Investigator Turned Entrepreneur: How One Researcher Did It

David Beiser, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, translated his research from benchside to smartphones with an app that’s now used by everyone from individuals to pharmaceutical companies to university studies, and he said that several University of Chicago resources helped him on his journey to entrepreneurship.

It all started in 2007 when the University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) honored Beiser with a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Career (KL2) Development Award in 2007 to improve patient outcomes following cardiac arrest, less than 20 percent of these patients survive. The ITM administers the Paul Calabresi, Lung Omics, and Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) K Award programs at UChicago, and since 2007 the ITM has awarded more than $4.3 million to more than 40 junior investigators like Beiser who received salary support, protected time to explore the research of their choice, and special mentoring and training opportunities.

The KL2 program helped Beiser secure an NIH K08 award one year later for $600,000 over five years.

After his mentor left the university, Beiser broadened his focus to leverage his research, programming, and big data skills to apply his scientific findings in new ways to improve people’s health.

In 2012 he joined the D4Lab run by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the ITM, and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Institute of Design to teach scientists to apply human-centered design to problems in clinical medicine. Here Beiser met Kevin O’Leary, a student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who became a co-founder of Qualia.

“Scientists often think they’re being cosmopolitan if a cell biologist and a chemist are collaborating,” Beiser said. “But it’s very different if you’re working with a physician, a computer scientist and a business guy. Those three perspectives are very different. I really enjoyed working in a multifunctional team of high performers.”

They submitted their business proposal to Booth’s Annual Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge, the top business accelerator program in the country, and received invaluable feedback from venture capitalists and industry experts.

Beiser and his team also joined TechStars, an intense three-month program in New York City where they interviewed more than 200 venture capitalists and customers to finesse their business model. Then they came home to the Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE) and went through the Polsky Center I-Corps Program run in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help scientists test the commercial potential of their research or idea.

Through the I-Corps, Beiser and his collaborators clarified their business offering and talked to customers about what they wanted out of Qualia.

And then Qualia’s team learned something that brought them up short.

“People weren’t willing to pay for it,” Beiser said. “It really forced us to look in the mirror and say ‘Ok, this is a problem.’”

After months of development, multiple apps, clinical trials, and positive feedback, their hospital customers didn’t want to pay to use Qualia. Three months after that bombshell, Beiser and his colleagues put Qualia on ice. They broke the news to their investors and laid off their team.

“And the moment we did that,” Beiser said, “we found a paying customer.”

The pharmaceutical industry was very interested in monitoring patients’ health and well-being, Beiser said, because of the importance in identifying side effects as early as possible in drug development. Qualia provided a great way to monitor adverse events during clinical trials and do post-market surveillance on drugs.

“We hit a wall, pivoted, and now Qualia lives on,” Beiser said.

Interested in translating your research into a business application that can improve health care? Click here to connect with an ITM navigator who can walk you through the steps and special programming opportunities that David Beiser used.

David Beiser RDP

David G. Beiser, MD. Photo by: Renée de Pooter/UChicago ITM


The average person spends almost three hours each day on mobile devices like smartphones and the apps that come with them, market data shows. That’s equal to the total amount of time we spend on desktops and laptops and other mobile devices combined. After all that time that you invest in your phone, what if it cared about how you felt and scientifically evaluated your health? What if it could help you feel better?

There’s now an app for that being leveraged by everyone from pharmaceutical companies to University of Chicago researchers to Stanford University, thanks to David Beiser, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine.

“We divulge all sorts of secrets to our phone,” said Beiser, a University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) investigator. “Why don’t we leverage that relationship for health?”

Beiser and his team developed a free app called Qualia Health that measures all the aspects of well-being that affect how we feel, but that can’t be measured with a simple blood test or an X-ray.

Like a Fitbit or a Jawbone, Qualia can measure how far you travelled and how fast you did it. You can tell Qualia how much you weigh and what you had for breakfast.

But that’s just the beginning.

Qualia asks you questions about your mental health, your anxiety, your social connectedness and your satisfaction with your relationships. And Qualia is smart: It uses an adaptive algorithm to choose the next question from a huge database based on the answers you’ve already given. This allows Qualia to gather more information with five questions than an old-fashioned questionnaire can get in thirty.

In return for all this information, Qualia gives you a number called a Q-score, a scientific metric of health. Then Qualia does something else other health trackers can’t do – it tells you how your Q-score compares to everybody else, giving you an idea of where you fall on the happiness continuum of a healthy population.

“This app is great,” said freakflag333 in an iTunes review. “The tone of it is so loving and supportive. It makes you notice your own mental health weaknesses and vulnerabilities and so empowers you to make changes. I love it.”

Qualia may soon be able to give personalized suggestions to help make you healthier. Using the phone’s GPS and floor plans, it could find you a flight of stairs to take instead of the elevator. In a new town, it might find you a gym, or a healthier dinner option, or suggest it’s time to give your mom a call.

“Right now, our data is being leveraged by corporations to sell us things,” said Beiser. “It’s a step in the right direction to let our data be used to keep us healthy.”

The idea for Qualia was born out of survival years ago after Beiser’s mentor unexpectedly left UChicago.

“I had my ‘oh crap’ moment,” Beiser said. “I was trying to do Big Science, and I had a tiny little lab and not that much funding.”

He realized that he had a skill set few others in his field had, and applied it to bolster his research and make it translational.

“I have this advantage: I know how to program,” said Beiser, who has graduate-level experience in computation and big data sets.

Going to conferences in that frame of mind, Beiser said he noticed an interesting trend.

“I saw this confluence of mobile computing, large data sets being made available, and health reform,” Beiser said. “Our phones are almost always with us, so I saw a huge opportunity to measure patients’ health in ways doctors can’t. We’re working to translate that data into personalized suggestions to patients on ways they can improve their health.”

One of the first Qualia clinical trial applications in collaboration with Kathleen Grady, MD, Professor of Cardiac Surgery at Northwestern University recently ended, where the team used Qualia to track the well-being of heart failure patients with a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) implanted inside of them to keep their hearts beating.

LVADs are expensive, and there are mental and social costs as well that might be lessened if patients’ doctors or family knew that they were growing more anxious or felt socially isolated. In the study Qualia asked for daily check-ins and gleaned information about weight, activity level, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and pain. Beiser and his colleagues were interested in how well Qualia’s Q-score matched with patients’ own perceptions of their ups and downs. Anecdotally, the patients said that Qualia reflected their good days and their bad days, with one patient’s scores foreshadowing rising anxiety levels that eventually required medical intervention.

Beiser has submitted an R01 application with Grady, and future studies are in the works at Stanford (with LVAD patients), Northwestern, and UChicago (with Hypertension patients).

In the future Qualia may be able to send important daily reports to a patient’s health care provider, but Beiser said it will always hand the information back to the patient to allow them to better self-manage their conditions.

“The promise of Qualia is that we could follow your health and use that information to help understand what makes you feel better or worse,” Beiser said.

Got an iPhone? Try Qualia for yourself, and see how your physical, social and mental state compares to the average American. Click here to find out where you stand.

Want to get involved? Reach David Beiser at

The ITM is accepting applications for the Career (K) Development Awards that help kick-start the work of investigators like Beiser. Click here to learn more and apply.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources KL2RR025000. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

By Renee de Pooter. Edited by Sara Serritella/UChicago ITM
Copyright © 2015 University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM). All Rights Reserved.