November. 06, 2019 News

Sonavi Labs, the Pigtown-based company that’s bringing to market digital stethoscope technology combining noise cancellation and AI that was initially developed by Johns Hopkins scientists, has raised $1 million in seed funding.

It’s the first official fundraising round for a company that’s been bootstrapped over its first two years, and Sonavi Labs reached the seven-figure milestone without raising from institutional venture capital firms. Instead, the investors, whose names are not being disclosed by the company, come from the healthcare and scientific community, as well as friends and family, said CEO Ellington West.

Cofounded by West and CTO Ian McLane in 2017, the company has a license from Johns Hopkins for technology, known as Feelix, that combines hardware and software. Initially, the stethoscope will be designed to diagnose respiratory disease. It also does not require internet access — indicating a principle that guided the company as it developed technology that could be used in countries around the world.

“We wanted to reduce as many barriers as possible to ensure access,” West said.

The five-member team, which is based out of Harbor Designs and Manufacturing at 1100 Wicomico, pursued the round as it looked to move forward with regulatory approval and launch of the first two products. West said they received an outpouring of support, but were careful to engage investors who could also serve as partners and advisors to help move forward.

Coming in a year that the company placed third at the Startup World Cup, it’s a notable milestone in the wider investment world. It’s the reality that raising investment funding is rarer for a diverse company led by an African American woman than it is for their white counterparts. According to DigitalUndivided’s ProjectDiane2018, less than .0006% of the $424 billion in funding raised from 2009 to 2017 went to companies led by African American women. While there was an uptick in the last year studied by the report, it’s a stark reminder of the disparities.

“I’m incredibly proud of it but saddened in the same breath. Everywhere that I go in the healthtech space, I’m an anomaly. It’s a challenge that I’ve learned to navigate,” West said. “I’m also hopeful that because we were able to do it, I think that it’s hopefully indicative of things changing and us having a greater sense of appreciation for diversity in all spaces.”

As we noted during our Technologists of Color Month, diverse founders are also receive lower amounts of friends-and-family capital. The company’s ability to draw on a network makes it unique. West said she is by turn humbled and privileged, acknowledging that “a lot had to happen” for the company to be in a position to raise the funding.

The technology grew out of research at Johns Hopkins’ engineering school that was spearheaded by Dr. James West, a noted inventor of the electret microphone who is Ellington West’s father, as well as McLane, Mounya Elihali and Dimitra Emmanouilidou. Feelix grew directly out of master’s and Ph.D. research by McLane, and initial development was funded through grants from the NIH, the Gates Foundation and NASA. It has obtained two patents, and is seeking more.

The company has also gotten support in the Baltimore biz community. It was one of the ETC Accelerate Baltimore companies in 2018, and pitched at this year’s Beta City event, which is produced by Betamore. West said leaders like UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, ETC President Deb Tillett and Spark Baltimore’s Shervonne Cherry and University of Maryland’s Stan Smith have been champions for the company’s success.

The $1 million raise was also a team effort for the company, as McLane and Jaishree McLane pitched more than 30 times, and Chief Innovation Officer Ilene Busch-Vishniac also noted that she received support from her network. As they sought to raise funding, Chief Business Development Officer Brandon Dottin-Haley said the team tapped its network after putting “time, sweat and passion” into the company to date.

“We collected all of our resources and put them together to get us here,” he said.

Now the company is focused on moving forward — after all, funding helps put a plan into action. This will help the company fill pre-orders, work to expand a two-patent IP portfolio and engage in new research and development for treatment of future diseases. It has them working toward the next milestone, and thinking big.

“Once we start engaging with VC, then we have the opportunity to create a company with significant value that no African American founder has seen before,” Dottin-Haley said.