Ellington West had been leading a national sales team for a large healthcare company when she got a call from her father. A professor at Johns Hopkins known for inventing the microphones we use today, he had built a device to detect respiratory conditions as part of a Gates Foundation challenge to reduce pediatric mortality from pneumonia.
“My dad said, ‘this device is going to live and die on a shelf at Hopkins unless we did something about it,’” she said. “When you know that there’s this problem, one child dying every 36 seconds, and that you are aware there’s a tool that can help impact those numbers, you can’t not respond. There’s a responsibility that comes with that.”
She set out with her co-founder, who had worked as a research assistant on the project, to found Sonavi Labs in 2017. The Baltimore-based startup makes smart stethoscopes that can be used at home or in the clinic, and in the longer term, the company hopes to get FDA clearance to use it to detect respiratory conditions.
The problem Sonavi Labs hopes to solve is massive. Pneumonia is the largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Although the device can be used for adults and children, Sonavi has started with a focus on pediatrics.
“The pediatric device market is so underserved, when you really think about innovation,” West said. “It takes so much more effort and attention and compassion to ensure these devices are commercialized and do reach the patient. From a capital standpoint, it’s an underfunded space. … It really requires specialized hospitals and pediatricians and all of these organizations to come together to see change happen.”
Right now, Sonavi has 510(k) clearance for its Feelix noise-cancelling stethoscope. It recently made a FDA submission to seek breakthrough designation for its device to detect pneumonia. In the future, it plans to expand to other respiratory conditions, such as asthma and COPD.
Judges picked Sonavi Labs as the winner of MedCity INVEST’s Pitch Perfect competition for home health.
“Sonavi Labs has developed a critical solution, especially in today’s unprecedented times,” Lily Huang, a principal at NEA, wrote in an email. “Ellington delivered a strong message on the potential wide-reaching impact of Feelix.”
Nickolas Mark, a managing director and partner at Intermountain Ventures, congratulated the company for its focus on transforming the detection and management of respiratory diseases.
To date, Sonavi has raised a total of $6.5 million, including $3.5 million from seed investors, and another $3 million in grants.
Photo credit: Jackie Niam, Getty Images