out exactly what we wanted. We broke ground on develop beginning the development in May of 2020, and we had a beta in October first and we delivered to market December 1st of 2020.

Rodney Hu: Nice. Just making moves. Continually taking action. Absolutely. And there’s so many things to focus on. And like you said, you bootstrapped, kind of started with a small team. But how do you know with all these things that you need to handle, like what to prioritize and how do you go about managing the time and priorities, really?

Kate Cordell: Well, sleep comes last.

Ken Knecht: Yeah, we haven’t slept a lot in the last few years, but you know, it’s fine, we’re super passionate about what we do. And that’s one of the things that really drew me into this project with Kate, how passionate she is about about mental health and solving some of the issues here because it is such a big problem. And I was on board from day one. I just saw how much of a need there was, so much passion that Kate had and we we set out to do this thing and do it right.

Kate Cordell: So like in the beginning, you know, in January, my milestone was to have to be in-market by August. If I’m going to be honest with you, we didn’t meet that milestone, but maybe I was being a little ambitious and but we were able to, you know, we didn’t break ground, told me on development. So we missed them also. But we were still always driving at that milestone. And then it was to have our first customer. A beta customer was the next milestone. We had our beta customer engaged and signed in August who began using the system in October. We actually already had an alpha customer who had engaged somebody on the idea and had built some of the A.I. on my own and implemented the A.I. in their environment rather than in ours, so they could use and test out what we were building. So I had an alpha customer before we even started development. I got the beta customer in August. They began using it in October, and so then they became our first customer in December. And then it was about getting, you know, getting to five customers, getting to several customers. And so we did that. We met that milestone in March of this this year, and now it’s about getting a big fish. Our current milestone is catching the whale. So we’ve got our proof of concept, we have a working product, it is solving problems. We’re working on creating case studies to show how it’s saving money and helping people in care. And through that we are we are trying to solve larger and larger problems across the system.

Rodney Hu: It’s interesting to listen to kind of how you break it down. You mentioned having milestones and due dates, and even though you didn’t hit every milestone on the exact due date. Just having those in place, having those goals to kind of steer you in the right direction and helps keep you on pace, you know, and have the Congress is better than perfection? Yeah, for sure.

Rodney Hu: I mean, this can be towards either one of you guys, but how do you know what sort of tasks you can do yourself? And when should you delegate stuff? Kind of how do you get to that point where like, if you have a technology background, do you sit there and try to do as much of the tech that you can? Or should you delegate that from the beginning because you have higher level responsibilities to?

Ken Knecht: That’s that’s a great question, Rodney. And it’s tough because, you know, as a founder, it’s so you’re so close to it and want to do everything inherently. You want to just you want to solve every problem. But you know, at some point you’ve got to get to cut the cord and let somebody else take some responsibility. It’s really hard to find good people, and we’ve been super fortunate to have a great community of people here that we’ve been able to hire really smart staff that we feel comfortable with and we’re able to to give them tasks and responsibilities and feel that they’re going to take that and run with it and do the right thing, and that we can focus on some of the other tasks to run the business.

Kate Cordell: I forgot about one of the most important milestones and that was raising seed funding, so we did have a milestone to raise seed funding and we were our goal was for January of 2021 and we closed in May. But fundraising is a never ending process. Oh my goodness, it is so much work. But we did close a raise of two million in May and have been able to hire and had hired in anticipation of that close. And we had the angel investors already providing us on convertible notes prior to the close of that. So we were able to hire ahead of the close and get the team on. But I’d also say that we are all about processes. I mean, process, process, process. Everything has to be repeatable. We don’t want any one offs, right? So everything we do follows a process that somebody creates. And so because we’re involved in giving feedback on that process, it’s so much easier to let go because you know what’s going on, you know what the process is. If something doesn’t work out, you know, step one, step two, we talked about step three and there were some limitations and step three is that where it broke down? And so we have the ability to communicate because we all understand what the processes are. So we have processes for everything.

Rodney Hu: That reminds me of the movie, The Founder I recently watched that he was like, it’s not just selling a burger, like it’s an actual system is step by step process to getting that burger. And that’s the real value. Yeah, OK. It’s interesting. So you kind of talked about some milestones that you guys hit, but obviously entrepreneurship and starting a company is not always easy. There’s some ups and downs. So can you kind of speak to any obstacles or any moments of adversity that kind of stick out to you in so far in your journey?

Ken Knecht: I would say early on in the fundraising efforts we had, you know, there were several opportunities that we had with with venture capital firms and we had to pass a few rounds because we weren’t comfortable and did feel like we had the right partners. So those are definitely some challenges. We were fortunate again to be working with Roger, who has a great network of people, and he was able to introduce us to so many great angel investors. And because of that, we now have, you know, a group of angel investors that have so much knowledge in the space specific to what we’re doing that we’re able to pull information from them to help us not make the mistakes that maybe they made or have seen other companies make that they were invested in.

Kate Cordell: OK, and I also have to just pull this card out and just say, you know, as being a female founder in tech, there are occasions where I’ll be in a meeting and you know, I’m a data scientist. I’m very technical. You know, I code. But well, we will have meetings with some folks who just won’t listen to me or won’t believe me. And they will say, you didn’t make this, you didn’t do this. This wasn’t you. And so there are times where we just need to pass on the conversation and on the partnership with folks because we can’t get over that hurdle.

Rodney Hu: And so the team, like the people that you’re in contact with, is just as important as the technology and working with.

Kate Cordell: If you think about it, they’ve got to believe in us and that includes, you know, believing in the founders as well.

Rodney Hu: Yeah, for sure. And so I feel like you guys understand the problem. You have the experience and even have the network in the audience, really. But how are you guys going about getting your message out to your target audience, the people that you know you can help? How are you bringing awareness, what you’re doing?

Kate Cordell: Oh my goodness, we spent all week on that. Go ahead Ken. Well, it was this thing I’m so excited about.

Ken Knecht: We’re working on a ton of videos right now just to kind of explain the story. The problem we’re solving is complex. So telling the story of how we’re solving it can be a little complex. So we’re creating a bunch of different materials to help explain what we’re doing. So we are currently working on videos, a lot of visuals, a lot of images, you know, image maps and infographics. It’s really kind of visually explanation of what it is we’re doing and how we are acting as kind of the glue between organizations in the systems of care.

Kate Cordell: Yeah, I have to say that Ken will take my chicken scratches and turn them into pieces of art. So it’s the way we built the software as well. I will draw a formula diagram on a piece of paper with stick figures and start drawing lines between them and hand them to him, and he turns them into like, amazing software designs or workflows or media. And so we’re doing the same process here now with putting together our material to communicate to the public. I keep a stack of printer paper on my desk and now and then I draw stick figures on it and hand it to Ken. We’ll have to share with you what he creates because it’s pretty amazing what he can do.

Ken Knecht: It’s not always easy. I’m not always happy to get his stick figures.

Kate Cordell: He complains a lot, but I just say what you’re going to end up with is going to be great. So just keep your complaining and keep working. Keep going.

Ken Knecht: Yeah, definitely. Also, that’s why we work together so well. You know, Kate is able to to think of these brilliant things that we want to accomplish and with her stick figures I am able to take it in and do my thing and be the creative end of that. And it’s really worked out well and it continues to work well. I mean, we built the software on that same working model. We actually began our first couple of years of pitches going around showing our high fidelity mocks that you couldn’t tell if it was just pictures or real software. So our roadshow basically consisted of of high fidelity mockups for the first few years and then we got the software built. But we’ve always kind of work that way, and that’s the beauty of the relationship.

Rodney Hu: That’s awesome. And it’s crazy because I like to study like other entrepreneurs and kind of see how do they get so much things done and how they’re so productive in one person I was studying was Elon Musk because I was like, man, he has all these different companies and he was like, he only does like a little bit of the thinking, but he has another person on the side who actually takes all of his ideas and runs with it and plans it out and all that. And so he’s like the visionary. So that sounds kind of what you two do. When you’re just like drawing stick figures and doodles and Ken’s over here, turning it into reality. And so, yeah, we see the value of having that sort of relationship and partnership in which you guys are building. So I’m pretty awesome.

Kate Cordell: Yeah. Ken’s playing the role of the CMO and the operations officer right now as well.

Rodney Hu: So, yeah, I mean, one more question I got. The guys can answer like, what sort of advice would you have for other founders, other entrepreneurs looking to kind of start their own company and tackle the problem, especially in the health care industry?

Ken Knecht: The biggest thing for me, I would just say is networking. It’s really about meeting people, getting your name in front as many people as possible because, you know, down the line, somebody may not give you the the attention upfront. But, you know, six months from now, they may remember you and see that you’ve hit a few milestones and come back and want to do some work with you and give you some advice. So it’s really about meeting the right people and building your network. I can’t stress that enough.

Kate Cordell: Yeah, and and I would also have to say, grit, you’ve got to really believe you have to have a mission of passion, I think, in health tech. Most people do. I think in other tech, you know, people are just like I was at Berkeley when I was getting my Ph.D., I was in, you know, I was in some computer science classes and there were folks there that just were looking to make an app. They didn’t care what it did as long as it would sell, right? I think if you’re not passionate about the mission of what the app is doing then you’re just building an app to make money, to be another app builder or another, you know, software tech. You have to believe passionately about the problem you’re trying to solve. And then you have to be able to communicate that mission not only to yourself but to your team and help them become passionate about it. So I would say that’s my advice is get your mission down and make sure that you are so passionate about that because if you’re not passionate about it, you’re going to have a hard time leading a team to work all night to be passionate about it.

Rodney Hu: Awesome. I think that’s a great piece of advice. Kind of a perfect way to end the main segment of the podcast, but I like to end each episode on a little lighter note. We’ve been coversing a lot of topics, so I got something for you guys called the rapid fire round. So I’m just going to ask a set of questions and you guys give me whatever answer you come up with. OK? Kate, you can answer first. Question number one, what is your favorite book of all time?

Kate Cordell: I think it has to be I know this much is true. It’s about a couple of twin brothers where one had schizophrenia and one did not. And it really goes through, you know, the experiences of guilt of the one that doesn’t as well as the experience of the one that does. And yeah, I think that it helps inspire me.

Ken Knecht: And for me, it’d be A Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. Definitely very inspirational for me when I was when I was growing up.

Rodney Hu: Awesome. Number two, Who’s the most influential person in your life or career?

Kate Cordell: I’d have to say right now it’s probably Roger Akers. As we discussed, he’s been the most influential in terms of our growth. One thing I learned is you cannot open your own doors no matter what you do. You can pound on that door and kick on that door and lean on that door. But there’s just a time where somebody else needs to open that door for you and make those introductions. And it just it goes so much smoother. So Roger’s opened a lot of doors for us. He’s been extremely influential. I don’t know if we would be here without him.

Ken Knecht: I can tell you we wouldn’t be here without him. He’s been that influential. So he’s on my list, too. I would also add Kate is as a person.

Rodney Hu: Number three, what is one goal you want to accomplish this year?

Kate Cordell: Oh boy. What’s our next milestone? You know, I already talked about definitely wanting to do a system of care across agency implementation. But yeah, I think that would be that would be my goal is to really coordinate care across the system and be able to demonstrate that with real data.

Ken Knecht: I think my goal is, as a marketing guy, I want to have more people know our name. I want us to be in the mix when people are having conversations about solving this problem. I want our name to be in that conversation. That’s big for me.

Rodney Hu: Awesome. And then last but not least, what is one piece of advice you would give to your 20 year old self?

Kate Cordell: OK. So to my 20 year old self, I think I would say. Believe in yourself, I think. I think when I was younger, I think I always had so much energy and passion, and I don’t know that in the the people that I was surrounded by had that level of energy and passion, and maybe didn’t appreciate it. And so it always made me feel like what’s wrong with me? I would have said, like, you know, if you don’t feel like you fit in because you have all this energy and passion, find other people who have share your energy and passion instead of trying to fit in in in with the crowd that you know. It’s not you, it’s it’s the crowd you’re around. So I think when I was younger, I just tried to fit in and now and now I don’t. Now I just surround myself with people who are more like me.

Rodney Hu: Nice.

Ken Knecht: And for me, it’s it’s definitely do what you love. What makes you want to get out of bed every day? You got to do what you’re passionate about and do what you love. I mean, you may not, you know, a lot of people will take jobs just because they they maybe don’t have faith in their ability to go out and hustle and do it themselves. But don’t lose that faith. Just keep hustling and it will work out. You got to make sure that you, you follow a path that you’re passionate about.

Rodney Hu: Absolutely awesome. I think that’s the perfect way to end today’s episode. Excellent piece of advice. Hustle. You know the theme around the whole podcast HealthTech Hustle. So before we go, the where can people connect with you? Where can they learn more about you? Learn more about Opeeka?

Ken Knecht: Yeah, definitely. You can visit us on our website at opeeka.com.

Rodney Hu: Awesome, and I’ll be sure to include those resources in those links in the resources section, but with that being said, Kate, Ken, I just want to thank you guys again for jumping on and sharing your story, sharing your journey and how you guys are going about tackling the mental health problem in the health care space? Thank you.

Ken Knecht: Thank you, Randy. Appreciate it.

Rodney Hu: All right. Catch you guys on the next one.