Image Source: Cindy Eckert

The Story of Cindy Eckert’s Struggle to Birth Her “Product of the Century”

Whose very first money came from maxing out credit cards, bet on herself with a small fund borrowed from family. Cindy Eckert has made it to be one of the top-profile entrepreneurs. What’s her secret building up million dollars startup from bare hands?
By Ally Nguyen | 10 min read
on October 13, 2020
Image Source: Cindy Eckert

Cindy Eckert is a serial entrepreneur, self-made billionaire, and visionary mind behind the groundbreaking “female Viagra” drug ADDYI. Over a distinguished 24-year career in healthcare, in only the last 10 she has started and sold two businesses for more than $1.5B.  First Slate Pharmaceuticals, which redefined long acting testosterone treatment for men then Sprout Pharmaceuticals which broke through with the first ever FDA-approved drug for low sexual desire in women. She's on a mission to nurture the next generation of female trailblazers, bringing more women entrepreneurs into the billion-dollar founders’ club — and she's doing it on her own terms; in head-to-toe hot pink suit with dazzling confidence to spare.

Originally born in upstate New York. According to a New York Times profile piece, she moved every year from 4th grade to her senior year of high school, which made her the “perpetual new kid who wasn’t accepted.” However, the woman says this experience cultivated her curiosity and made her comfortable as an observer and a listener. Graduated from Marymount University with a degree in business, she had her sights on working for the pharmaceutical field, Merck- the fortunes most admired company, was her first. She eventually realized that at Merck she was just a number and lacked impact, so she began working for smaller and smaller companies until the path opened up for her to start her own business.

Cindy’s work has been featured in countless major publications including The New York Times, Fast Company, Financial Times, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, CNBC, CBS, Fox, Yahoo and on the cover feature of Entrepreneur Magazine. Cindy has been an invited speaker at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Ad Week, Inc. Magazine, and many more. She is on a mission to speak to as many women as possible about what it takes to achieve breakthrough business success. It’s no surprise that JJ Ramberg, the host of MSNBC’s Your Business says that “Cindy is one of our favorite guests. Though she has reached a level of success as a founder that most can only dream of, she is incredibly relatable and honest about what it takes to run a business. She offers the perfect combination of inspiration and advice and it’s hard to come away from listening to Cindy speak without wanting to hear more.”

Making Historic Achievement, Does the Struggle Worth It?

Female sex pill from addyi
Image Source: Cindy Eckert

In August 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug called Addyi from Sprout Pharmaceuticals after previously rejecting it twice. It was a milestone in the sexual health space as the first-ever cleared treatment meant to boost female sexual libido, and moreover a remarkable highlight in Cindy Eckert’s career.

However, Eckert’s path to success was far from easy. In fact, she clearly remembers nearly being laughed out of the room when first pitching Addyi to investors.

It happened during one of the industry’s most important healthcare conferences, Eckert says, while Addyi was still on its path to earning FDA approval. The purpose of the presentation was to get the attention of key healthcare investors and potential strategic partners. After attracting millions dollar of the project, with the science to understand biological basis for women’s low libido and the confidence Eckert goes for the final round “FDA approval”. But unfortunately, she got rejected as FDA said “the benefit is only modest”, not gave up from that with a lot of efforts and financial risks, she chose the track not so many people on- to dispute FDA. She got the FDA to “sit down and listen” to the women who had the condition and their credit. After 6 years and lots of struggles later with the real fair shake on science Addyi finally got approved.

Starting the project with more than a vision of profit Cindy Eckert said “It’s not that the company doesn’t understand the commercial opportunity. It’s that they know the path would be longer and hurdle would be higher. And we’ve got to change that”. Days after she sold Sprout and the star project to Valeant for $1 billion.

Later, the sale soured. Valeant became mired in a scandal concerning its accounting practices, and Addyi, the price of which Valeant had doubled, was denied coverage by many insurers (despite Viagra coverage), while also taking heat for its questionable effectiveness. In 2016, Eckert and former Sprout shareholders sued the pharma giant, alleging that it failed to market the pill successfully and overcharged consumers.

Months later, Valeant gave Sprout back to its original shareholders for nearly nothing in exchange for them dropping the lawsuit. Valeant also provided the shareholders with a $25 million kick-start loan, according to Bloomberg, with Valeant to receive a 6 percent royalty on global sales of Addyi beginning in 2019.

Now, Eckert — who says she is the largest shareholder in Sprout — is back as CEO, as she was pushed out after the sale to Valeant. And she’s using round two to implement ambitious plans for “little pink pill” Addyi, including making the drug more accessible to women who suffer from low libido. Didn’t Cindy Eckert just win twice right there?

Eckert’s “Pinkubator”- The Empire of And for Women Voice

Cindy Eckert pitch investors meeting
Image Source: Cindy Eckert

This woman just can’t settle. In addition to working with Sprout, Eckert has continued her work at The Pink Ceiling, which she refers as the “Pinkubator”- a venture capital which invests in companies founded by, or delivering products for, women.

During 2018, Pink Ceiling companies and founders showed up on lists such as Time magazine’s 50 best inventions which included Lia, the world’s first biodegradable, paper-based pregnancy test, Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas and Forbes’ 30 Under 30, among others.

Eckert expects to create big differences, she says the things to look out for are more personalized, accessible medical care – as well as more companies diving into the burgeoning women’s health market.

“Filed under ‘about damn time,’ women’s health is finally receiving the attention it has longs-deserved,” Eckert says “Investors are starting to recognize that products which address problems for half the population, never mind 85 percent of the decision makers in health care, are worth betting on.”

She’s particularly interested in telemedicine as consumers become increasingly accustomed to the convenience and privacy it affords.

Additionally, Eckert says companies using artificial intelligence to tap into a wealth of personal data to create personalized preventative care is a huge market for the future of medicine. One Pink Ceiling’s portfolio company, UMethod, is already doing this for patients at risk for Alzheimer.

With A.I. It Is A Brand-New Approach to Alzheimer

Around June this year, Pink Ceiling CEO Cindy Eckert has backed a startup in Raleigh that is unveiling different approach to dealing with Alzheimer’s which is powered by artificial intelligence, not drugs. And its solution is part of a new effort launched by the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic, an internationally respected medical institution.

uMethod website homepage
Courtesy: uMethod

UMethod has developed a patented approach that it says acts as a preventive of Alzheimer’s since the solution titled ExtND METHOD enables doctors to design plans specific to individuals. ExtND is among the offerings from the Women’s Alzheimer’s center, according to a spokesperson for UMethod.

Several medical institutions already are deploying the method. More than 5 million people are currently afflicted with Alzheimer’s and the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the US, according to the Alzheimer Association.

Vik Chandra, CEO of UMethod Health who is a former IBM executive, says the new approach enables development of personalized, preventive strategies for individuals. Where drugs have failed, combined treatments can improve outcomes.

Over the last 20 years, over 150 medications have failed in FDA trials for Alzheimer’s disease.  Researchers, including those on our Scientific Advisory Board, have long recognized that Alzheimer’s disease is a complex disease and will need personalized combinations of treatments to improve patient outcomes. “However, a combination therapy for Alzheimer’s is complex and depends upon thousands of data points (genome, blood tests, medical history, medications, lifestyle etc.) on a patient. UMethod is the first company to develop a personalized combination treatment methodology and bring it to market.” – said Eckert as she believes this is going to make great impact.

What Are The 3 Secrets Cindy Eckert Shares for Successful Startups?

Cindy Eckert on interview and podcast
Image Source: Press associate

Early on in her career, Cindy Eckert thought she'd take the traditional path. After college, the CEO of Sprout Pharmaceuticals and the Pink Ceiling, a business incubator for women, planned to get a job at a big company and work her way up.

That was, until she realized something important: Those companies were a "sea of sameness" that homogenized everyone who entered. Declared she need to make differences and strike out on her own, let’s breakdown a few tips Eckert notes.

#1 Culture Is Everything

"Culture isn't aspirations, it's your actions," Eckert says. "How do you show up every day? How are you going to walk the walk and be that?" 

One way Eckert has created a culture for her team (aside from giving everyone a nickname, a habit she's had since she was a kid) is creating a feeling of shared ownership. The most important thing is "everyone having skin in the game, genuinely participating in the outcomes." That can mean stock options or bonuses based on company success. "Not just for a paycheck," she says. "But for a payoff."

For Eckert, accountability is key. "Peer to peer, we hold each other accountable," she says. "If the company is winning, everybody is winning."

#2 Honesty Is the Best Policy

"Be an open book," Eckert says. For her, that means talking to her team about where the company is every day--and never sugarcoating the truth. "We're constantly communicating," she says, especially now that her team is working remotely because of Covid-19. "There's nothing I've been holding back from them."

Candor is also part of her social media strategy, according to Eckert. Performing or over-curating your life for your followers is "not worth your time or energy because you're not being yourself." Eckert has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram, where she's known for her signature pink outfits as much as for her advice and inspiration.

#3 Three Things a Good Pitch Needs

Having pitched her company many times (once even finding herself on the receiving end of snickers from potential investors), Eckert has figured out three things every founder needs to know going into a meeting:

  • What are you trying to uniquely do?
  • Why are you the person to do it?
  • What's in it for the investors if they go on the ride with you?

The Bottom Lines

Cindy Eckert is no doubt a statue of pioneer and risk-taker. Beat up prejudices, Eckert built up not only one but two companies which are millions-dollar worth. In the pharmaceuticals business, she’s not doing for profits only but to make impacts and inspire more women to rise. As a venture investor herself, Eckert is trusted as a speaker on how to build an empire out of little money startup.

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