I Wasted $40,000 on a Fantastic Startup Idea

When good ideas make for bad business

Tom Cleveland
Published in
9 min readJan 7, 2020


Photo: Khotcharak Siriwong/EyeEm/Getty Images

YYou have a mind-shattering headache. You’re standing in the aisle of your local CVS, massaging your temples while scanning the shelves for something — anything — to make the pain stop.

What do you reach for? Tylenol? Advil? Aleve?

Most people, I imagine, grab whatever’s cheapest, or closest, or whatever they always use. But if you’re scrupulous enough to ask Google for the best painkiller, here’s how your friendly neighborhood tech behemoth would answer:

Oh, thanks, Google—that’s just all of them.

If you’re among the 77% of Americans that Google their health problems, insipid answers like this won’t surprise you. But we should be surprised because researchers carry out tens of thousands of clinical trials every year. And hundreds of clinical trials have examined the effectiveness of painkillers. So why can’t I Google those results?

And so in the year of our lord 2017 I had a brilliant startup idea: Use a structured database of clinical trials to provide simple, practical answers to common medical questions.

As a proof-of-concept I tried this by hand: I made a spreadsheet with every OTC painkiller trial I could find and used R to run a network meta-analysis, the gold standard of evidence-based medicine.

The results were pretty interesting, and exactly the kind of thing I was looking for back in the sad, sterile aisles of CVS:

Results from my first meta-analysis (157 trials, 4,400 people).

A wave of exhilaration washed over me. Here was a problem that:

  1. Was interesting
  2. Could help people
  3. I knew how to solve

A perfect bullseye. After a few hours searching domains I came up with a name for my project: GlacierMD.

Over the next nine months, I would quit my job, write over 200,000 lines of code…