Inspirational Woman: Dr Christy Sheehy-Bensinger | CEO, C. Light Technologies

Dr. Christy Sheehy-BensingerChristy Sheehy-Bensinger is the co-founder and CEO of C. Light Technologies, a neurotech and AI company whose mission is to create a scanning laser ophthalmoscope (SLO) technology and eye tracking software to record, view, measure, and analyze eye motion via the retina.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I was born and raised in upstate New York, coming from a wonderful and supportive family – though none of them having any background in the sciences or engineering. Both my parents majored in business and my older sister was a music major; so, the idea of me going into science or engineering was a bit of a foreign concept. But we come from a “you can do anything you put your mind to” upbringing and this is what helped me to excel in my career.

I’ve always been fascinated by the eye, and undergrad internships in adaptive optics and vision science really sparked my interest and curiosity in this space. I was one of two women in my graduating optical engineering undergraduate class from the University of Rochester and shortly after went to obtain a Master’s of Engineering in Optics with a concentration in Business Administration. I was working as a Systems Test Engineer at Corning prior to moving onward to complete my PhD in Vision Science at UC Berkeley. It was during my time at Berkeley that I invented a technology that can record high-resolution videos of the retina (the back of your eye) to detect, view, and measure fixational and saccadic eye motion at the micron level. This scanning laser ophthalmoscope (SLO) technology and investigational device (the RetitrackTM) was spun out and the start-up, C. Light Technologies, Inc., was founded.

In the company’s early years, I was applying for grants and validating device use-cases for eye-motion detection while simultaneously working as a postdoctoral scholar at UCSF’s Department of Neurology. My mentor Dr. Ari Green–who was UCSF’s Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Clinic and Division Chief of Neuroinflammation and Glial Biology–supported my aspiration to be at the intersection of academia and innovation. I’m proud to say he was and is still a strong collaborator of mine today.

The neurologic space has always had a pull on me: I had multiple family members pass from Alzheimer’s disease and friends suffer from multiple sclerosis–an experience separately shared with my co-founder. It seemed like everyone we knew had some sort of connection to a neurodegenerative disease via a loved one, friend, or colleague. Eye motion abnormalities are typically the byproduct of other dysfunctions and our forward-thinking mission is to discern the underlying connections to use (fixational and saccadic) eye motion as proxy as it offers a non-invasive window for detection and analysis.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

You know, I never really sat down and planned out my career step-by-step, but looking back it feels like all the roads I chose (bumpy ones included) have led me here. I started out young and hungry: I tried to procure training in engineering with an innate desire of wanting to understand how things worked and to build things with my own two hands. I really do feel like every success and every rejection along the way has gotten me to exactly where I am supposed to be. And the people along the way, whether to test you or support you, have also helped this process.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Oh goodness, yes! Start-up life has a new challenge almost every day, but I’m going to talk about a challenge I faced very early in my career. One of my biggest challenges was right after my undergrad: I had been working as a Systems Test Engineer at Corning while also getting my Master’s degree part-time. After about a year and half of working there, my entire systems test department was restructured and a bunch of us got laid off – including myself. I was a 24-year-old who was at a crossroads of whether to continue on with my Master’s degree in Rochester, NY or relocate to NH to keep my job and benefits. Essentially, I had to choose between pursuing my academic passions and financial stability. As you can guess by my earlier introduction, I decided to finish my degree, stay in Rochester, and work as a technician while finishing up my degree. This time-spent was truly not wasted: my time working as a technician really helped to cement my desire of returning to the industry that I had last worked at that truly made me the happiest and where the work I accomplished was the most rewarding–and that was vision research. Being back in the adaptive optics lab of David Williams Ph.D. and working with the team there reminded me of how much I loved research and how I always want to position myself to be at the forefront of innovation to explore new terrains in science. Being here is also what led me to want to apply to PhD programs in Vision and what ultimately shepherded me to make moves to Berkeley. So, you see, this layoff was actually a wonderful opportunity for me in disguise: it allowed me to discover a field that I would love and be truly passionate about and persevere for my north star: vision science and optics.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My biggest career achievement to date would have to be the invention of my retinal eye motion measurement tool in grad school, now called the RetitrackTM (an investigational device). Being able to create something that could detect and analyse micron-level eye movements, that otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye, is something I never would’ve dreamed of. Having the optical engineering, the neurology, and the business training I’ve garnered over the years feels like I’m uniquely made for this role, and it makes me giddy that I have the opportunity to see it through.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I would really have to say my tenacity and ability to keep going when times get tough is how I am where I am today: co-founder and CEO of my very own tech start-up. Being a founder is definitely not easy and navigating the ups and downs of bringing an entirely new technology to market – the RetitrackTM – is really difficult. Continuing to push through the “no’s” and reiterate and pivot ideas when needed is how C. Light Technologies now has more than $5 million in funding and a signed partnership with a clinical research organization as an exploratory endpoint for drug development. We’ve even been funded through the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) – backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos – to run a study looking at mild cognitive impairment patients with UCSF.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

My top two tips would be to grow your network and ask for help when you need it. As a first-time founder, it can feel overwhelming to make connections. Joining accelerators, university or local entrepreneurship clubs, and even initiating cold outreach via Linkedin and emails have all worked amazingly for me to build up my network. Once you have that community, you have people you can ask for help. The founder community has many individuals - like myself - willing to pay it forward, knowing that some of us had to learn things from scratch. Female-founder communities, in particular, can be helpful to give you both a mentor and a shoulder to lean on for support.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Absolutely – for women and female-identifying persons it’s hard to envision ourselves in a space that has predominantly been a safe haven for men. In most engineering meeting calls I’m on, I usually am the only woman to join. It’s difficult to look past the “imposter syndrome” experience when gender bias remains prevalent in the workplace and women are often underrepresented in leadership positions. This underlying thought of, “do I really belong here?” is way more common than I ever thought. One of the most important things in overcoming these obstacles and barriers in the corporate world is to find mentors and advisors that support your success and understand you on a level beyond prejudice: most importantly, mentors who empower your voice (figuratively and literally) and promote visibility of women and female-identifying persons in tech to help change the perception that only men can be experts in this field (and any field).

The mark of a great mentor–that I also work to give forward with my own mentees–is to always keep an open seat at the table for those passionate, driven individuals. If you don’t have any supportive networks in your small work group, or larger department as a whole, reach out externally. This type of support is crucial for your success; the mountain is much easier to climb when someone is offering you a hand up and pointing out the landslides and obstacles ahead that you can’t yet see.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology? 

I think that technology companies could offer a mentorship program, where individuals in upper management and C-suite are given “buddies” or “fellows” outside of their department to incoming persons to help learn the ropes and share lessons learned. I also think that providing a more fair and supportive maternity and family leave benefits would help more parents and persons who can give birth advance to leadership positions. It’s one thing to offer the bare minimum required by law, but another to offer something that gives parents and families the proper time to heal and adjust, while not penalising future career advancement. Many fear to interview for jobs while pregnant: fear that someone will take their job while they are out on leave, or do not feel supported upon their return. Continued discussions regarding child-rearing support is a conversation that should be talked about openly and freely but often is not. Companies that voice and offer actionable changes (e.g. supportive family leave) for expecting parents would help to progress the careers of women and expectant parents.

There are currently only 21 percent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

If I had superwoman powers to accelerate the pace of change for women in tech, I would wave my magic wand to improve gender inequality in the workplace (e.g. recruitment processes, promotions, wage gap, diversity in leadership positions). With that would also come promoting salary transparency and offering flexible working environments to allow for family and childcare responsibilities.

On a different note, I’d use my leftover magic to materialise a personal external advocate for and a confident internal voice within each individual. Having high self-confidence and self-worth is something every person should work on daily, and many times doesn’t come easily (particularly for high achievers). The praise we give to ourselves is often less than that we do or say to cheer on a fellow female. So, having an external cheerleader to remind you how much you rock, while also consistently continuing to work on acknowledging your own self-worth and accomplishments, would be the magic elixir to success.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’ve been a part of the All Raise community, which is a network of female founders, that I would highly recommend. I was first introduced to All Raise through a seed fundraising bootcamp in San Francisco. It was wonderful to connect with other female founders in the same stage as me, helping each other provide warm intros to investors and giving meaningful “in the trenches” type of advice. It’s basically a “by women founder, for women founder” community that I’d highly recommend! Website: https://www.allraise.org/