Sonavi Labs co-founder and CEO Ellington West discusses her company’s drive to improve patient outcomes, her experience as a black female, and the pressing need for greater diversity in healthcare leadership.

Tell us the story behind Sonavi Labs – what led you to start the company?

Our team understands that healthcare is a human right and everyone deserves access to the best possible care.

This project started because Dr James West, inventor of the electret microphone and professor at Johns Hopkins University, took on a Gates Foundation challenge to reduce pediatric mortality as a result of pneumonia. His team, including Ian McLane, Mounya Elhilali and Dimitra Emmanouilidou, created the technology that would become Feelix, a rapid, digital respiratory disease diagnostic, capable of detecting respiratory abnormalities in seconds.

Realizing the impact that respiratory diseases have all over the world, Dr West, who happens to be my father, introduced Ian to me while I was working as the Director of Sales for a national healthcare organization. My father knew that Ian and I would see the vision and have the ability to build a team to deploy a solution that could curb the impact of respiratory diseases globally. Diseases like asthma, pneumonia, COPD and even COVID-19 have disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities, and we know that technology can bridge the gap and save lives.

Sonavi Labs is on a mission to improve patient outcomes by coupling the most advanced acoustic technology available with clinically validated machine learning algorithms that help patients and providers more quickly diagnose and more effectively manage diseases.

You have led Sonavi Labs from a research project into a globally recognized, pioneering healthtech company. What are the key tenets of your success in this venture?

The key to the success of Sonavi Labs is the amazingly diverse team that has come together to execute the mission of the company. Ian, my co-founder, and I knew that we would need to enlist the best and brightest to make a significant impact in healthcare.

We have Dr Ilene Busch-Vishniac, an esteemed academic and former Dean of the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering and former President of the Acoustical Society of America, serving as our Chief Innovation Officer, along with Brandon Dottin-Haley, an accomplished entrepreneur and branding, marketing and sales expert, and Jaishree Singhal who is a data governance expert. Jaishree is a first generation immigrant from India whose experience includes managing large data projects for Providence-St Joseph’s Hospital and Kaiser Permanente, among others.

We have also been blessed to attract top-tier advisors and leaders within the medical field and healthcare industry, including Dr Eric McCollum, our Chief Medical Officer and Director of Global Pediatric Respiratory Health at Johns Hopkins, and Leslie Wise, an extremely accomplished reimbursement advisor, who has helped numerous companies achieve coverage for novel medical products.

Because of the diverse experiences of our team, we have been incredibly thoughtful and intentional in building the device and platform to ensure that it has great ease-of-use and a wide range of flexibility in its possible applications.

You have garnered numerous accolades – both personally and as a company. What achievement are you most proud of?

Raising capital as a black woman in America is a notoriously tough task, and this has been well documented. Yet, despite the challenges and setbacks, I am now one of less than 100 black women to raise more than $1 million in funding for their venture. This is an historic milestone that I am proud of for a couple reasons.

The first is because of the example that it sets for other black women entrepreneurs out there. By July of 2021, black women-led companies had received only 0.34% of venture funding, and by the same time had surpassed 2018 annual fundraising totals by $10M. Each year, more and more black women create and launch new businesses and raise more and more money to support their communities, and I am proud that I can be an example for so many.

The second reason why I am so proud of this accomplishment is because it gives our company the fuel to do what we do, to make the products we hope will have lasting impacts on the health and wellbeing of people everywhere. When Ian and I set out to create this company in 2017, I knew that it was going to be a huge task to build a medical device company and that it was going to be expensive. Achieving this milestone assured me and the team that the work we are doing has value and it is going to be successful.

You are passionate about using your platform to advocate for women in executive roles and diversity of thought leadership. What steps do you feel the healthcare and venture capital industries need to take?

I am so glad that I have the opportunity to be a new face in this industry and to represent a community that has had so little access to influence the trajectory of the healthcare industry. It is time, however, for more diversity among leadership in the healthcare space, and that includes solution providers, academia, and within health systems. The old tropes that qualified talent is hard to find have to be called out for the excuses that they are, because there are talented and qualified candidates who are often passed over. Our society often evaluates a person’s abilities by the universities they attend and positions they hold within large institutions, but that often discredits the valuable experiences of people like me, who don’t have an Ivy league degree.

Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?

My father has been a huge influence on me. As a man, growing up in the Jim Crow era south, his experiences could have led to very different outcomes, but he persevered and built an extraordinary career, with highlights such as inventing the electret microphone, changing global communications, and now collaborating on life-saving technology. There are very few people, other than my mother, a passionate educator and actor, who have had as much of an impression on me.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs looking to work in medical AI?

Do your research! It is so important to understand the changing healthcare landscape, and anyone interested in deploying AI into the medical space should be well aware of the clinical burdens and evidence hurdles that you’ll need to overcome in order to successfully commercialize your technology. Any entrepreneur that is going to enter the healthcare space, especially the American healthcare industry, should understand the nuanced pathways to becoming successful and that requires a ton of research and hard work.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The best piece of advice I have ever received was to trust myself, trust my journey and trust my own abilities. I would not be where I am today if I doubted myself at every turn and made excuses to allow myself to quit. There is a certain level of faith you have to have in yourself to overcome obstacles. If you don’t believe that any challenge placed before you is there to teach you and show you your own strength, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention to your own life.

Ellington West is the Co-Founder and CEO of Sonavi Labs, a medical device and software company based in Baltimore, MD. Sonavi Labs spun out of Johns Hopkins University and has created Feelix, a smart stethoscope and AI-enabled platform that harnesses the power of machine learning to identify and track respiratory abnormalities with the same accuracy as a trained physician. She brings over 10 years of experience in healthcare business development, market research and leadership to Sonavi Labs and is overseeing the development of the company’s inaugural product line.

Prior to founding Sonavi Labs, Ellington served as the Mid- Atlantic Director of Sales for a national healthcare organization, delivering record-breaking revenue and profit gains within highly competitive regional markets. She is an exceptional communicator with strong negotiation, problem resolution, and client needs assessment aptitude. Ellington is equally effective at identifying opportunities, developing focus, and providing tactical business solutions to achieve ambitious revenue benchmarks. 

Under Ellington’s leadership, Sonavi Labs has grown from a research project into a globally recognized, pioneering health tech company. She has recruited the management team, led successful fundraising initiatives, and continues to build the global presence of Sonavi Labs. Sonavi Labs was named 2020 Startup of the Year by Baltimore, recognized by the Hello-Tomorrow Foundation as a Deep Tech Pioneer, and was a sponsored guest of the Department of State at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague. Ellington has had numerous successful showings in global competitions, including winning the title of “Best Pitch” at Arab Health 2020. Ellington has been asked to speak as an industry leader for the American Telehealth Association, Johnson & Johnson, and National Society of Black Engineers. She also serves as a mentor and advisor to the Consortium for Technology and Innovation in Pediatrics (CTIP), developing content to support portfolio companies. Recently, Ellington was named by the Baltimore Sun as one of the 25 Women to Watch in Healthcare, and she is also a fellow in the 2021 Cartier Women’s Initiative North America. In 2021, Ellington was also named to Inc Magazine’s 100 Female Founders list. She continues to use her platform to advocate for women in executive roles and diversity of thought leadership, particularly within the healthcare and venture capital arenas.