Sonavi Lab’s CEO Ellington West: Black Entrepreneur on a Mission to Fight Bias and Save Lives
Sonavi Labs chief Ellington West has not been short of role models, or challenges. Or ones that offered both — like her Black father, an innovator whose microphone technology is in use in 90% of the world’s devices, and also threw her a challenge, or her grandmother who was part of the “human computers” that helped NASA catapult John Glenn into space in 1962.
“My father is my hero, role model, my greatest inspiration,” West, 34, once told an interviewer. The older West is also the one who has set his daughter off on what is currently her biggest challenge — taking to the market a digital stethoscope, built at Johns Hopkins by a team led by her father, that could detect pneumonia, and possible COVID-19, and prevent deaths. Dr. West developed the tool along with a student, Ian McLane, as a response to a challenge from the Gates Foundation but feared the research could simply gather dust unless somebody developed it into a functional, marketable device.
The younger West jumped right in, quitting her job as a business development director at healthcare company, and joining with McLane to start Sonavi Labs. Since 2017, the Baltimore startup has raised $4.5 million from venture firms. This made West one of fewer than 100 Black entrepreneurs who have raised more than $1 million in venture capital, according to Inc. magazine. Sonavi’s backers include Sand Hill Angels, Gaingels, PTX Capital, Nightingale Partners and Synetro Group. Its last round worth $3.5 million closed last September.
Sonavi has advanced the development of the stethoscopes, dubbed Feelix. The device — approved by the FDA in 2020 and available in 10 countries — uses an “adaptive noise suppression algorithm” to record sounds from the lung. It then uses artificial intelligence to analyze them to detect pneumonia in less than 15 seconds. A simple version targeted at home users serves as an early warning system, while the Feelix Pro used by clinicians is more advanced and comes with a digital display.
Feelix, after years of further research, can differentiate pneumonia from asthma in pediatric patients. It can also distinguish viral and bacterial pneumonia. The latter has led West to believe that the device could be configured to “identify the acoustical signature” of COVID-19.
In addition to improving the health and well-being of people across the world, West is passionate about three things — advancing opportunities for people of color, and women, and developing Baltimore.
“I am also deeply familiar with the man who has been disrespected and challenged at nearly every turn,” West wrote about his father. “Among the moments that stand out occurred when I was young, I watched my father be mistaken for the valet on his way to deliver a keynote address. This moment has truly sat with me.”
West herself has cited similar challenges in everyday life, and in work life. She is often not taken to be the CEO she is, with people simply assuming that one of her white male colleagues is the one. In an article in The Baltimore Sun to commemorate Black History month last year, West said she was working with her father “to build the bridges that enrich Black communities, supporting each other with living examples and road maps.”
West’s pledges to Baltimore are two-fold. One, she wants to use the Feelix stethoscopes to cut deaths in the city, notably the Black children who are at three times higher risk of death from asthma. She has also vowed to “continue to connect children to STEAM-focused programs that understand the nuanced challenges of our community.”