Xi Liu (MIIPS '15)
Ditching Corporate to Launch a Start-Up & Improve Sexual Health
Would you quit a sought-after corporate job to start a company in a new country?
Not many are brave enough to take that leap, but that’s exactly what Xi Liu (MIIPS ’15) did.
Liu resigned as a product manager at Amazon, relocated from San Francisco to Singapore in January 2020, and dove headfirst into launching Ferne Health, her first start-up.
Ferne Health is a women-focused online sexual health platform that offers health consultations and at-home testing kits for cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Ferne Health aims to destigmatize the taboos around sexual health – the same ones Liu encountered as a teen and young adult.
One of Ferne Heath's testing kits
Born in China, Liu never discussed getting tested for STIs with her friends. It was only when she moved to the US to start graduate school at the Integrated Innovation Institute that she understood how cultural norms influence the conversation, or lack thereof, around sexual well-being.
Even though her coursework in the Master of Integrated Innovation for Products & Services degree program exposed her to entrepreneurship, Liu felt compelled to pursue her passion for design after graduation, first as an experience designer at Adobe and then a product designer at Amazon.
“I did my career switch from design to product management, so I got more control. Around this time, I was thinking about my career path. Who do I want to be? Do I want to work in corporate and go into a higher management level, or do I want to be a more skilled designer? Or do I actually want to work for myself?” Liu said. “And if I start a business, what should I do?”
“I was exploring different ideas with a CMU classmate. Both of us came from Asia, and we went through a life-shaping stage in the States. We started reflecting about that, which included what was stigmatized in our cultures. We decided this might be a good cause to take home,” Liu said.
Liu began researching women’s health issues in Asia and discovered her experience was not unique. Many women did not get tested due to the social stigma and lack of awareness. In addition to providing testing kits, Ferne Health is also committed to raising awareness and breaking down those stigmas.
“I hope it can bring some social impact – not just the money side. I really want to contribute back to the community,” Liu said.
Since the platform launched in September 2020, Liu has received positive feedback from customers, which has made the initial struggles worth it. She recalled one customer who shared her experience through a series of private Instagram posts. An acquaintance screenshotted them for Liu.
“She talked about how awesome my service is. I can’t believe she did it, especially for STI testing. It’s so private. I'm very grateful for this because I moved here in the beginning of 2020, having no expectations. Now, towards the end of the year, for someone to acknowledge that my service made a great impact on their life is just so rewarding,” Liu said.
Liu admits that her (ad)venture would have benefitted from more prior research, such as obtaining a visa to even setting up the company itself. She also faced the unimaginable challenge of launching her startup during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented her from not only building a network but also, practically, obtaining test results.
“It was very hard for me to schedule my day because I didn't know what to do. I couldn't find the right person to talk to. A lot of tasks that I planned to run involved PCR testing. I just couldn't make any progress for probably three months. The emotional stress for the first couple of months was really high,” Liu said.
However, Liu persevered, organizing a medical board, a network of doctors for consultations, and vendors for the kits and lab work. She classifies Ferne Health as a "service enabler."
“We are living in a time where many problems are already solved; enough products and services are available out there. The point then becomes how to link all the existing products together to improve the experience and to make a new service that’s more accessible, more friendly, and actually connects with people’s lifestyles,” Liu said.
“When we were in program, someone mentioned this quote Steve Jobs said: ‘You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’ I resonate with that. It's like so many random things happened, and then later when you look back, it all makes sense.”
As Liu embarks on her second year as a solo founder, her plans for Ferne Health include continually learning the customers’ needs, exploring subscription-based models, and seeking funding to grow the service.