“Ian McLane and I started Sonavi Labs in 2017. We are an early-stage company that has a lot of traction for as young as we are.
I always start by telling people I am not a scientist or a doctor, at best, I'm a political scientist, at least that is what my degree will claim.
I come from a business development, strategic planning, and healthcare background so it was easy to translate into this entrepreneurial role. I felt incredibly prepared when it came to building out a business case and a strategy around this company.
It all started when my dad, James West, who is the inventor of the electric microphone that's in 90% of microphones in the world and a current professor at Johns Hopkins University, came to me and said there is this crazy problem we're facing that one child every 39 seconds, loses their life to pneumonia.
He told me these were children under the age of five. I looked at my dad and said, ‘But isn't pneumonia detectable and treatable? If there is a diagnostic pathway forward here, where's the bottleneck? Why are we seeing such high fatality rates?’
He said there's just not enough access to physicians, specifically in emerging markets, who can roll up their sleeves and get involved.
He then told me about a device, now known as Feelix, that he and his team developed with the support of the Gates Foundation. Feelix is a stethoscope device that contains a microphone array and noise suppression technology, that in real time, can empower community health workers and patients who are on the front lines, to make a diagnosis of respiratory infections within ten seconds.
My dad knew that if we didn’t commercialize this device, it was just going to die on the shelves at Hopkins. I couldn't unhear it. I couldn't unsee it. I felt a responsibility to do this work because if you have the ability to change even one life, then you need to do everything you can to do so.
I realized the problems we were seeing in terms of the prevalence of these respiratory diseases that were in the emerging markets, were just as severe in our own backyard here in Baltimore.
African American children are three times more likely to die from an asthma attack than any other patient population. COPD is the third largest killer of African American adults.
I recognized we had a huge opportunity to reshape how we manage these chronic respiratory diseases.
The opportunity and the impact were right in our backyard, so we shifted from this emerging market, global health focused company to a very North American, reimbursement driven company; to ensure that we would be able to have the financial bottom line to support us to ultimately get back to our why, which was that emerging market population.
We were able to get Feelix on the market and into the areas where it’s needed due to the work of our international research partners in Malawi, Bangladesh and Peru.
We've also relied on our research partners here in the U.S. at Hopkins, LifeBridge and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.
The first phase of research was validation, working through workflows and determining where Feelix could be most beneficial in those spaces.
From there, we moved from commercialization to the consumer path through partnerships with insurance companies and hospital systems that identify chronic respiratory patients in need, and then say let’s get this device prescribed to those patients and covered by our insurance companies.
We are currently working to get Feelix in a consumer facing space where patients will actually have the device in their homes.”
“I think an important part about this path to market is really making sure that the people who need the device the most are part of the research process.
One of our very big grants is through the National Institutes of Minority Health, which has helped us test the device within the homes of the patients who would be using it.
We get as much feedback as we can from them, we're designing for them, and designing around the pain points within the healthcare system with them in mind.
We are able to do this great work because we are based in Baltimore, which is the perfect place for our business.
The city has been a blessing for us and our business because we have access to world class institutions here. The Johns Hopkins community, Upsurge, and LifeBridge have played a significant role in the growth of Sonavi Labs.
There is also a startup ecosystem in Baltimore that everyone wants to see succeed and because of that, you end up throwing your support behind everyone else in that community.
If you think about startup spaces in bigger tech hubs, in many cases they’re fighting each other for resources. Here in Baltimore, I believe the rising tide lifts all boats because it's a much more collaborative spirit in this city.
It's easy to get to other cities for resources and we don’t have to deal with the high cost of living like other cities.
Ellington and I were making pennies during our first few years in business, so it was great to be in a city that was affordable. We didn't have to make dramatic changes to our lives while we were trying to start a company.
I think that was a great benefit for our sanity and our ability to grow the company. I moved here ten years ago for undergrad, and I love Baltimore.
I've seen Baltimore change so much, so I'm really excited to see it continue to grow, especially for minority entrepreneurs who are often underrepresented in the business community.
It’s important to uplift underrepresented voices of people within the business community because we’ve noticed a sense of groupthink in the startup space that comes from homogeneity and the people who are in the room.
If you have a room full of people who come from the same walks of life, it ends up meaning they'll think similarly. Then when you try to think about how to problem solve, it becomes hard to empathize with communities outside of that.
The reason Sonavi has been in this interesting position is that, because we're basically all minorities from various minority groups, and we work with institutions all over the world, we're able to come to this problem with a different perspective.
We're designing for the lowest common denominator and not a niche. When we were developing our system to support asthma management, we heard from people that asthma patients are pretty well managed.
We knew that wasn’t true for black and brown communities and had to explain that it’s very much true for suburban, white families, but not for urban, black and brown families.
This is an example of why having people at the table who can speak to those underrepresented voices who aren't at the table is really important.
It’s for everyone's benefit that there are people at the table who are able to speak to different experiences, because then it changes the way you design for those experiences.
Dr. West, Ellington’s father, has been a big champion of uplifting underrepresented voices of people since I started working in his lab as an undergraduate student.
Every single person he brought on was someone from a minority group. He said he did this because he didn’t want everyone in his lab to think the same.
He believes our differences spur innovation. He started that culture early on with us and we’ve adopted that culture at Sonavi Labs.”
“My hopes for the future of Baltimore's economy are rooted in duplicating the work that great organizations are doing in the city.
The Ingenuity Project, a phenomenal organization that focuses on driving an interest in STEM in the city, pulls the most incredible, talented students and amplifies and cultivates them. They give these students the opportunity to see exactly what the road ahead looks like when it comes to being in an innovative role.
I would love to see our Ingenuity students have an immediate pipeline to the best universities in our state that then lead to the best jobs, right in our city.
My husband owns Harbor Designs and Manufacturing, and the goal of their work is to create an infrastructure that will allow the people in the community to walk to work. This will allow people to stay within their communities and grow them however they choose to. This is one of the opportunities they are committed to creating for each individual who joins their team.
Companies like Catalyte and Baltimore Tracks are also working to quantify the impact that entrepreneurship and innovation can have in this city, but we all have to subscribe to it and do the work for it to have the impact we want on Baltimore’s economy.”