Interview with Janelle Molloy08.03.2022
A conversation with Janelle Molloy, Founder and CEO of Wild Dog Physics and former Director of Medical Physics in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Kentucky.
Tell us about your scientific background.
I earned my PhD in physics from the University of Virginia (UVA). My advisor specialized in magnetic manipulation of objects. A neurosurgeon approached him and asked if they could find a way to pull a magnetic bearing ball (BB) around the brain, heat it up, and destroy brain tumors. It was a great project to work on.
After my PhD, I was at a crossroads. Did I want to write grants and do research? Luckily, a clinical medical physicist position opened up at UVA. This was back in the day when you could get on-the-job training. The pay was better than a research position, and it was a secure position. So, I was an academic clinical medical physicist for thirty years and worked up the ranks at UVA. I needed some personal and professional growth, so I went to the Mayo Clinic up in Rochester. I was there for three years, but I missed being located more south.
A Director of Medical Physics job at UKY opened up. UKY has one of the longest standing graduate programs in Medical Physics, and they were looking for a director. I sent my letter to the department chair who was running the recruitment process. He called me within five minutes of sending the email, and we had this great conversation. I had a plane ticket by that afternoon. The rest was history. That was exactly the right job for me, and I was the right person for them at the time. There was a lot of work that needed to be done to refresh the graduate programs and give them a new direction. My whole tenure there was developing a graduate program within the context of the clinic while also acting as the Clinical Director of Medical Physics.
Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey.
I did not know whether this company was going to be able to fly. One thing that I was sure of, however, was that if I did not quit my university position, the company would never take off. I knew I could not do both.
By nature, I like to invent things. I had this idea for an invention – a new quality assurance (QA) device for radiation therapy. We are solving a problem that I am painfully aware of from working in the field for thirty years. I was trying to start the company and work on the project while I was still at the university, but I had a very demanding job. I did not know whether this company was going to be able to fly. One thing that I was sure of, however, was that if I did not quit my university position, the company would never take off. I knew I could not do both. I had been in my job for a while, I had achieved tenure, and I was a full professor and director of a program. I had nothing else to prove. At that point, I could have coasted. But I needed a new challenge; a person needs to grow. I am older than a lot of entrepreneurs that are just starting. My daughter was getting ready to go into high school at that time, and I had saved up a fair amount of money. I quit the university back in July 2020.
What is the problem you are trying to address with your startup?
When patients get cancer, often they are treated with radiation. Most radiation is delivered using these huge machines called linear accelerators. These machines deliver incredibly precise but lethal doses of radiation. So, we need to make sure that the exact right amount of radiation goes into the exact right place to kill the tumor but nothing else. For QA, there is a huge number of measurements that medical physicists take on these accelerators to make sure that they are working properly. It took my staff hours and hours every week and every month to do that QA. Wild Dog Physics is working on a device that basically consolidates about ten other devices and streamlines that process. It takes something that is so inefficient and complicated that a medical physicist has to do it to now being something that is very quick that can happen during the morning QA that the therapist may do. Why is that important? Obviously, it is more efficient. But medical physicists are in short supply, and we are pretty expensive. It can be difficult for centers in remote locations to provide radiation therapy since they cannot get a full-time medical physicist or any medical physicist to go out there.
What we are hoping is that the technology will enable radiation therapy to be delivered in locations that otherwise would not be able to do it, particularly in rural areas like Central and Eastern Kentucky. Some of our patients at UKY had to drive two hours each way every day for up to eight weeks to get their cancer therapy. If they could get those advance therapies in their own communities, that would be a huge improvement for their quality of life. We are hoping one of the positive benefits of our technology is to enable advanced radiation therapy in remote and low resource settings.
What has been the biggest difference between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? What was surprising?
The biggest difference is being in charge of my own time. That requires a person to be self-disciplined and self-motivated. I am definitely motivated; I may be a little less self-disciplined than I thought I would be. How much I get done in any given day is up to me. When there is a deadline or if I am inspired, I can just work like crazy. Then I need a break, so my mind can process. There is a lot more autonomy and room for creativity than in academia. But you must be a lot more self-disciplined.
Have there been any techniques that you have learned to help with self-discipline?
Pre-COVID, I always enjoyed days where I could stay at home and work. But as some of us have learned during COVID, after a while, you lose your sense of focus if you never have someplace else to go or people to interact with. My daughter’s high school is right across the street from our office and lab downtown. When she is in school, we have a schedule. If she is off for a week, I tend not to come in as much. It can be hard for anyone to get up and get started, but you need to get up, take a shower, and come to the office.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
UKY has an office of technology commercialization that has been absolutely outstanding. They have some of the most outstanding mentors anyone could ask for. There are too many names to list, but they have provided excellent advice, moral support, and technical assistance in every area – patents, finance, marketing, branding, and manufacturing. They have a stellar program.
What differences have you noticed in your experience as an entrepreneur versus those of your male colleagues?
Really, I try not to focus on differences. Everyone has their strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. I want people to think of me as an entrepreneur, not as a female entrepreneur. For every situation where I am disadvantaged for being female, there is another situation where I have been given an edge for the same. There are a lot of people cheering for female physicists, because they want us to prove we can do it. We are seldom just taken at face value; you are always carrying the banner for women everywhere. I just want to be an entrepreneur.
What life hacks had you put into place to allow you to pursue entrepreneurship?
I said I do not like to notice differences between the genders, but everyone knows women carry more than our fair share of the household chores. Women have way more to do than time to do it in any given day. You prioritize to get it all done. After my daughter was born, I was looking for ways to create some extra time, so I start evaluating if I needed to do a task. There were all these little things that I did not need to be doing. I realized that not all articles of clothing need to be folded, so for some clothes, everything just goes into the drawer in a wad. I don’t balance my checkbook anymore; I go online and make sure that I am not going to bounce anything. One of the great things about being from UKY, I was able to pursue my company while working at the university at the same time, because a lot of what I was doing was research. But eventually, I had to quit. Maybe the biggest hack is deciding whether you want to cut the cord and be with your company full-time, or do you want to continue being in academia. You need to know where you fit on that spectrum.
What helped you make that decision to cut the cord?
Several things converged all at the right time. I had been working steadily and had saved up some money over my career. Also, I am a single mom, and my daughter was going to be graduating from middle school. I could have stayed at UKY for another four years and retired, but she would have been in her junior year of high school and getting ready to go off to college. This was my last opportunity to spend more time with her. I had done everything professionally that I wanted to do at UKY, and the folks at UKY OTC were just so encouraging. So, I had the opportunity, I had enough money saved up, and there was a good reason for leaving. I am still young enough to have time to switch careers and try something new. In four years, that wouldn’t be true anymore. So, it was now or never. I took the plunge.
What was the best advice that you received? And to counter that, did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female academic entrepreneur?
You are going to get advice from everybody. People are going to give their opinions. The best advice was that “it is your company, and you know what you need to do”. That can be really hard. Sometimes you will get completely opposite advice from people you really trust. But it is your company, and you do what you know that you need to do.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Maybe it is that we do not see a lot of people who look like us pursuing entrepreneurship. If you don’t see someone that looks like you, it would not even occur to you as an option. What do you think of when you think of an entrepreneur? You think of two guys who were best friends in college that work out of their mom’s garage that get $50 million in VC funding.
Where is your company in the fundraising process?
I am in the SBIR phase right now, but I am starting to pursue venture or angel investment. I think I would rather get a little further along with SBIR non-dilutive funding first, because we will not have to give up equity for the same amount of money. So, it has all been SBIR funding so far.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your experiences? What advice would you give a current female academic trying to commercialize their technology?
If you think you want to do it, go for it. This is true for life in general. I have had a number of major shifts in my career, and there was a lot of risk involved. If someone is thinking about being an entrepreneur, you have to assess your own risk-aversion. Everyone has a fear of the unknown, but you need to have self-confidence that you will be able to figure it out. When I was back at UVA, I shifted my career from mostly clinical work to performing more research. I received a startup grant that brought me out of my clinical time. But I was worried if I could not get more grants if they would take me back in the clinic.
I went and talked to my department administrator, and she did not guarantee that I could return full- time to the clinic. You get so scared about these things, but then I looked at failure. What was the worst that could happen? The grant was only covering half of my salary, so I would not have half of that salary. But I made enough money, and I did not have any kids at that time, so I could work part-time. Then I would only have to work part-time and still have enough money. As I started looking at failure, failure was looking pretty good. It was similar with going to the company full-time. What would happen if I cannot get the next grant, or if this company fails? I would figure it out; I would do something else. If I have a gap in my funding, I will take some time off. Know what your aversion to risk is and look at failure under a microscope. Sometimes, failure looks pretty good.
What haven’t we asked you about that you think is important for women academics to know when delving into being involved in a startup company?
Know yourself. Know what really makes you happy and what drives you. During this whole process, I talked to a few other female academics that have started companies and asked them if they would go and work full time for that company. Some replied that they really like their company, but they love being an academic more. They just love the academic lifestyle. One successful researcher said that she just really likes doing research – she was passionate about learning how things work. I realized that is not me! Oddly enough, given how long I was an academic, I do not have this driving curiosity for how things work. When I can invent something or create something, that is when I will work fourteen hours a day and forget to shower and eat. I am very creative, not in an artistic way, but I need to make things. I am hardwired that way.
One word of caution I would give is that there does seem to be a nationwide push encouraging you to be an entrepreneur. You will hear persistent messages that you will be great, and it is a good idea. Sometimes, it is good to shut that out. Entrepreneurship may or may not be for you. You may be happier in academia, you may prefer to be an entrepreneur, or you may like juggling both. Just make sure you are aware of what drives you professionally and makes you happy.