Confidently Leading When You’re Still Learning

Brief Background

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Duke University Medical Center Division of Infectious Diseases

President and Chief Science Office Phthisis Diagnostics

Chairman of VirginiaBIO

Postdoctoral Fellow, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Thoracic Diseases Research Unit

Postdoctoral Fellow, Due University Medical Center, Department of Infectious Diseases

2012 Entrepreneur of the Year, Kauffman Foundation & Center

President, Mayo Research Fellows Association Executive Committee

Chair, Membership Committee, Duke University Postdoctoral Association

PhD in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine, University of Cincinnati Medical School of Graduate Studies


Sigma Xi, Medical Mycology Society of the America

Association for Molecular Pathology

American Society for Microbiology

Proud Mother of 4

Dr. Crystal Icenhour is an expert in infectious disease diagnostics and is on a mission to shift the paradigm of pathogen diagnosis. As CEO and Co-Founder of Aperiomics, the company has developed technology that can identify all known pathogens – bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi – from a clinical sample in one simple test. Hailing from a blue-collar family in the Midwestern State of Oklahoma, Dr. Icenhour was the first in her family to attend college. She’s grown accustomed to taking risks, and in various points along her academic and professional career, has honed her business acumen to become the leader, entrepreneur and scientist that she is today. In her chat with our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, Dr. Icenhour shares her experience about coming into her own and walking confidently as a business leader, while still learning the trade.

Looking back at your early career choices and academic pursuits – was becoming an entrepreneur part of your plan?
It has always been my plan, but I didn’t realize it was happening. I grew up learning about my family business and so, from my perspective, running and owning your own company was normal to me. I had exposure to entrepreneurship and business ownership even before my academic pursuits or starting my career; however, I was the first person in my family to go to college. I started at the University of Tulsa with plans to become a pediatrician, but that plan was thwarted when I didn’t get into medical school. It was devastating, especially since I had tunnel vision toward achieving that goal, of becoming a doctor, and now I had to think of alternative opportunities. Throughout my entire undergraduate education, I had in a biology lab and so I decided to turn my focus and continue my education as a graduate student. I went on to finish my PhD at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 4.25 years and had a baby during that time. Another testament to the hyper focus I applied to my work – a balancing act that I exercise even now, between tunnel vision and seeing the big picture. I quickly learned that the typical academia path to professorship was not my calling and within 6-months of starting my senior post-doc at Duke University, I accepted the opportunity to be a co-founder at my first company, Phthisis Diagnostics. Similar with my comfort of being in a lab, being an entrepreneur and businesswoman came naturally. Phthisis was my MBA bootcamp and my training made me well suited to lead the company with both perspectives: science and business. I learned a great deal and made mistakes along the way, but we were acquired in 2013 and although it wasn’t a home run, it was the best possible outcome given the circumstances

How has your background shaped you as a leader? What challenging times have you overcome and learned from, to become the leader you are today?
I was brought on to Phthisis as a Co-Founder, President and the Chief Science Officer. My responsibilities were to set up the company and oversee and execute the implementation of work supported by grant funding Phthisis had recently received. What became evident to me, early on, was that we could build this amazing technology, but it wouldn’t be worthwhile, nor successful, without considering the end-user in the design and delivery of the product. A major gap was developing a strong business case and foundation for the company to stand behind the science. My co-founder was a professor at the University of Virginia, and he was not engaged in the daily operations. So, my first big lesson was: get everything in writing. I am someone that will keep my word and deliver work that will meet or exceed expectations of quality. However, I learned that promises, if not in writing, were at times not delivered nor in the case they were delivered, the end-product did not meet expectations or needs. The second big lesson was: have a co-founder with whom you have an aligned goal and focus for the company. A lot of conflict was about where I was spending my time. The co-founder as an academic who focused solely on the science and viewed all the business stuff as “silly.” I recognized and had to stress, repeatedly, that without all “silly” business stuff, there would be no “silly” business. Navigating through that conflict, in a professional manner, was a huge learning experience. Additionally, from a career perspective, I had taken a big risk to turn away from the typical academic path, professorship. So, I was doubly committed to make this company a success because not only would it be damaging to my career, if not, but I took seriously the job I had been hired for and deliver on the responsibility I had been given.

What is your advice to women and what actionable steps can they take as leaders or aspiring entrepreneurs in the health & tech industries?

There are many lessons I’ve learned, but my advice to those with a similar background:

  1. Get everything in writing. Make sure you are clear about your role and responsibilities and everyone in the company is clear about that as well.
  2. Become a master of all trade. PhD graduates are trained to be an expert in one field. Business leaders need to understand several functions to be successful. You don’t have to be an expert in business but know enough of everything to understand gaps and what you need to continue operating. You should be able to walk into a room using business language, be compelling and own the fact that you are the expert on your company. I felt, many times, unqualified to be in my position but I’ve become more confident and comfortable leading even if I don’t know how to do everything.
  3. Be humble and know you are not an expert. You’ve got to be coachable and be willing to help others grow by allowing them to contribute as well. Going to investors and acting like you know anything will not do you or your company any good. You won’t have a lot of data points and your intuition might be the only driving force for decisions you make.

A personal bias I have is that leaders are formed through their environment. We raise our kids, especially in the States and especially our girls, to be risk adverse. We say, “don’t do that because you’re going to get hurt,” or “don’t do that because you won’t be successful.” It does a lot of disservice to our children to be raised in a culture that doesn’t encourage them to take risks. I have 4 children now and I am actively teaching them to take risks. It’s important to learn it from an early age.

Lecky’s Final Thoughts

Learning when to pivot, especially when one is linear focused and determined that the direction selected is the only direction, is not always easy. However, experience teaches that every aspect of what you do in life is a stepping stone toward reaching your own pinnacle and that there are multiple paths toward that endeavor.

If you would like to recommend a female entrepreneur in healthcare technology to be featured, we encourage you to contact us.

Contact information:
Sharon Mwale       Program Manager        [email protected]