Stay healthy physically and emotionally. Building a company takes a huge toll on the founder. If you are not healthy your company, investors, and your customers are being shortchanged. Staying healthy means setting boundaries, making time to exercise, and sharing your journey with others in the same boat. This has been very hard during the pandemic but as we move into a post-pandemic world, we are learning to work smarter. At Neurovine we are putting clear boundaries in place to protect our time off and we are challenging each other with healthy goals and mindsets.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ashleigh Kennedy.
Ashleigh Kennedy is the CEO and co-founder of Neurovine and a scientist at the Bruyère Research Institute. Ashleigh has an undergraduate degree in Human Biology from Stanford University where she holds the 400m sprint record for indoor track and field. Before founding Neurovine, Ashleigh ran a successful consulting company that validated new innovations for health technology start-ups and large medical institutions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada with my parents and sister. My parents were incredible athletes and passed on a love for sport to us at a young age. Instead of playing barbies with his girls, my dad would have us running football patterns in the backyard. This is how we connected with him. My sister grew up to be the team captain for the Canadian Olympic Gymnastics team, and I was an elite track athlete. We were focused kids who saw the fruit of hard work early on in life through our success with sport.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Perhaps the most interesting journey since beginning my career has been suffering a severe concussion in the midst of building a company to support concussion patients. This ironic experience totally changed my approach to the problem I was solving. In fact, I was the first Beta tester of our EEG headband. After using the hardware, I completely redesigned it to improve comfort for patients. Although this redesign was costly for a small startup, I knew it was essential for Neurovine’s ability to support concussion patients. As a patient, I also experienced the frustration with the medical system that our patients talk about so frequently. We are working hard to make this injury visible for patients so they can advocate for themselves more easily in the medical system.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am particularly grateful for an early mentor Mike Laginiski. He believed in me from the very start and gave me the confidence to jump off the cliff without any experience in the startup world. I felt I was too soft to be the leader of a technology company, but he continually explained that the world needed a new kind of technology leader. One who values the impact of the company on the same level as the financial bottom line. I’ve grown a lot in my leadership over the past two years but as I gain strength, I am careful not to forget our mission as a company and the health and wellbeing of my employees.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
No grit, no pearl.
Success is not related to luck or landing on the perfect product-market fit right out of the gate. It is the result of grit — the ability to overcome the millions of obstacles that come your way as an entrepreneur. Neurovine is 2.5 years old and 1.5 of those years have been spent building the company during a global pandemic while also recovering from a concussion. Needless to say, numerous obstacles have arisen that would have been a good enough reason to quit, but we’ve pushed on, pivoted, and come out the other end stronger and more refined. I can honestly say that without the obstacles presented over the past 1.5 years our company would not be as strong or as prepared for the market as we are today.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Flexibility. When we started Neurovine I thought I knew exactly what the pain point was and how to address it. The more time we spent with patients and their clinicians the more we learned subtle nuances about the problem that completely changed our product. If we had built the technology without continually soliciting patient feedback we would have failed out of the gate.
Humility. As a leader in the startup world, it’s easy to be guarded, to put on an air that you know everything, and to dominate meetings. You see this modeled in our culture and social media and you think that’s the only path to success. It is certainly one way to lead a company, but it can also be a fatal flaw. This approach stifles creativity, prevents team growth, and places all the weight of the company’s success on one person’s shoulders. At Neurovine, our culture and our mission have attracted humble, brilliant people and have provided an environment where their voices can be heard.
Sense of humor. Life is so much easier if you can laugh at yourself. In a startup, everything is an experiment and so a lot of things fall flat. If you can’t laugh at these mistakes the growing process is painful and slow rather than an exhilarating adventure. This pandemic has provided so many situations where I’ve personally needed to have a sense of humor, or I would have collapsed. My co-founder and I have three young kids who were ‘learning’ at home this year. I can’t count the number of times they have popped into high-stakes meetings or interrupted a pitch with an urgent Lego question. In one particularly stressful investor Q&A, I needed to ask for a brief pause because my 4-year-old daughter was under the desk biting my toes. I pulled her out, handed her to my husband, laughed with the investors, and continued the conversation with a much lighter atmosphere.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
Our team at Neurovine is combining wearable technology and AI-driven, real-time analytics to improve brain recovery post-concussion.
Concussion is an invisible injury that is poorly understood and even more poorly managed. Some people recover quickly while others suffer for months or even years. Even with improving education around concussion, patients have difficulty returning to work, sport, and school post-concussion. Moreover, concussion patients are notoriously poor at completing their rehabilitation exercises at home. I can attest to that as I was very recently one of those patients.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Neurovine provides a digital health platform designed to get concussion patients active, prevent setbacks in the recovery process, and improve communication between the patient and the clinicians supporting the recovery process. More specifically, the Neurovine solution provides an end-to-end care experience that navigates, connects, and provides actionable insights for concussion patients, their caregivers, and providers throughout the recovery process. While we are starting with concussion, our approach to the recovery process translates into many other areas of brain disorders.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My father played professional football in Canada. Just before I was born, he lost one of his football buddies to suicide, likely related to CTE. Learning about the health issues of many of his former teammates drove me to learn more about the brain, how it gets injured and how we can improve the recovery process.
How do you think this might change the world?
The world is already changing. Patients are becoming more involved in healthcare through digital health tools for everything from weight loss to mental health. The brain is the final frontier and Neurovine is providing an opportunity for people to be involved with their healing process in a new way. We are empowering brain injury patients to take an active role in a process that has historically been very frustrating, isolating, and discouraging.
We leverage AI and machine learning in our medical technology. There are so many potential concerns in this field that I did a TEDx talk to dive deeper into the ethics of AI in medicine. I am a strong believer that augmented intelligence will be groundbreaking in our sector. Augmented intelligence is very different from artificial intelligence in that it is developed to enhance human intelligence rather than operate independently or outright replace it. Augmented intelligence is designed to make humans better decision-makers. This is what we are providing to our concussion patients and the medical professionals that care for these patients.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
- You need to know the population you serve. Yes, serve. You are creating technology that serves people and makes their lives better. If you do not understand them or seek out their insights you will lose your pulse on the problem you are solving. I remember the first time our onboarding process made a patient cry. We had no idea what was going on, but this patient explained that she had lost confidence in her mental capacity with her concussion, and we were making her uncomfortable with our questions! That has shaped the evolution of the Neurovine product.
- Create a community. If you want to create a positive impact you need a tribe that will take up your mission and share it with the world. This may seem obvious but as a technical founder, it took a lot of support to create this community outside of our team and partners. It means putting yourself out there as a founder and this can be scary.
- Engage stakeholders. If you want to truly create an impact you need the support of those who have already worked hard to take the main stage in your field. For Neurovine this includes thought leaders in brain health, decision-makers in the medical world, and the clinicians using our technology daily.
- Balance your mission and the bottom line. You don’t have a voice if you don’t have capital. For a lot of founders, it is difficult to raise capital because it means losing some control of the company to investors. It’s great to bootstrap a company if you can; however, if you grow too slowly or stay too small you may not be able to have the impact your mission deserves.
- Stay healthy physically and emotionally. Building a company takes a huge toll on the founder. If you are not healthy your company, investors, and your customers are being shortchanged. Staying healthy means setting boundaries, making time to exercise, and sharing your journey with others in the same boat. This has been very hard during the pandemic but as we move into a post-pandemic world, we are learning to work smarter. At Neurovine we are putting clear boundaries in place to protect our time off and we are challenging each other with healthy goals and mindsets.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I think the next generation already has a great drive to be part of meaningful work. They seem to intrinsically understand that life is too short to spend it chasing money alone. It’s amazing how much more rewarding your career can be when it’s spent making a positive contribution to the world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I really appreciate the work that Sara Blakely does to empower entrepreneurship. She is an authentic, positive force to be reckoned with and has inspired me as I have grown into the leader of this company. I would love to have a coffee with her and soak up her words of wisdom.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow our blog: https://www.neurovine.ai/blog
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.