Medtech POV Blog

Paths to the Top: Anna Lisa Somera, Rhaeos Inc.

Anna Lisa Somera, CEO of Rhaeos Inc., Offers Learnings and Advice to Medtech Entrepreneurs

Anna Lisa Somera

Anna Lisa Somera wears a lot of different hats, with her experience ranging from biomedical research to grant consulting to regulatory affairs management and beyond. Her can-do attitude and entrepreneurial spirit have shaped an impactful 16-year career in the start-up space.

Anna Lisa co-founded OrthoAccel Tecnologies – a medical device company in the orthodontic space – while she was in graduate school, and has gone on to work for several other medical device companies in the venture capital and management space. She has led teams through clinical trial launches, FDA 510(k) Clearances and CE Marks, and ISO 13485 Certified Quality Management Systems; and her efforts have delivered more than $40M in funding to companies.

Right now, Anna Lisa spends most of her time working as the Chief Executive Officer of Rhaeos, Inc., a Northwestern University spin-out developing a wearable flow monitoring device that will help people with hydrocephalus. Their progress has earned widespread recognition, most recently winning the Medtech Innovator Finals competition at The Medtech Conference. But, as Anna Lisa recently told Tracy MacNeal – President and CEO of Materna Medical and national Chair for AdvaMed’s Women’s Executive Network – Rhaeos is just getting started.

Read Anna Lisa and Tracy’s full interview below.

Congratulations on winning the Medtech Innovator Finals competition. You were the winner from over a thousand of startups who entered.  What do you think is most compelling about the innovation that you’re commercializing at Rhaeos?

Winning has been an enormous honor and is the culmination of a great deal of hard work from the Rhaeos team in collaboration with a fantastic slate of advisors. Our biggest goal when participating in the Medtech Innovator program was to really listen to the advisors and incorporate as much of their knowledge and wisdom as possible into our strategic plans. But to win the Grand Prize was beyond our wildest imagination. Additionally, to be the first female to take the top spot this makes it even more meaningful.

What’s compelling about what we are doing is the fact that we’re addressing a significant unmet clinical need in hydrocephalus using a product developed out of the John Rogers lab at Northwestern University – one of the biggest academic labs in the world and a leader in wearable technologies. What’s even more interesting about hydrocephalus is that it is not a mainstream condition people discuss. Most people do not know what it is. We have had to educate, and there is a lot of learning involved. However, once people get it and get what we’re doing, they get interested. Additionally, we’re only getting started with hydrocephalus and have published work in other use cases for our platform technology, which gets people even more interested.

What factors influenced your decision to lead a startup? What would you tell other executives who are considering leading a startup?

I have been working in medical devices for 16 years playing support roles in venture capital, technology transfer, and a number of startups. So, when I heard about this opportunity, I hit the brakes on everything I was doing, knowing that this technology would become something exceptional. I was immediately drawn to the fact that it was a noninvasive wearable with platform applications. I’ve been working on a lot of invasive devices for years, so it was a nice change to work on something that was only skin contacting. Because of its academic roots, the technology was also very far along when I came on board. Plus, it came out of a very well-respected lab. So, I knew I had to seize the opportunity.

Then upon taking the helm, I recruited teammates from previous start-ups in which we participated. I wanted start-up veterans with battle scars. And it has paid off, as we continually hit our milestones primarily due to the team and its passion for our product.  My advice to other executives who are considering leading a startup is to pick a technology with platform applications and to build out a team with people who have developed medical devices before. Experience matters.

What do you think are the most important aspects of a successful startup launch?

While so many things go into a successful startup launch, I want to emphasize the go-to-market strategy. I think a lot of companies are so focused on product development and regulatory approval or clearance that when they get to the point where they’re about to launch a product after the regulatory green light, they don’t really know what to do. The go-to-market strategy includes identifying your target customers and how to get to them along with reimbursement considerations, among other things. This strategy must be sound before you launch and should not be an afterthought.

Medtech startups are crucial to healthcare innovation, but it’s a long road to success. What is your leadership philosophy on how to move forward despite obstacles and challenges?

Every day can be a roller coaster in a startup, especially in the early stages. The fairytale could end at any time. To overcome the challenges and obstacles, it is important to get in the right mindset. Remember why you are doing what you are doing. For me, if I am feeling worn out about something, I remember the hydrocephalus patients. They inspire me every day. I remember the names of everyone I met with hydrocephalus along with their families. I remember their faces and most importantly, I remember their stories. They drive me and the Rhaeos team to work harder each day. They are my “why” and it is important to remember your “why” throughout the course of your startup’s life.

Risk is a huge part of startup culture. How do you approach risk taking, and how do you manage stakeholder expectations?

Almost everything about early stage medical device development is so risky. Mitigating risk and managing stakeholder expectations is like playing chess. You will not win unless you have a solid strategy. Think of the benefits and risks of every move you make before you make it and be able to articulate all of this to your investors, customers, etc. It takes time to develop your short- and long-term strategies with a lot of research along the way.

What is your approach to cultivating business partnerships and collaborations as part of successfully commercializing Medtech innovation?

For these types of relationships, there must be a purpose and a benefit to both parties. Otherwise, it is not really worth doing. For example, collaborating with an academic researcher for the sake of a collaboration is not enough. These partnerships must not only play an  important role to the company’s overall goals and mission, but must also be meaningful to the academic collaborator. If the collaboration is in line with their research areas of focus and if a publication or two can result, then it is probably worth doing. Additionally, it is important to think beyond an initial partnership and collaboration. A long-term play with multiple projects makes for an even better and longer lasting relationship.

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