Yoona Kim envisions a world where innovative technology meets medicine. Working towards universally available digital healthcare, Kim heads the Clinical Modeling and Analytics Department at an influential startup called Proteus Digital Health, a leader in the innovative digital healthcare field. A graduate of Stanford University, Kim started her professional career as a consultant at a healthcare and medicine company. Since then she has worked at pharmaceutical companies and earned a Pharm.D. from the University of California, San Francisco and a Ph.D. in Health Economics Research from the University of Texas, Austin while concurrently being employed full-time.
At Proteus, Kim spearheads the health economic and clinical analytic activities of the company’s pioneering program in Digital Medicine that includes ingestible sensor pills that are paired with a small wearable patch and an app on a mobile device that captures the data. The FDA-cleared ingestible sensor pills, co-encapsulated with medications, provide patients and physicians with the valuable data on patients’ personal medication-taking patterns captured by the ingestible sensors. These granular-sized sensors are designed to better engage patients in their personal healthcare. Through her work at Proteus, Kim aspires to improve the outcomes of patient healthcare by integrating their medicines with digital technology.
Q: How did you start your career story?
A: In college, I identified my interest in healthcare. I’ve always been interested in the world of health, even in high school. Maybe that’s because my mom was a public health nurse. I think the interest was furthered in college because I enjoyed the science type of courses and I did developmental biology research which I thought was really interesting. I didn’t know what I wanted to do within the field of healthcare which is why I took the route of healthcare consulting post-college because that’s generally what people do when they don’t quite know.
Q: What motivates you in your career and life?
A: I think it’s helping patients, and finding better ways to deliver healthcare that’s more effective and more efficient.
Q: What do you do at Proteus?
A: My job is to articulate the value of our technology to external audiences and work with our customers. We get the data and see whether we are able to improve clinical and economic outcomes in patients. And then the other part of my job is to draw meaningful insights from the data itself. I’m in the very early stages of just developing algorithms that can automatically detect insights about our data and new predictive models that will guide the optimal use of our product.
Q: In your time at Stanford you received a Firestone Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, were you always interested in research and where did the interest take you in terms of your current career?
A: What the research project did for me, just in general, is that it really taught me how to ask questions and how to go about answering them. It also helped me develop the discipline of completing a project from start to finish, from the early research question to hypothesis development, and all the way through to an actual publication. So I think that entire process taught me what it’s like to complete a project end-to-end in a way that it passes scientific muster by an external audience.
Q: Looking back, were there things you did in your childhood that indicated you would thrive in this career? Is there a constant character trait that has informed your education and work experience?
A: I think it was discipline. I was trained to be a musician, specifically violin from an early age. I had to learn how to carve out time to practice and be involved in orchestra, violin lessons and chamber music. This taught me how to set a schedule each day so I would have time to do my schoolwork, other extracurricular activities and violin.
Q: How do you see your current work at Proteus, with innovations like ingestible sensor pills, in terms of global healthcare practices and your own projected career path? Could you tell me about how you see Proteus and your current work in terms of global healthcare practices and your own projected career path?
A: So the vision of Proteus is healthcare for everyone everywhere, with Digital Medicine as one of the ways that vision will be realized. I do believe this is definitely coming. I think it will take many years for the world to get there, but the ability to give patients feedback on the medications they’re taking and how they’re doing at home is a very important one. Digital health tools will, like I said, continue to rise in use and continue to advance. What I like about Proteus is that it’s addressing the lowest friction interaction that you have: taking your medications every day, and creating a digital experience that reminds and tracks that activity. We’re not telling them to do something that they don’t already do. Simply the medication now has a sensor inside and that allows patients to see: Okay - for today I took my med, or I forgot to take it this morning so I’d better take it now. Proteus has the lowest friction interaction that’s such an important, what I call a “digital biomarker”, that indicates whether or not a patient takes their medications and when. Medications can be very effective, but only if a patient takes them.
The WHO (World Health Organization) reported that only 50% of patients take their medications as prescribed. At Proteus we believe that if we can just get patients to take their medications correctly, and then give physicians the ability to see what’s going on with the patient at home so they can make very targeted treatment decisions, then patient outcomes can be improved. In my work, I have been able to help prove out that this theory is true. I’m really excited and passionate about Proteus, which is why I’m here. In terms of my own career, I’m not sure what my next step will be, but I know that I enjoy being on the innovation side. I used to work at pharmaceutical companies, but there’s a very set path for FDA approval and commercialization. In contrast, Proteus is the first company to make ingestible sensors in the world, so the regulatory and commercialization paths are different and require a lot of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. What I know is that whatever I do next, I want to remain on the edge of innovation and stay within the startup world.
Q: What are some of the vital lessons you have learned throughout your career and work in general, both life and professional lessons?
A: One of the lessons that has served me well is being proactive, actually asking for what I want to learn and what I want to do and doing as much as I can on my own. I’ve learned that it works to determine my interest in something, to do background research on it and then go to talk to somebody. Not asking for permission but asking for forgiveness is a motto I’ve had for myself because that means I go ahead and I do things. And if I stumble along the way then I’ll ask for forgiveness later but it’s better to do that than to wait for somebody to tell me what to do, how to do it and for me to be paralyzed until I’m given permission. That’s probably the biggest lesson that I follow now, and yes you will certainly make mistakes along the way, but you just can’t be afraid of that.
Q: Any last words of advice?
Always keep in mind the big picture of why you’re doing what you’re doing. While you will face daily challenges, remember why you enjoy what you’re doing and your personal vision -- this will certainly help you through the snags and onto see the fruition of your hard work.
By Daniel Nguyen