This week I was delighted to catch up with Ellington West co-founder and CEO of Sonavi Labs, a medical device and software company using AI technology to enhance chronic disease management, based in Baltimore, Maryland.
Ellington comes from a tradition of changemakers. Her grandmother was one of the human computers working for NASA as portrayed in the book and movie, Hidden Figures. Ellington’s father Dr. James West is a renowned inventor with over 250 patents, credited with the invention of the foil electret microphone, used in many mobile phones today. Dr. West’s invention is the basis for Sonavi Labs’ keystone product, the Feelix smart stethoscope.
Ellington has taken things a step further with Sonavi Labs where she has leveraged her father’s research to develop an AI-infused stethoscope to help detect, diagnose and manage respiratory problems.
I started by asking Ellington what drove her to start a company.
Even before the global pandemic, respiratory diseases were some of the most expensive and fatal conditions that we face as a global community. Every year there are an astonishing number of infant deaths from pneumonia, when we know that pneumonia is both detectable and treatable.
My father approached me when I was still working as Director of Sales for a healthcare company. He told me his research team created a dynamic technology in his lab at Johns Hopkins and someone needed to take it out of the lab and into the market.
Once you know there is a technology that can save lives, specifically pediatric lives, you can’t un-know that. You have to do something about it.
So, we set out to develop a chronic respiratory management system for all respiratory patients because there is no reason why we shouldn’t have the same quality of care in the home that we can have in the clinic. From there, the Feelix smart stethoscope was born.
In terms of founding a company, I have always had a desire to bring people together, to help people identify their strengths around common goals. I didn’t realize that was part of what makes a CEO, I just knew that I loved rallying people around challenges. I don’t think young Ellington dreamed of being a CEO of a medtech company, but I always believed that when you get the right people around a powerful idea, anything can happen.
Ellington exudes such calm confidence when she talks about the company she is building. I pushed her a little on what some of the challenges must have been in those early days.
The entrepreneurial path takes a lot of grit and determination because things don’t always go the way you plan. You have to be flexible. You have to be ready to pivot. You have to be able to accept wins, but you have to be able to accept failures too and push through them.
The hardest part was understanding the nuances around bringing a medical device to market. It felt like we had decided to summit Everest even before we had climbed a small hill. It’s hard just to figure out the team dynamics and how to keep people motivated. There are so many things that are up in the air and the most important thing you can do is choose what your priorities are as a leader, and then what the priorities are for each of your colleagues and get laser focused on those things.
Even with Johns Hopkins in the background, Baltimore is not a typical hub for tech startups. I asked Ellington what it was like building a company in Maryland.
The pandemic has transformed what we consider startup hubs. Here in Baltimore we have world-renowned universities, we’re a stone’s throw from NIH and all the national labs. We have great talent here and the cost of living is more affordable. We always had access to physicians and tech leaders and now, because of the pandemic, we have access to investors. Everything is being negotiated digitally so we don’t have to trek across the country to get in front of investors or to have clinical partners and tech partners consider us.
All of the ingredients that make a tech hub great exist in every city around the world.
Ellington’s experience here really chimes with Microsoft’s core belief in the democratization of innovation. Easier access to investors leads to a more diverse group of founders. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you should be able to reach an investor and find the support your vision needs.
Given the quality of investors Sonavi Labs has secured so far, I wondered if Ellington had any tips, once you’re able to reach a potential investor.
One of our first and most critical hires was Brandon Dottin-Haley as Chief Business Development Officer. He made it clear that the first thing we needed to focus on was nurturing our relationships with potential investors. At that time in 2017, it seemed Baltimore was very limited in terms of available capital and specifically investors that were interested in a company like ours which was both hardware and software.
The way we solved that was through pitch competitions. Getting on stages and creating a brand for ourselves as founders to become the experts in this space and build trust and build momentum.
We also relied on our networks. As we began fundraising, we started with a friends-and-family round and we always considered the power of their networks, ensure that we could grow as a company through the power of who they knew.
Finding those first three investors was the hardest, and after that it was about maintaining those relationships, getting on stages, publishing papers and ensuring that we were thought of as industry experts.
Even now as we’re raising our series A, in a difficult market, we’re leaning back on those relationships and partners, like Microsoft, which really open doors that we otherwise might not have access to. It’s exactly this kind of support that we have had from Microsoft for Startups which makes a difference for small companies.
I was fascinated to hear about how Sonavi Labs had identified and leveraged the kinds of startup pitch competitions that take place around the country to really hone their messaging and establish their credibility. I asked Ellington to talk more about that experience.
One of the most important things you can do is create a brand for yourself as a founder to become an expert in your space and be regarded as such. Always take the stage when given the opportunity, whether that be a pitch competition, a panel or a lecture. Always take the meeting, always take the opportunity.
We have seen so many positive results from our interactions on the stage, and that includes investors, advisors, key opinion leaders and potential customers. You have to think about how far you want your story to travel and every time you speak there may be someone in that room that has the potential to change the trajectory of your life and the fate of your company.
We just won at SXSW in the health, wearables and wellbeing category and the result was many inbound investors, potential customers and so many potential clinical partners that we could barely keep up.
It doesn’t matter what city or town you’re in, get up on stage and talk about your company!
It’s such an important message. Some founders have a real fear of networking and Ellington makes a great case for using events like pitch competitions to draw attention to you and your company and get over that first networking hurdle.
Switching gears and basing it on my own experience in the IoT space, I was keen to hear how Sonavi Labs was balancing the load as both a hardware and AI-powered software company.
Hardware is hard. When you’re trying to integrate your “hard” hardware with your software you have to ensure that none of the information is siloed. Everything that your software team is doing, every small change they make, they have to be cognizant of the impact it could have on your hardware or on the user experience. You can never test enough. You can never have enough feedback from your customers.
We were so proud of our first device. We were shipping it to our clinical partners but when they received the device, they asked us how to use it. There were four buttons, but they couldn’t understand it. They told us, “We just need one button.” In that transition from four buttons to one button we saw a crazy uptick in adoption and willingness to use the device.
When you’re dealing with a hardware/software solution the two best things you can do are ensure that you’re very close to your customer and able to adapt to their needs and maintain continuity between your teams as it relates to any and all changes that you make.
Great advice, and hard-won wisdom about the added complexity of managing hardware and software development in parallel.
I asked Ellington if she’d had any misconceptions about running a business, or anything she wishes she had known when she first started Sonavi Labs.
I wish I had demystified the VC process sooner. I was always nervous about how to approach institutional investors. I never felt prepared. I never thought we were ready. It was just fear. Once I understood how investors operate, it was so much easier.
I wish everybody raising money today could just tell themselves, “This technology/work/mission is going to be successful. I’ve done the research. No one knows it better than I do and if I get a No, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that your tech isn’t viable. It just means that we’re not the right company for this fund.”
If you prepare yourself mentally for the Nos so you can work through to the Yeses, you’ll realize it isn’t that difficult of a journey.
Focus on the fact that you are bringing to market something that no one can do better than you, because of the passion and dedication that you’ve already invested.
Having covered the importance of finding the right team, creating the right brand and securing the right investor, I asked Ellington about how Sonavi Labs is going about generating sales and landing customers.
We’ve been fortunate that a lot of our work was rooted in collaboration with research partners. It makes sense then for clinical partners to transition into paying customers. We worked on a model where we move from beta, to pilot, to test, to commercial application of the product.
In addition to our clinical research partners, our device can be prescribed as a medical necessity, so our sales team has worked with physicians to point them to our white papers and articles in medical journals to educate providers on the benefits of using Feelix for their patients.
Once again, Ellington shows what a clear vision she had for bringing a new medical device to market. I had to find out what her experience working with Microsoft for Startups had been like and whether she felt supported, operating out of Baltimore in a tight vertical.
It’s really been a joy for us. The strategic support we received at conferences has been amazing. As a startup, we come as an unknown entity. Having the big brand of Microsoft and Microsoft for Startups standing behind you saying, “We understand this technology. We support this technology, and we are going to navigate this journey with you,” is very meaningful.
Also, as a young company, it’s vital to have sage wisdom along the way. One of the greatest benefits that we’ve had as a Microsoft for Startups company has been the technical support that we received. We did a huge migration to Azure from AWS because we wanted the company to be all in one place, and we’ve had limitless support, countless phone calls and real boots on the ground to help us and make it an easy and seamless process.
But above all, it’s the sense of community. I meet with other women entrepreneurs about once a month, all women in the Microsoft for Startups program. We all learn from each other talking about challenges and opportunities. The fact that I can pick up the phone and call someone and get the help or the advice I need in that moment is tremendously supportive.
We’ve been a part of a lot of accelerators. We have never had an experience like we have with Microsoft for Startups in terms of the thoughtfulness and willingness to understand what’s special about our technology.
I’m very grateful and I know that it has helped us as we’ve raised money and sought new customers and as we continue to make a name for ourselves in this space.
It’s been fantastic spending time with Ellington West and seeing the thought and the care that has gone into growing her company, Sonavi Labs. She is on a mission to save lives and improve the lives of respiratory patients and she’s pursuing that goal calmly and confidently. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing great things from both Ellington and Sonavi Labs in the months and years ahead.
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Tags: Meet the Innovators