An interview with BME Alum and Orthocare CEO, Teri Chou, Ph.D.

Teri Chou, Ph.D. discusses how the Biomedical Engineering program at the University of Utah helped shape her present-day role as CEO of Modus Health, recommendations for current students, her future, and more.

 

How did your Biomedical Engineering education and research at the University of Utah impact your vision for your career?

During my Biomedical Engineering thesis work at the University of Utah, I saw how bone loss around a hip implant was minimized in patients with higher activity levels1. It was interesting to see how important walking is to our bodies. This finding and other experiences led me to seek a career in helping people maintain or improve their ability to move. I learned that I preferred applying science and engineering to improve people’s lives rather than contributing to basic science discovery.

In my subsequent postdoctoral research experience at the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Hospital, I had my first experience with wearables to measure walking2. I found the strengths and limitations of both StepWatch and ActiGraph products at that time. I asked about employment at both companies following my postdoc. ActiGraph said no, and StepWatch said yes (eventually)! I was the first research scientist for the company that owned StepWatch in 2008 (Orthocare Innovations). Now, I am CEO of the company with StepWatch (Modus Health LLC) and still use data from my postdoc to confirm that the algorithm in StepWatch has remained equivalent with each new model.

Describe your career and daily work areas: are these what you had anticipated leaving Utah with your PhD?

I did not anticipate becoming CEO when I was hired as a research scientist in 2008 at Orthocare Innovations. It is an unusual story since I am not the original founder at Modus Health. I became close to the founders of Orthocare, David Boone and Kim Coleman. David is my friend and active board member. Kim was a mentor and close friend. Kim went on long-term disability in 2011. When Modus Health was spun out of Orthocare Innovations in 2013 to focus solely on StepWatch, I felt she was entrusting StepWatch to me even though I was joining as Director of Clinical Research, not as an executive. Kim passed away Feb. 3, 2015. I have a tribute to her on my company’s website: https://modushealth.com/about-modus/#kim.

In May 2016, I received the news that the board voted to shutdown Modus Health. I could stay as the only employee to keep things going if I chose to work for 60% of my salary. All phone extensions of the previous eight full-time employees rang to my cell phone starting on June 1, 2016. I stayed to prove that there were indeed growing markets for StepWatch. This was the hardest 1.5 years of my life. In September 2016, Dr. Moy (Harvard University) and I were awarded an NIH grant that paid for the prototyping of our first mobile app and cloud application with the first Bluetooth-enabled StepWatch. This halted the Modus Health shutdown, and I became Chief Scientific Officer. In October 2017, I earned our first clinical trial contract with Pfizer. Earning the Pfizer contract provided the evidence my board and an angel investor needed for a funding round. In December 2017, I became CEO and hired my first employee. We became cash-flow positive in 2020. We now have two StepWatch models (StepWatch 4 and 5) and software designed for clinical care, clinical trials, and academic research.

My work primarily involves earning new contracts and determining what Modus will accomplish with our budget and time. I also provide quality testing, customer support, cash flow analysis, and determine product requirements. My different roles have given me an in-depth understanding of our product, resulting in better decisions on what we do and do not do.

 

What recommendations do you have for BME students regarding their coursework, research, presentations, or any other assets for their future employment?

For future employment, identify your interests and begin getting to know the people that could hire you or recommend you for the career you have in mind. This can take years so it is good to start early. I targeted Orthocare Innovations for potential employment in 2007 following my work in wearables. I invited the founders to hear me present at conferences. I invited myself to Orthocare when I was in the area and turned it into an interview. However, they did not yet have room in the budget for a research scientist so I became a study coordinator at the University of Utah Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department for about seven months following my postdoc until job offers that utilized my education came to me. If you start networking sooner, you may not have to wait as long as me to find your career path.

 

What do you value in the best quality people who work with/for you?

I value people who are not afraid of figuring out how to do something they do not know how to do. As a startup, you must constantly learn new skills and do tasks you have never done before. It is a huge help when people on the team contribute to developing the process and protocols for achieving objectives. I believe that people who have received their doctorate with the BME department understand this skill well.

 

What do you enjoy in your leisure time?

I enjoy jogging outdoors because it keeps me healthy, and I can think without other distractions. On weekends, we spend time as a family either watching a show or playing a board game. We also love traveling to see different countries and cultures. Following my postdoc, I had planned to take a year off to travel the world, but I fell in love with my husband Kevin and that travel money became a down payment on our first house. As a compromise, we vowed to travel as a family, and we have kept that promise. One of our favorite trips was traveling to Jordan and visiting Petra and the Wadi Rum desert.

 

What do the next 10 years of your career look like to you?

I think within the next 10 years I will have achieved my goal for StepWatch being used in routine clinical care to measure walking in patients around the world. I look forward to expanding StepWatch for use in clinical care in the United States, Europe, and Australia and entering the Asian market. I will have achieved this goal by either scaling Modus Health or by exiting Modus Health to another company that shares this vision.

After Modus Health, I hope to use the skills I have learned to help other startups achieve their goals either as a board member, consultant, or executive team member. I enjoy the thrill of helping new products find their place in helping the world in some big or small way.