Startup Speculation

Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Joanna Nathan ’11 ratchets open a metal vaginal speculum. “This device has been torturing women for the past 150 years,” she tells a roomful of mostly male angel investors and venture capitalists at the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC). “It’s in serious need of an innovative, patient-centered overhaul.”

Nathan, who earned her MBA from Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business this spring, in addition to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bioengineering from Rice, is CEO of LilySpec, a startup that aims to redefine the metal vaginal speculum. Used in more than 78 million pelvic exams and procedures in the U.S. alone each year, the speculum — known for its cold, uncomfortable, duck-billed design — hasn’t been revamped in more than a century.

The company emerged from a class project Nathan worked on with Christine Luk ’18, Kevin Smith ’19 and Katelin Cherry ’19, who earned their master’s degrees in bioengineering; UTHealth student Danilo Peña was also in this class, the Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship class offered through Rice Business.

In their class at Rice, Nathan and Luk, who’ve worked for medical device companies, wanted to focus on a women’s health issue. The speculum was a good place to start, they thought. So, they created a pitch, interviewed doctors and patients, and designed a prototype. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” Luk says.

Earlier this year, LilySpec was accepted into the H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge Startup Competition, held in part by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — both programs are also part of Rice’s business school. LilySpec made it to the finals, taking home the Audience Choice award. “The experience really helped us hone our story,” Nathan says.

Now, Luk is the LilySpec CTO, and Smith and Cherry work on product development. Named for its gentler blooming mechanism, the silicone and mesh speculum is still in development. The team hopes that in five years’ time, doctors in all major OB-GYN centers in the U.S. will be using LilySpec with their patients.

This spring, the unlikely entrepreneurs impressed the judges at the RBPC, winning best elevator pitch and taking home $28,000 in prize money. LilySpec was Rice’s sole team out of 42 to compete.

Most recently, LilySpec was accepted into OwlSpark, Rice’s startup accelerator. For 12 weeks this summer, Nathan, Luk, Cherry and Peña, who is now LilySpec’s COO, are working side by side with Rice professors, entrepreneurs and alumni to get the company closer to commercialization. “The comfort of women has been discounted for too long,” Nathan says. “We can do better.”

- Deborah Lynn Blumberg