Derek Herrera - From Special Operations to Startup Founder

I ask a lot of people, “What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?” Derek Herrera’s inspiring entrepreneurial story begins very differently than most:

“I was paralyzed while conducting combat operations in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan when I was shot in the spine while leading my team on patrol.”

A Marine special operations officer, Derek was paralyzed from the chest down in June 2012 when he was hit by a sniper's bullet while leading members of Marine Corps Special Operations Command in Afghanistan. Derek spent months in hospitals recovering but he wasn’t just learning to adjust to his injuries; amazingly, he was planning his next career. While most people in that situation would be asking questions like “why me?”, Derek spent most of his time asking “what’s next?”. He told me, “I wasn’t about to rot away in a hospital bed”. Derek is a fighter. I first met Derek at Patriot Boot Camp (PBC), New York in 2014. I immediately knew Derek was a force; he is one of those people who you just kind of know is impacting the world in a very positive way. His intelligence is clear and his attitude is driven; it was clear to me that I should either get out of his way or get in his corner; I chose the latter. Derek is the CEO and founder of Spinal Singularity, but more on that in a bit.

After medically retiring from the Marine Corps, Derek was accepted to UCLA’s prestigious Executive MBA program. While he enjoyed the education at UCLA, like many academic programs, he felt it was very theoretical. Derek is a pragmatic entrepreneur and his military experience told him that he needed not only strategic theory, but also to learn the “tactical application”. When a friend and fellow Veteran told him to “check out PBC”, Derek being Derek, forged ahead. At PBC Derek found a network that helped guide him on his next mission. Derek goes on to say:

“Patriot Boot Camp connected me with a global network of veterans who I now have in my corner as mentors and teammates.”

Derek’s emotional intelligence is second to none and he credits that to his special operations background. He clearly understands the value of mentorship:

“Special operators don’t really specialize in any one thing; our specialty is critical thinking and being adaptive while solving problems. We are not the best at any one thing; therefore, we have to constantly seek mentorship and learn from subject matter experts.”

This mindset is one that Derek applies every day as the CEO of Spinal Singularity. It may shock someone to hear this but Derek describes starting a company as “far scarier than anything I’ve ever done”. For a little perspective, let’s keep in mind that Derek is a special operations veteran critically wounded in combat. Entrepreneurs are often described as ‘fearless’ but in reality, Derek says, “that’s BS”. The sentiment makes for cool articles heroizing founders in entrepreneurship magazines but Derek teaches us all that emotional intelligence is the ultimate foundation of strength.

  photo credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda, San Diego Tribune

Like many passionate founders, their company is an extension of their soul. Derek is no exception. His company Spinal Singularity is the maker of the “connected catheter, the world’s first smart catheter system for a neurogenic bladder.” So what is a neurogenic bladder? The short answer is the lack of bladder control due to a brain or spinal cord injury. Neurogenic bladders have many effects, one of which is the inability to sense the fullness of the bladder (learn more). In other words, not knowing when you have to urinate. Derek states,

“Neurogenic bladder is a problem that has affected me every day since I’ve been injured.”

It is often said that the greatest source of entrepreneurial passion is to “scratch your own itch”.  Derek takes this concept a huge step further. Like most paraplegics, “walking” was not the function that Derek missed most after his injury. In fact, according to Derek, bladder control is missed more by most paraplegics than walking. This is more than an “itch” to Derek. He describes modern day catheters as “medieval” and “unchanged for decades” and to make matters worse they have to be inserted and removed up to ten times per day.

If we’ve learned one thing about Derek it is that he doesn’t wait for others to fight his battles. Derek, utilizing his resources at UCLA sought out and found biomedical engineers that could help him to create the connected catheter. It’s an implanted device that senses bladder fullness and controls urine flow without the need to insert disposable catheters. In fact, the connected catheter amazingly relays information, such as bladder fullness, to a smart phone or watch. Spinal Singularity went on from PBC to Y-Combinator, one of our nation’s most competitive startup accelerators (about 98% of companies who apply are rejected). Derek and his team are moving quickly toward a $2.2m seed round of investment and the connected catheter will seek FDA approval in 2017.

Derek’s entrepreneurial spirit I think is captured by a powerful balance of determination and humbleness; traits he credits to his Marine Corps background. A warrior with an endless fight, Derek also readily acknowledges all that he doesn’t know. For all that he “doesn’t know”, Derek constantly seeks mentorship from those who hold deeper expertise than him. In many conversations with Derek, he acknowledges the significant lessons he has learned from his many mentors. I often wonder if Derek realizes how much we are all learning from him.

By Dave Cass | @davidleecass

For more information on Derek and Spinal Singularity: | @spinalsingularity

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