At age six, Song Kim ’13 moved with her family from Korea to the United States. “We lived in an immigrant community, which was like an extended family,” she says. “And I became quickly aware of the ways that being a part of the non-dominant culture makes basic justice inaccessible…makes your life vulnerable to new immigration legislation or makes it harder to demand fair pay or know which laws protect you.”
At NYU Law, Kim participated in the Immigrant Defense Clinic and the Comparative Criminal Justice Clinic, and then after graduation worked as a staff attorney at the Asian American Defense and Education Fund in New York. She enrolled in an MBA program at the Yale School for Management in 2018, and there became part of the founding team of a medical technology company called KovaDx. Officially launched in February 2020, KovaDx aims to provide point-of-care diagnostic and monitoring tools to communities most at risk for red blood cell diseases, like sickle cell disease, which is most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and disproportionately impacts Black people in the United States.
In this Q&A, Kim discusses her transition from public interest law to entrepreneurship, and how NYU Law prepared her for both careers.
Can you tell me about your transition from a legal public interest career into the medical technology space? Why did you decide to get your MBA?
The community lawyering work I did with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund—which included policy work, immigration work, litigation—was really a dream job for a new law school graduate like me, who was interested in so many different aspects of public interest work.
Because I was working in the area of forced labor and trafficking, I became really interested in global supply chains, which is where the vast majority of trafficking happens. Working as a lawyer, I was helping individuals who had had horrible things happen to them as a result of this larger system, and I had questions about how that functioned.
I realized that I needed to learn to understand the levers of capitalism so that I could tap into the resources to help reallocate them more equitably to communities and issues that were perpetually pushed aside.
I also realized that I wanted to learn from people from different industries and walks of life, and to understand and learn from the perspectives that they brought so that we could all bring together our expertise to come up with strategic and creative solutions to the very common root causes of so many different kinds of injustices in our world today.
When you entered your master’s program, did you intend to shift out of the active practice of law? Or was your intention to return to public interest lawyering?
I didn’t go to my MBA program with the idea that I would leave [the law] or the idea that I wouldn't leave. I had decided what was most important was to keep an open mind about where I can bring the most impact with all of my experiences, and all of the things I’d learned, and all of the expertise that I've built throughout my career.
While I was a student, I was approached by who would become my co-founders—really brilliant scientists, Yaw [Ansong], who is a biomedical engineering PhD candidate at Berkeley currently, and who was a medical doctor in Ghana, and Tim [Adamson], who is a computer science PhD candidate at Yale. They had read about my interests, particularly how I was interested in racial disparities and justice, and felt I would be a good co-founder for this organization that was aimed at minimizing the racial disparities in access to care. Their idea was focused on sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder which disproportionately impacts the Black community, who historically and globally have worse access to direct health services and also to other social determinants of health in the US and throughout the world.
The more research I conducted on this topic, the more I came to realize that sickle cell disease is in some ways like human trafficking in that there is little attention to an issue that affects more people than we think. And so, true to my own promise to myself to keep an open mind, I was like, “Okay, I'll listen, I'll bite.”
Once I realized the scope of the problem, I realized it was not one I could turn away from.
What is the mission of KovaDx? You just launched early 2020; where are you in your company’s development?
KovaDx is in the prototype development stage for a diagnostic and monitoring tool that’s supposed to be used at the point of care.
My co-founder, when he was practicing as a doctor in Ghana, saw firsthand the preventable deaths caused by a lack of accessible diagnostics. This was because diagnostics were too expensive and because of the lack of infrastructure. In places like rural Sub-Saharan Africa, 85 percent of people born with sickle cell disease die before the age of five, simply because of the lack of diagnostics.
Here in the US, sickle cell disease is one of the most underfunded, underresourced diseases. It is not surprising that it also mostly impacts people of color. And so, we also wanted to build a tool that would help patients and their doctors to monitor the health of red blood cells in real time to help prevent “sickling crises,” which are one of the most painful and debilitating aspects of the disease.
As it stands, we have formed a number of partnerships with local institutions, like the University of Connecticut, and global ones, like the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, and we are exploring relationships with a number of governments and private hospital groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. When we are finished with our tech development—which we believe will be soon—our partnerships with these institutions will allow us to move into the clinical trial stage, as well as data collection to hone our tech.
Was there anything particular about your NYU Law education that helped prepare you for your new role as co-founder and chief operating officer of a medical technology company?
Well, I chose NYU Law because of its social justice impact orientation and the real support for students who want to actually go into public interest work, as well as the community of really passionate, and intense, and brilliant like-minded classmates.
As part of the Comparative Criminal Justice Clinic, I had the privilege of interning at the New York Asian Women’s Center, where my supervisor was a woman named Lauren Burke ’09, another alumna and now one of my best friends in life. She really taught me, not just what it takes to practically, effectively do the kinds of immigration cases that I would go on to do and to be the empathetic lawyer it takes to work with individuals affected by trauma, but also that we are affected ourselves by vicarious trauma. She taught me how important it is for us to set boundaries and take care of our own mental health. Those lessons stay with me as I learn more about the atrocities inherent to global health disparities.
I also think our training in looking at an issue from all angles—recognizing and assessing risks—has been really beneficial, because as entrepreneurs, we’re all dreamers. Because of my legal training, I think we are able to hone our vision and protect valuable resources.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted May 24, 2021.