Ashlyn Sanders was super successful academically and on track to become a doctor. She graduated from UNC a year early, interned in the Obama White House, and went to grad school at Duke. But while at Duke, a life altering diagnosis steered her to the path of entrepreneurship and an eventual investment from NBA legend Charles Barkley.
Donald Thompson: Hey everyone, welcome to the Donald Thompson Podcast!
We have a super impressive guest today, Ashlyn Sanders, the CEO of NeuroVice. Ashlyn is an African-American woman who always planned on going to medical school and becoming a doctor, but a life changing event has taken her on a completely different path.
She’ll tell you more about NeuroVice in just a moment – how it started, the challenges of being a minority seeking investment capital, and how she was able to secure investment from an NBA legend, the round mound of rebound, Sir Charles Barkley.
But let me tell you about her background. She grew up in Raleigh and went to UNC Chapel Hill for undergrad. She graduated a year early and got into grad school at Duke, but before that, she had an internship of a lifetime.
Ashlyn Sanders: Yeah, so I ended up finishing at UNC a year early and was really moved by President Obama’s election, was a volunteer for his campaign, really was moved by his messaging and had always been affiliated with politics.
Actually, my grandparents were very involved with their town council in Belhaven. They were both educators, and so they would take me often to town council meetings, and I learned the importance of civic activism and civic engagement at an early age and had always had an interest in policy and how that can help to improve people’s lives.
So when president Obama was elected, I thought, what not better, perfect time to apply for the White House internship and hopefully be able to have the opportunity to inform policy on a federal level, and so applied and was fortunate enough to be selected. It’s a very competitive process. There was an application and several interviews and of course vetting and finally got the call on the end of December and was invited up for the semester.
So I interned in the Office of Public Engagement and the Office of Science and Technology Policy from January to May.
Donald Thompson: Then in grad school at Duke, Ashlyn’s life changed and she became an accidental entrepreneur.
Ashlyn Sanders: Yeah. So interestingly, when I was in graduate school, I took a Myers Briggs test, the personality test, and I’m an ENFJ. And, the career choice that was number one was an executive or CEO, and I laughed it off.
I just thought that, you know, it must have been an error of the sample size or whatever they use to figure out because I always thought, you know, I want to pursue medicine. And that was, it was on the list, but it wasn’t as high up. So, flashback to a couple of months before doing that test, I started graduate school at Duke in 2014, that fall, and a couple of weeks into doing the program, I was diagnosed with a Chiari malformation.
Which is a rare and life threatening neurologic condition that affects the brain. The interest thing about the diagnosis is that it’s typically an incidental finding. So for example, if a patient comes in and complains of migraines or headaches that ultimately lead to diagnostic testing in the form of an MRI or CAT scan, the doctor may see the Chiari malformation, but it’s typically not symptomatic in patients who have it. And so mine was an anomaly, not only in the diagnosis case, but also in the way that it presented itself in my body. So my Chiara was causing severe seizures and impaired my breathing. My first kind of inclination that something was wrong was actually a couple of months before that when I was in DC, I started to get headaches intermittently, and went to a neurologist.
And of course, given my background, there wasn’t really an indication to do significant diagnostic testing at that time. So I was really taking more ad hoc medications to palliate the migraines. And then in the fall, I had my first seizure, what we knew at the time, we didn’t know what it was. But I was actually misdiagnosed over a period of three days as having panic disorder.
So in combination with receiving the diagnosis, going into emergent brain surgery two hours later, and then 72 hours of misdiagnosis of panic disorder, it was the most traumatic experience, both physically and mentally and emotionally for myself and my family. I’m really appreciative, again, for the advocacy of my parents.
I think patient advocacy is really important, especially in the emergency department. And, if it had not been for their nudging of doing more thorough testing, because the cat scan was negative, then I don’t think I would have gotten the proper diagnosis and may not be sitting here today. So all of that happened right after I started graduate school, and obviously it took me out of graduate school for a couple of months.
And, I’ve been living with seizures ever since. Fortunately, they’ve decreased in frequency and severity for me. That’s not the case for everyone. So I’m really blessed to be able to live what I consider a pretty fulfilling life, but that’s sort of how my entrepreneurial journey started and I’m happy to talk a little bit more about that, but that’s sort of a background of why I became an entrepreneur.
Donald Thompson: That’s phenomenal. And, you know, one of the things that you said is that this diagnosis knocked you out of grad school, but only for a couple of months. Right? I want to share with our audience that that’s how winners talk, right? Like that is a phenomenal testament just to kind of the force of your will and obviously kind of how your parents raised you, even though I don’t know them, just to keep fighting and keep pushing.
And so that is, we’ll get into some more details, but that’s just phenomenal.
Ashlyn Sanders: Thank you.
Donald Thompson: Tell us a little bit about the company and tell us what it, what it does and how you’re going to use this journey, right, to help other people.
Ashlyn Sanders: Sure. So I started to think about the oral health implications of seizures after I bit my tongue a few times during some episodes, and I talked with my neurologist about, what would be the best way to remedy that.
And she said that, you know, her focus was mainly on how do we minimize your episodes and the severity of them with regard to falls or things that may land you in the emergency department. And, there were some suggestions of maybe looking at dental appliances, to remedy that symptom. And unfortunately, those were not adequate solutions to me.
Dental appliances are typically used for aesthetic purposes and they’re not designed to be used and conducive for the nature of how seizures present. I want to talk a little bit about seizures. So I think, when people hear those, their mind typically goes to epilepsy, which is the fourth most common neurologic condition in the world, but seizures can actually vary according to diagnosis. So the interesting thing about seizures is that while their etiology or cause may be different, their physical presentation is often the same. So someone could have psychogenic seizures, which are just a way to delineate between epileptic seizures, which originate in the brain and seizures that arise from psychiatric or psychological conflict the way the body responds to trauma. And there are also other comorbid conditions like traumatic brain injuries, stroke, multiple sclerosis, that can also give rise to seizures.
So this oral health problem of tongue biting, cheek biting, and choking on one’s saliva or blood as a concomitant of those is very common. And I started to think about what if I could design a device that could be used by all patients that are affected by seizures, not just epileptics, that could serve two functions.
One that would prevent the person from injuring themselves orally. And two that could prevent them from choking on their saliva. You know, by design, it would prevent choking on blood because there’s that protective barrier, but saliva is also really common – something that’s very commonly choked on during episodes.
So I knew there was a lack of innovation in the marketplace with regard to oral health. And I also knew that this, there was a market for this product because as I’m sure you’re aware, every seizure safety guideline says currently don’t put anything in someone’s mouth who is seizing. And that’s a really tough barrier to entry to change that.
And so I know that this technology is disruptive to the seizure safety guideline and to what most physicians encourage the patients to do is simply nothing, and I didn’t feel that was acceptable. And so that’s where the idea came for NeuroVice a combination of neurological and device. I put those words together and hit the ground running on developing this technology and really excited about all the possible indications for it and how it’s going to improve quality of life for people.
I think we’ve all probably bitten our tongue before when we talk.
Donald Thompson: Yeah! It hurts!
Ashlyn Sanders: So imagine doing that every single day or not knowing when you’re going to do it, and imagine being told that the best and only thing you can do is to suffer without a solution and to lacerate your tongue or to bleed. For me, that’s not okay. And I knew there had to be a better way.
Donald Thompson: Whether it’s people that I mentor – I have daughters, I have a son – and wanting them to go and chase their dreams and be successful. Whatever they choose to do in that field, doing nothing is not acceptable, is something that you said, right? And you saw a problem and you became resolved to not allow the status quo to be OK.
And then you did something about it, right? And that is really powerful and encouraging, right? As I talk to young people that are changing the world, that are going to be our leaders for tomorrow. So that’s number one. The second thing is how did you use that same grit, that perseverance when you’re starting a company to now you’re going out fundraising to create the income to build the company and grow the company.
Ashlyn Sanders: Well, I have to be honest, Donald, I was really frustrated and, I guess perturbed by the current fundraising environment for minority and female entrepreneurs. I think I went into it a little naive about, you know, the resistance to funding just in general for startup companies. But I think over time as I, you know, acquired insight about how to improve my business plan about how to really pitch the need for my product about how to establish a market need. I was really disheartened by the lack of funding access that I was getting, and I really couldn’t understand why. And I remember saying in an email to someone that it kind of felt like circular reasoning.
You know? I was told that I needed to be further along in order to get funding, but from where I sat, in order to get further along, I needed funding. It was sort of this like circuitous like, illogical thing to me, and I didn’t understand it. And, you know, I had – I did more research about it and found that this is not a unique experience for entrepreneurs like me.
You know, I was 24 when I started the company, but I always used to say inexperience doesn’t mean incapable. Those two things are not synonymous and all I needed was an opportunity, you know, I felt like I had really taken time to do a lot of research. I was the consumer. I knew this business. Like the back of my hand, I knew that this product had, was an attractive opportunity just not just from a social entrepreneurial side, but from a business side.
There’s lots of revenue to be gained here. So I was really frustrated, to be honest with you. And so, when I started the company, I really wanted to focus on non-dilutive sources of funding at first. So I applied for lots of grants. I was a finalist for lots of local competitions here actually, and could never penetrate that winning barrier and got really good feedback.
But nothing that really ever, I dunno, satisfied me enough to say why didn’t get it. And I mean, we can speculate, but I felt like. Because of my demographic being a young woman of color, that, that was a barrier. And so I then pivoted to trying to raise dilutive sources of capital and was unsuccessful in doing that as well.
So I had to become creative and I started writing people that had access to capital and resources that I didn’t and that I felt I could, convince, by way of presenting a very viable business plan, but also showing how my product can improve quality of life for millions of people. And that’s what led me to Charles.
So I had to be creative. I guess the math sort of kicked in in that arena as well. But I have to say I’ve been really disappointed with the landscape for fundraising for entrepreneurs of color and young women. And I hope that after I successfully exit my company, I can be a voice and also someone who can pay it forward in a way. But you know, I’m sure you’re very well versed in this field and this space and how that goes, but that’s just my personal experience. It was really tough to keep going,
Donald Thompson: Yeah.
Ashlyn Sanders: The
Donald Thompson: thing that I would add, and I’m glad that you didn’t give up, right, that you kept pushing, but it is hard and it’s hard for people with the right network, the right advantages and the right pitch.
And then you put in young woman of color, young woman of color who is an African American woman, right? These are a trifecta, a reasons, right? Why people are not taking you as seriously as maybe they should. The other thing that I would say that’s kind of outside of that and listening to you and I’m very, very interested in learning, is a lot of times investors don’t like to not feel smart, and because it’s something in the medical space and people don’t intuitively get it, right?
There’s an educational curve that probably was part of the resistance, right? Because investors want to invest in things that they understand and that they can talk smart about at the cocktail party, and when something has a deeper medical kind of focus area, it might take people a little bit longer to get it.
So maybe offline we’ll, we’ll talk about some ways to, to address that in and fix that. What stage is the company in now? Like is the product commercially available? Are you in beta testing? What can we do to help and where are you?
Ashlyn Sanders: Sure. if you don’t mind, I did want to say something to your last point.
I think that’s a great point. And in fact, in one of the pitches that I had, I was asked to explain the market and the question that was proffered was, “Well, how many people experienced tongue biting?” And that was not the appropriate way to analyze the market. We know that this is a common symptom that occurs because of the way that seizures present.
So the better question to ask is how many people experienced seizures such that when they do, there could be a risk that they do this? So this market is really distributed, and I think to your point, it’s something that is not very well understood, and I have to do a little bit of extra explaining about how we really dissect and understand the market. For example, for, people that have asthma or another condition, take coronavirus for example, the incidence of coronavirus is very easy to figure out. It’s the number of people who test positive for the virus. But, seizures are different because one person could have a seizure every day and another person could experience them once a week or once a month.
And the severity that they experience the episode could also vary, but we know because of how they present, this is a risk that is likely to occur, and so as a consumer or a person who lives with them, you would want to wear this device because you know there’s a chance you could injure your tongue really severely.
So I really appreciate that point. And to your second question, right now, we are entering phase three of four of product development. We’re working with a company called Gilero in the park, which is a medical device prototyping firm. I made that business decision because I think with the challenge of fundraising initially trying to raise money to really build out a staffing infrastructure was not viable.
And so I wanted my ask to really reflect how do we move this product from napkin to patient and what’s the most, economically feasible way to do that? And so outsourcing the development work in collaboration with myself and my board of advisors was the best way to accelerate commercialization and product development.
So we are going to have human factor studies as a part of phase three. That also includes finalizing the design of the device, and we are also expecting, our initial patent issuance by Q1 of next year. So really excited about that. And, there are some other life cycle capabilities of the products that I’ve already thought through and hope to file additional patents, to expand our portfolio.
So that’s where we are in product development and I’m really excited about funding we got to be able to get us there.
Donald Thompson: That is awesome. Now are you still in the fundraising phase?
Ashlyn Sanders: No, I closed my seed round, with the investment of Charles and was really fortunate to be able to do that. I hope I don’t have to raise again.
I think, the funds that we were able to acquire will move us through phase four and through FDA clearance process, and I hope to be able to attract, potential licensers or acquirers at that point. The interesting thing about our device is it’s disposable and there’s as comparable to other medical device technologies on the market, it’s a very, I would say, low risk in terms of development. The life cycle management of the product, however, is a little bit more complicated. But this first, I guess 2.0 version, if you will, doesn’t really required a lot of capital to get it going. And so, that’s sort of a, I guess way to really distinguish ourselves from other companies, you know, that may be developing more complex technologies that take a lot of capital and flux to get them commercialized.
So I’m really excited about that as well.
Donald Thompson: No, that is phenomenal. And I think one of the, one of the things that I heard that is also really good, and I’m happy for you. Is the board of advisor comment in that decision to get a partner for the production. And so you can kind of be thinking about the whole business.
And a lot of times I see entrepreneurs hit some really strong headwinds when they’ve not selected people that can advise them to make great decisions. It doesn’t mean that you’re not in charge of your business. It just means before you decide you can get really powerful and strong advice, right? And, and it allows you to make more informed decisions.
And a lot of times people get that advisory component, a little misunderstood. It’s the best thing in the world to be more informed by the data, by experience and by people with different points of view, and then you can push through with the right journey, the right decision that’s best for you. So I’m really proud of you that you’ve done that and that you shared that it’s really smart.
Ashlyn Sanders: Yeah. And I agree. I don’t know everything and I knew that I had never gone down this path before. I’m not familiar with how to penetrate the market with a medical device. I’m not familiar with the FDA clearance process, however, I’m getting very familiar with it now and you know, I don’t have an engineering background.
What I had was a great idea and I had a personal experience that allowed me to understand the consumer in a very unique and detailed specific way. And so to your point, I think to other entrepreneurs as well, I would encourage them to surround themselves with people that do have the expertise that they may not bring.
And as you alluded to you, that’s okay. You don’t have to know everything. You just have to know what you know and know what you don’t know and be able to fill in the gaps of where you may need some other assistance or expertise.
Donald Thompson: That’s powerful. One of the things that’s helped me in my career is when I’ve listened to mentors a lot of times their point of view and my point of view, it wasn’t right or wrong. It was really the third rail of innovation. It was the solutions we came up with together, right? That we never would have really thought of that way of approaching a problem if we hadn’t bounced our ideas off of one another.
And you miss that when you don’t understand the power of collaboration. And so I think you’re doing it right from that standpoint. And what a powerful story. Let me ask this as we wind our time together. You’ve learned a lot through this journey, right? As an individual, as an entrepreneur, what are some of the lessons that you would share with entrepreneurs that are starting out or anyone in business that can help them forge ahead.
Ashlyn Sanders: I think the first thing is being comfortable with taking risks and being resilient. I think those are probably, at this stage where I am probably two of the most important qualities for anyone who wants to start a new venture, a new company. You know, risk taking can be uncomfortable, but I think the more you can acclimate yourself to doing that – and it can start by a simple thing as taking, you know, an honors course in high school or, you know, doing a robotics camp in the summer, even though you don’t have a coding background. And also I think taking risks too, sometimes it can narrow your path.
You know, I always tell students, do a summer camp or an experience that you don’t think you’d like just to be able to say, “You know, I can clear that off my list,” and it’s okay you didn’t enjoy it. I had an internship at Biogen and I have to say I didn’t enjoy it as much. It was a lot of desk work. I did enjoy the workload model aspect.
I built a workload model, so I was able to use my math background, but there was something missing. I didn’t really have the human connection that I like. There wasn’t a lot of interface, in terms of that. And so I knew that, that possibly may not be a career choice for me. And that was okay. So I think taking risks can help you, not only broaden, you know, your opportunity space, but also narrow it down.
And then the resilience piece, I think you’ve asked really great questions that talk about why you have to be resilient. I mean, you get so many nos and you may get feedback that you really don’t agree with in terms of your idea or your business, and you just have to know, you know, I’ve gotten into this for the right reason.
I know this is going to help people, and sometimes you have to pivot. I started really – I say with a lot of bells and whistles on my product. I wanted it to do more than it needed to do to get to market initially.
And I had to be told, you know, by advisors and mentors, I think this is a great 4.0 product, but let’s just get something on the market. Like, you have a Honda and a Cadillac both get you to work. Maybe while you have the funds, just get the Honda and then see if you can get the Cadillac.
So that was something else. So, you know, kind of tangential to being resilient is knowing when to let something go in the best interest of the company and hopefully for the people that you want to serve. I knew that the fastest way to get to market would be to develop this first initial iteration of the product, and then maybe in the future do something else.
So I’d say resilience. Taking risks. As you alluded to, surrounding yourself with people that can really help you and mentor you and, you know, being okay with you know, true feedback. Even if you don’t really appreciate it. Sometimes the first idea you come up with may not be the one that’s feasible or viable.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t have good ideas. It doesn’t mean that you won’t one day come up with one that is. So I just say all of those things combined, I’d keep in mind for anyone who wants to go down this journey, and I have to say, I hope this is the last time for me to do this.
Donald Thompson: Oh really? So your journey that, and that’s because big exit and you’re going to do something else philanthropic.
You’re going to medical school, or like, what does that mean?
Ashlyn Sanders: Well, I think a little bit of it’s been, you know, I didn’t pick this journey and I think, you know, it’s definitely been one of the most trying and difficult experiences, but I’ve, you know, I’ve enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s something I want to do the rest of my life.
I do think, you know, to your point, I want to get this product to market. I hope to be successful on the economic front in doing that, but I’ve always wanted to be a physician. I love medicine. I love people. And so I say that for that reason, but it’s definitely been a difficult experience, but I think in the end it’ll be rewarding too.
Donald Thompson: No, that is, that is really great and I appreciate that, that commentary. So getting a celebrity to invest in your business, and I want to, I want to spend just a moment on how you got to Charles, but quite frankly, I wanted to spend the bulk of time on you because your story is amazing. Your company is amazing. But I want to give a, just a little snippet. How did you get to Sir Charles?
Ashlyn Sanders: Yeah. So I was – Shark Tank is one of my favorite shows, and I was watching, when he was on air, I can’t remember what year it was, maybe it was a couple years ago, but they always profile the guest Sharks. And I had written some other people that I knew were either personally affected by epilepsy or I thought, you know, may have the funding and resources to help me.
And I remember on his profile, he said that he particularly likes to invest in minority entrepreneurs, females that are in tech space. So I wrote to him and sent my letter down to Atlanta, where he works, and didn’t expect to get a response. And ended up getting one kind of out of the blue and being invited to come down and pitch to not only him, but two physicians that were neurologists that were familiar with medical devices, his financial advisor and another trusted advisor of his was about a two, two and a half hour pitch.
And it was quite an experience it was different formatting than, you know, pitch competitions where, you know, you have five minutes or 10 minutes to pitch your business and your ask questions. They went right into questions that, you know, I had – I had a whole, you know, speech laid out about how I wanted to move through the project, but was instantly just fired at with questions and really had to defend the numbers and the rationale for the business and how, you know, as an investor, he’s concerned with – he wants to make a difference, but he also wants his investments to be wise and to be a reflection of, you know, how viable a business plan is. And so I really appreciate that from Charles, I think he gave me – I don’t know this level of credence and respect that, you know, I had been yearning for so long from investors and you know, I knew that there could be a chance that he didn’t invest, but I’m so thankful that he did. And I think that, you know, he really took all of my hard work and all of the things that I said during the pitch to heart and, saw that I, you know, wasn’t just someone with this good idea that hadn’t really thought through it, but I thought about, you know, a return on his investment and how this could not only benefit his pockets, but the lives of lots of millions of people. So that’s how I got to him and like I said, I guess it was just a combination of prayers and some luck that I got a response because I really wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know what else to do at that point when I had gotten so many nos. I, you know, the last resort I was going to say, you know, I’ll just get the patent. I will go to medical school and fund the business myself. Maybe in a few years, that was going to be my plan.
If I couldn’t penetrate the fundraising landscape, I was just going to, you know, because the patent’s several decades. And so I thought, you know, if I can get that, I own that, and you know, I can go to medical school and work and get the money that way, it just might take a little bit longer, but I wasn’t going to give up.
But, you know, I think sometimes you gotta be creative when the status quo really isn’t there for you or the infrastructure isn’t there, you just have to be creative. So I guess I got lucky and, I’m really thankful though that he took a chance on me and you know, I plan to be able to pay him back, significantly for his investment, but also pay it forward, when I do have that exit hopefully, so.
Donald Thompson: That’s awesome. And you know, one of the things I love about the story that’ll connect to Hassan and Maliyah Pinto, one of our guests, that we’re going to launch their podcast before Hassan went to work for the LA Lakers, and before he went to work for the Lakers for an entire year, he sent letters to the general manager and to the owner until he got his one meeting.
Wow. And then he got his interview and he got his job with the Lakers. And you sent your letter to Charles Barkley and his advisors, and you got your moment and you made that moment count. And so many people think that the road is going to be like this, but it’s going to be windy. And you know, one of the biggest talents of an entrepreneur is to keep fighting even when your faith is a little bit teetering.
Right? Because you don’t really know what corner that blessings around. And so I’m so excited about what you’re doing and the example that you are, and anything I can ever do to help, please let me know.
But Ashlyn, thank you so much for spending time with us, and this is going to be a great episode for people to learn from.
Well that was such a great experience in talking to a rising superstar, someone who has an opportunity to impact so many lives throughout the world.
For more information on NeuroVice, visit NeuroViceLLC.com. We’ll have that link in the show notes as well as the article on WRAL Techwire about the investment from Charles Barkley.
And thanks for listening everyone. We’ll be in your feed every week with new episodes from entrepreneurs who will inspire you to do more. So be sure to subscribe to this show, and if you have a minute, give us a rating and review as well.
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Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.