On January 11th, 2018, at 29 years-old, Liya Shuster-Bier was diagnosed with stage 2 primary mediastinal b-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
The news came as she was caring for her mother, who, just months earlier, underwent a double mastectomy.
Three years to the date of her cancerversary (and now in remission), Shuster-Bier launched Alula — a radically honest platform for cancer patients, caregivers and survivors, built by someone who’s been there.
With $2.2m, the startup’s mission is to make cancer “less lonely.” The Hustle recently spoke with the impact investor turned entrepreneur to find out more:
What is the backstory for Alula?
I’ve been dealing with cancer for 5 years. I was a caregiver for my mother, who had breast cancer and have done 800 hours of chemotherapy and immunotherapy myself.
Over this time, I found that care drops off when you leave the hospital.
I had a very supportive set-up — my husband is a Harvard-trained doctor and my best friend is an oncologist — but still felt lonely during the process. If I felt like this, I knew how hard it must be for others.
What I noticed is that we built technology to honor the most important days in our lives, like a wedding or becoming a parent. We use technology to galvanize an army of love for these moments.
But we don’t have the same technology to galvanize us on the hardest days of our lives. This is what Alula is meant to provide.
You previously worked in banking and got an MBA from Wharton. Did you ever think you would be an entrepreneur?
No, but during my years in finance I did a lot of impact investing. I worked on social impact bonds to deal with poverty and education. I always look for new ways to invest in the community.
How does Alula work?
Having gone through the lived experience of cancer as caregiver and patient, there are many things that can be made easier:
- Communication: How do you tell your employer or loved ones about your diagnosis? It’s a very difficult thing to do, so we’ve created customizable templates and guides to help.
- Coordination: Family and friends want to help, but they don’t know how to ask or even what your needs are. Alula has shareable calendars where patients can share their treatment schedules and personal needs (e.g., dog walking) that others can help with.
- Curated products: People always want to give gifts but, again, aren’t really sure what to do. You might get motivational socks when what you really need are medical grade hot packs or certain nutritional snacks. We have both a registry and products curated by cancer patients (and guided by Alula’s advisory board of medical experts) on the website’s marketplace.
- Content: There is cancer-related information all over the internet but it’s very fragmented. We are centralizing knowledge on our website and collecting stories from community members that can help others navigate the experience.
What is Alula’s business model?
We currently receive affiliate revenue from the products we curate but — by the spring — will be buying certain products wholesale and selling through our website.
Moving forward, we plan on building strategic partnerships with hospitals and cancer treatment centres across the country to help them build tech that picks up where hands-on care drops off.
Will Alula only focus on cancer?
There are 17m patients diagnosed with cancer a year. If you take the immediate family of ~5 people, that’s 85m people affected and doesn’t even take into consideration friends.
Further, cancer survivorship is on the rise, meaning all of these patients will need support long after they’ve entered remission and beyond.
We are building a platform for the entire lifecycle of cancer, from diagnosis and treatment, to recovery and (sometimes) bereavement.
We’ve certainly discussed other health crises but addressing cancer is the priority.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
While dealing with cancer, I had to make a call of how much of my experience to reveal. At first, I didn’t want to reveal any of it. That I was bald, weak or fearful. It made me very lonely.
I had conversations with people wiser than me and they said to “lean into my vulnerabilities” and that, by doing so, I wouldn’t feel so lonely. They were right.
Do you have a request for a startup?
I need someone to help me figure out how to keep my succulents alive for longer. They aren’t easy!