by Amee Kapadia and Christine Wang
We sat down with this year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Maria Artunduaga, to learn more about her journey as the founder and CEO of Respira Labs, a startup developing medical monitoring devices to predict respiratory decline. Previously a practicing plastic surgeon, Maria has secured almost $1M in non-dilutive funding as she works to bring her first product to market. She shares her insights on entrepreneurship as a career and how competing in business plan competitions helped her company grow.
What inspired you to pursue entrepreneurship?
I ask myself this question all the time and it always comes down to who I am as an individual. I have always been an ambitious woman— I find it fun to pursue difficult things. Growing up, I had the best role model in my mother who was the first female surgeon in my hometown. Her whole career was built upon doing difficult things and that rubbed off on me. I’m also incredibly competitive. Whenever people told me, and this happened often, that it would be too hard to relocate to the US or match in plastic surgery or start a medical device company, my desire to prove them wrong increased. It was hard to do, but I’ve found my own way of dealing with the stresses that inevitably come with doing hard things. Ultimately, I pivoted into entrepreneurship from medicine when my grandma passed away from COPD a few years back. It’s such a common chronic disease, yet there are no technologies identifying the root cause, so I knew I had to do something. People always say entrepreneurship is a long, risky journey. That is absolutely true. You need to be really clear about your “why” before going down this path.
What problem is your venture solving? What does it mean for the world when you get it right?
We are enabling early medical intervention by detecting pulmonary events, specifically for COPD patients. Essentially, we are creating a device that monitors lung function in real time, helping patients curb deadly exacerbation events. The scary truth is that the current standard of care for COPD misses 50% of all exacerbation cases. Most flare ups fly under the radar and go untreated. This is an alarming statistic because for every flare up, the patient’s chances of dying in the next five years increases by 50%. Respira Labs is trying to tackle this problem from the root by providing patients with real-time data that can help them prevent exacerbations from happening. Pulmonary diseases are set to become the leading cause of death in 2030, with the pandemic, pollution, and climate change contributing to the onset of more cases. We hope to increase the quality of life for these patients.
What are you most proud of as a founder?
This is an interesting question because while I’m proud of my company, our grants, and our progress, I’m also just proud of myself for persevering. I’m not a typical Silicon Valley engineer turned founder. I’m a woman from Latin America who gave up her career in plastic surgery. Most people didn’t think I could build the device, much less launch a company. It was extremely hard to find investors at first because I had no track record in entrepreneurship and no team. As I kept winning more grants, I started attracting more attention and proving myself. I’m finally at the point where we’re getting VCs interested in investing in Respira Labs, and it is extremely rewarding to see how far we have come. There is nothing more powerful than a passionate founder who will find the answer to any question and beat the odds. As an angel investor now myself, I look for that type of grit and determination in founders.
How has competing in business plan competitions impacted your venture and thought process as a founder?
Raising capital takes time. If you are a first time founder, you are essentially learning an entirely different subject with entrepreneurship. You will be challenged to think differently, tell stories, and convert those stories into actionable plans to help some market. Entrepreneurship is all about derisking and asking yourself what the worst thing that can happen is. Medicine did not train me well for that because in medicine, you treat based on the existing standard of care. Competing in business plan competitions provided me with an early opportunity to learn this new way of thinking and get both feedback and validation. I can see a lot of growth between now and my first business plan drafts, which is rewarding.
What advice do you have for our competitors?
Enjoy the ride. It is rare to get these opportunities to create business plans and pitch investors in college. Ultimately, treat these competitions as an opportunity to learn. If you win, awesome. If you don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean much. The skills you will gain by competing—pitching, storytelling, customer-discovery, etc.— are all translatable to any job, and the feedback can help you think about new opportunities or business goals.