Rust Felix, Co-Founder & CEO of Slope.io, Inc., helps life sciences companies build dynamic, resilient, and patient-centric supply chains for clinical trials of all shapes and sizes. After years spent designing predictive forecasting algorithms to load balance complex global e-commerce supply chains, Rust understands the power of connecting stakeholders and their data to help move clinical research forward. Rust holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in computational fluid dynamics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Slope.io, Inc. is a technology company providing the life sciences industry with the power and convenience of efficient, connected, automated, traceable clinical supply chain oversight and management. Slope helps our clients discover value in their clinical supply chains by reducing the uncertainty, risk, error, cost, and labor associated with moving necessary materials to and from research sites and patients. Our industry-leading Clinical Supply Chain Management (CSCM) ecosystem connects, converts, and organizes massive streams of supply chain data into traceable workflows that increase operational efficiency, protect data integrity, support patient enrollment and retention, and ensure patient adherence in clinical trials around the world.
What prompted you to pursue a career in healthcare/life sciences (HC/LS)? Was there a specific moment in time or influence you can remember? What drives you to work in this space?
Prior to what Slope is today, my brother and I had a company that forecast supply and demand trends for some of the largest e-commerce companies on the planet. Our algorithms leveraged stock-based technical analysis models to accurately predict demand, and would then match this demand with vendors that could manage supply. It wasn’t fulfilling work — we really just helped move plastic and cardboard to consumers around the world.
Back in 2016 we had a family member who worked for a CRO managing several complex oncology studies. Their Research Sites kept running out of necessary clinical supplies to facilitate the enrollment of patients and the completion of follow-up visits. They saw what we were doing at Slope and asked if we could help them solve their clinical supply chain problem. I was incredulous that something like this didn’t already exist, but after a few months of diving deep we realized that the majority of clinical trial supply chains run on emails, spreadsheets, and lots and lots of hope. We knew this was a problem that we could solve, using what we learned in the e-commerce supply chain.
How did you get your training if any to be able to build your company? HC/LS increasingly has interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, while other founders take the plunge and jump straight off the deep end. Which one are you & why?
My brother Michael and I were fortunate to have bootstrapped our prior company. We made almost every mistake possible, but we learned a tremendous amount in the process. We were exceptionally lucky to have a better than basic understanding of how to build a company prior to starting Slope.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background & career thus far? What were you doing before you started running a high potential venture backed startup?
I’m a recovering mechanical engineer, who spent a large part of my early career working in the data center industry. My role as a sales engineer helped me develop a habit that has come in handy as the CEO of Slope — I’ve gotten really good at effectively communicating difficult concepts, relying on narratives to bridge the gap between technical complexity and ultimate value.
What problem is your company solving?
Clinical trial supply chains are exceptionally complex beasts, with a diversity of stakeholders (each with their own incentives), lots of moving parts (drugs, devices, kits, shippers, samples, etc), and change as the only constant. With the current set of ClinOps tools it’s almost impossible to ensure:
Slope solves these challenges by making study patients the center of the clinical supply chain. We achieve real-time, data-driven clinical supply chain visibility by connecting everything and everyone together. It’s a novel concept that’s both site and patient centric at its core.
How did you become motivated to tackle this particular problem?
The supply chain that serves your local gas station is infinitely superior to the supply chains supporting cutting-edge clinical research. This is a travesty! We saw an opportunity to make a massive impact in an industry that desperately needed it, and jumped in feet first. The impact we’re making with Slope is the most important thing that I have done, and will probably do, in my life. Our technology currently supports critical clinical supply chain activities for tens of thousands of patients. Knowing that you have a critical role in moving vital research forward is a tremendous motivator.
Quite simply, what does your company do?
We are effectively the Amazon of clinical research, facilitating the delivery of whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed, wherever it’s needed, efficiently and reliably, day in and day out, while giving trial Sponsors and their CRO partners the power to manage, automate, and oversee the entire process in real-time.
Now in technical language, what are the specifics of what your company does?
Our technology ensures that clinical research sites and patients always have what they need. We do this by mapping the logistical complexity hidden in protocols and lab manuals to Vendors and Suppliers, Research Sites, Patient visit schedules and workflows (drug dosing, sample collection, etc), and labs. Our platform then monitors clinical supply chain shifts using real-time data, load balancing resupply as appropriate to ensure that everyone is always prepared to capture enrollments and conduct follow up visits.
There are three things that make Slope’s Clinical Supply Chain Management (CSCM) solution unique:
Why does your solution matter for the world when you get it right?
There are so many exciting digital health startups doing work to drive patient recruitment, enrollment, and retention from the “front end” of a trial, using tools like machine learning to search through EMRs looking at inclusion and exclusion criteria. But here’s the problem — none of this work matters if you cannot guarantee that the Research Site will always have the drugs, kits, shippers, and other clinical supplies they need to complete study visits.
Over 70% of potential patients live more than 2 hours away from the nearest Research Site. Having to reschedule a patient who traveled all morning to a site because everyone forgot they were out of Screening Kits is inexcusable. There are hundreds of other similar clinical supply chain related issues that happen all of the time — operational inefficiency is a massive, systemic contributor to study delays. Clinical Supply Chain Management (CSCM) platforms like Slope are mission critical to ensuring that everyone is always prepared for patients.
How did you meet your co-founder?
My co-founder is my brother, Michel Felix. I couldn’t have done this without him and his brilliance. His experience as both a former professor of User Experience and Interaction Design and a brilliant coder allows him to think about the problem we’re solving in a way that is truly Research Site and patient centric.
Timing is everything — how did you know the timing was right?
We started Slope in late 2016, and back then the timing definitely wasn’t right. The industry was still struggling to understand how to harness the power of connected ecosystems of data to move research forward. ClinOps was entrenched in workflows overly reliant on siloed spreadsheets with project management as the glue.
We also quickly learned that although we could fully automate the process of getting drugs, devices, kits, equipment, and diagnostics to Research Sites that we should lead with the concept of visibility and clinical supply chain management. Jumping from spreadsheets to a fully automated clinical supply chain was too much, too quick (like jumping from black and white TV to 4k overnight).
Throughout the journey, what have been some of your biggest takeaways thus far? What advice/words of wisdom would you share from your story for other founders?
You live and die by:
What are some of the must-haves for an early stage HC/LS startup in your eyes? (Key critical components like team, academic papers, industry know-how, etc.)
The best thing that you can do is go purchase the book Traction by Gino Wickman. This book provides a scalable organizational model that seems almost designed for startups scaling during pandemics. I read constantly, and recommend this as one of my top 5 books of all time.
What are some of the traits that make a great founder? What type of risk profile/archetype does someone need to have to be a founder in your opinion?
Resiliency and problem/solution obsession have been the two traits that have helped me get through the tumultuous first couple of years at Slope. I also think that understanding the distinction between risk and uncertainty is also vitally important to being a successful founder. A known risk can be easily converted into an effective certainty while true uncertainty isn’t susceptible to being measured.
For folks coming out of academia, what advice would you share?
Spend the vast majority of your time talking to people and asking them questions. You are not doing your job as a founder if your life doesn’t revolve around conversations.
Can you demystify the process of what it was like to raise VC funding? What were the highlights & low lights? Any advice or words of wisdom for future founders?
Raising money from investors happens over time, not at once. Begin building relationships as early as possible, and then actively foster those relationships. Everything you do in the early stages of your company should support measurable traction and engagement — this is catnip for early stage investors.
What advice for managing and building a great team can you share?
This is so trite, but also so true: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I didn’t realize this in the early days when Michael and I were doing everything ourselves, but creating a culture that motivates everyone to row in the same direction is the most important thing you can do. And a quick shortcut to make this happen is to stop using the word responsible and start using the word accountable.