After spending over three decades working in intellectual property protection and litigation, Nicky Espinosa ‘84 joined HeartFlow, Inc. last year as General Counsel.
The burgeoning medical technology industry in Silicon Valley is making headway and one company that’s pioneering heart monitoring is HeartFlow, Inc., which develops software that allows physicians to non-invasively test for coronary artery disease. See below for Espinosa's candid take on the challenges and delights of being the first in-house lawyer for a health tech startup — plus a little career advice for those who might follow in her footsteps.
Why did you decide to break into the startup world?
I first represented tech and life sciences startups in the 1990's in Silicon Valley. Because of my engineering background, it was my dream to have the opportunity to work with the founders of startups to help them translate their ideas and inventions into real-world products and services. Usually corporate transactional attorneys are the first ones asked to join startups, so I knew that I was very lucky in 2000 to get the call to join a startup — Illumina — as its first in-house attorney, and I jumped at that chance.
What are some of your responsibilities as General Counsel at HeartFlow, Inc.?
A bit of everything! I work with the commercial team on sales contracts and customer support issues, the marketing team on website content and corporate communications, the regulatory and quality team on internal processes and the HR department on employee relations issues. One of my most challenging responsibilities is to proactively address global cyber security and data privacy risks.
What is one of the most challenging undertakings that you've had in your role so far?
HeartFlow is in the early phases of commercialization, so the biggest challenge is preparing the company for the demands of its product becoming adopted as the standard of care for coronary artery disease. As a one-person legal department, it’s an hour-to-hour effort to prioritize imminent problems versus those that can wait. I am a "list" person and it frustrates me that I can never finish half of the items on my daily to-do list.
How did your past work experience prepare you for the position?
This is my second stint as the first in-house lawyer, and this time has been much easier because of my prior work experience. Had it not been for the decades I spent in law firms, and my last job as an assistant GC in a public company, I certainly would not have been as confident and comfortable taking on my current role.
What is one of the most interesting aspects of working for a health tech startup?
Learning about how the health care industry operates, and about the various flavors of providers and payers has been fascinating. Learning about how coronary artery disease is diagnosed and treated by so many different types of doctors, and how that impacts adoption of our product has been a real education. Learning from the different subject matter experts in our company is also intellectually satisfying.
Now that you've been working at your role for a year, what have you learned?
I have a greater appreciation for how hard it is to be a practicing physician. Hospital IT departments and electronic medical records are a big part of the healthcare puzzle. Effectively managing software product development processes is complicated, and the legal team has to participate in early product specifications. I have also learned to live in the worlds of Apple and Google after being a PC and Outlook person for most of my life.
What career advice would you give to current UC Hastings students?
Pay attention to the big problems in the world for the opportunities they present to you as a future attorney. Law school is just the most basic foundation for learning the practice of law. It does help to practice law as an associate in a firm before seeking to become an in-house attorney. The harder the professional challenges you take on, the more rewarding it will be emotionally, intellectually and financially. Don't freak out when your plans change, and don't give up easily.