Federal SBIR/STTR Grants Are Helping A Latina Founder Bring A Respiratory Device To Market
Many respiratory illnesses affect people in the U.S.:
- Asthma—25 million
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—15.7 million
- Long-hauler Covid-19 patients (about 10% of all cases)
- Bronchiectasis—350,000 to 500,000
- Pulmonary fibrosis—100,000
Maria Artunduaga is founder and CEO at Respira Labs. Her beloved abuela (grandmother) Sylvia died of complications from being hospitalized after her COPD worsened. It was very frustrating for Artunduaga’s family of physicians monitoring abuela’s care while living away from her. They didn’t know that her symptoms were worsening.
As a physician who had gone back to school to learn how to turn medical innovations into products, Artunduaga wanted to develop a wearable device that would help respiratory patients. She named the device Sylvee, after her abuela. The device monitors pulmonary volumes, trapped air, respiratory and heart rates, breathing sounds, and temperature around the clock to provide actionable insights on optimizing day-to-day respiratory health.
Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant funding from the National Science Foundation (NFS) and National Institute of Health (NIH) played a crucial role in providing early stage, non-dilutive funding for the startup.
“The standard of care for respiratory patients, regardless of diagnosis, is asking a series of questions,” sighed Artunduaga. “There is a lot of subjectivity in interpreting the answers, resulting in about half of exacerbations being missed or undiagnosed.”
While getting her Masters in Translational Medicine at the University of California, Berkeley, Artunduaga focused on turning medical innovations into products and services. She did customer discovery, talking to the different stakeholders in the respiratory illness ecosystem. The interviews included patients, doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies.
If a wearable device were developed that monitored respiratory symptoms accurately and remotely, would the market buy it? The market answered with a resounding, “yes.” She expanded her degree to include Entrepreneurship, Business Development, Regulatory Affairs, and Intellectual Property.
As a Latina immigrant who wasn’t a techie and didn’t have an MBA, it was challenging to recruit a CTO co-founder. “People told me it’s just an idea. You don’t have money,” exclaimed Artunduaga. “They weren’t willing to leave their well-paying jobs in big tech companies.”
Artunduaga was undeterred. As a Colombian immigrant whose home country has been dealing with armed conflict for decades, she has learned to be highly creative and resourceful. To find talent, Artunduaga tapped into her school networks, including Colombia’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Harvard’s Department of Genetics, and the universities of Washington and California in Berkeley-San Francisco. She used her husband’s connections as a senior staff engineer at Google.
“I started applying for every type of funding I could think of,” emphasized Artunduaga. Getting federal grant funding is highly competitive. “The success rate for phase one is about 13%,” said Artunduaga. She received the first one from NSF, which paid for completing 100 potential customer interviews. The research established that they would pay for a wearable. Respira received additional grants from NSF and also from NIH. The company was awarded $1.8 million SBIR/STTR in grants from NSF and NIH, and other startup prizes. Startup prize awards included VentureWell E-Teams Stage 1 and 2, Big Ideas@Berkeley, Big Bang! Business Competition at UC Davis, Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge, MedTech Color Pitch Competition and ResMed’s Entrepreneur in Residence grant program.
Receiving grant money and winning several competitions was critical to attracting top talent to the startup. Eleven federal agencies provide SBIR/STTR grants, and in 2018, only 13% of SBIR grants went to women. Grant funding is also critical because of the long journey for medical devices, such as Sylvee, until they receive FDA clearance and can sell to the public. Without non-dilutive funding, founders would rely entirely on equity financing if they could raise it. Because of the lengthy product development cycle, medical device startups might have to give most of their company away before their startups brought the innovation to market.
“It is critical that all SBIR/STTR participating federal agencies recommit to taking innovative, actionable steps to ensure greater representation of women entrepreneurs, including women of color, across America’s Seed Fund programs and also report out with disaggregated data by race and gender,” said Tene Dolphin, executive director, National Women’s Business Council. “We really have to first reimagine the application peer-review process by intentionally and thoughtfully sharing information about available open slots and selection criteria for peer reviewers to create a pipeline of women who play a significant role in making STTR/SBIR awards. Equally important is requiring agency-developed outreach plans that prioritize and include minority women entrepreneurs, not just as peer reviewers, but also award recipients, coupled with impact reports that include disaggregated data.”
Respira recently raised $1 million in pre-seed venture capital led by Zentynel Frontier Investments with participation by VentureWell, ImpactAssets and several angel investors from the United States and Latin America.
Combined funding raised to date is $2.8 million. Assuming the startup meets its milestone of successful results among 150 patients in July of this year, it will raise more equity financing in the third quarter.
Artunduaga credits her success to the community of support that she has built. In addition to those already mentioned, her network includes being part of Stanford University’ StartX, UCBerkeley’s Skydeck, Springboard Enterprises, California Life Sciences, Rice Business Plan Competition, NSF Innovation Corps, CITRIS Foundry, and AWIS Stem to Market. Through these relationships, she has learned from people who have been there and done it before her. Through their experiences, she is learning how to avoid their mistakes.
As a female founder who has successfully navigated receiving SBIR/STTR grant money, Artunduaga shares the mistakes, she has made so others can learn from her.
What lessons have you learned from your mentors and funders?