Pierson LabsRamona PiersonEverybody has a story but few are as painful and triumphant as Ramona Pierson’s.
Pierson is the CEO of a stealth startup, Pierson Labs.
She is also, quite possibly, the most inspiring tech founder in the Valley today. And that’s saying something.
Business Insider recently met with her and her cofounder Nelson González at the startup’s Palo Alto headquarters.
Pierson is lucky to be alive. She’s also lucky to be walking, talking and thinking, much less be leading her second startup, developing big-data education software.
In 1984, when she was 22 years old, she went out jogging with her dog and was hit by a drunk driver. The car crushed her face, throat, heart lungs and legs. At the hospital, she fell into an 18-month coma. And then she had a heart attack.
Instead of killing her, the heart attack woke her up. She came to weighing 64 pounds, blind and unable to walk, talk, eat.
Doctors rebuilt her through more than 50 surgeries: a plastic nose, a new eye, lots of titanium used as bones and some bones taken from cadavers, too.
“Eventually, I started to look human,” she says in her stirring 2011 Ted Talk about the ordeal.
Today, she looks more than human. She looks like the attractive, fit, ex-Marine that she is. But it was a long road to recovery involving having to relearn everything.
In the marines, Pierson learned to code. Her experience lead to an interest in neuroscience so during her military service she wrote algorithms to diagnose brain injuries from the battlefield.
That lead to an interest in how people learn and a job as director of technology for Seattle Public Schools. There she created a social network for students and teachers called “The Source.”
And that lead to her first startup, SynapticMash, an education software company sold to Promethean World for $10 million in 2010.
But her injuries still plagued her. The cadaver bone in her leg randomly broke while she was running and needed to be replaced. Just last year, her toes needed to be fixed.
She became so good at living through surgeries that she actually negotiated the sale of SynapticMash from the hospital recovery room 15 minutes after an operation. She refused the pain medicine and instead popped open her laptop, hopped onto Skype and sold her company, she told Business Insider.
Despite her history, Pierson is a cheerful, hopeful, driven person with a big sense of humour and an enormous amount of charisma. A screenwriter for Moneyball is even writing screenplay about her life.
Her new company is likely to be more successful than the last one. Pierson Labs will exit stealth next month and the company already has some big customers, with A-list venture capitalist Vinod Khosla her advisor, we’ve heard.
The company is home to about 20 employees who are building a big-data platform called Declara. It’s a combo analytics/social networking platform to help teachers create more personalised lessons for students. It can also be used by enterprises for training, González told us.
Plus the company is working on other interesting projects. For instance, Hall of Famer 49er’s football player Ronnie Lott is an investor, Pierson says. He wants to make football safer and is looking at Pierson’s tech for that. By attaching sensors to player’s bodies, the platform can analyse bio-mechanic data and assess injuries.
Pierson is also half of a Valley power couple. Her partner Debra Chrapaty, Zynga’s former CIO, just became CEO for Khosla-backed cloud-storage startup Nirvanix.