Telescope Ventures
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Telescope Ventures

Student to Startup Founder: Elise Sutherland, CEO of Stelect

Elise Sutherland is a Forbes 30 Under 30 powerhouse who’s making big moves in the Medtech space. Stelect is revolutionising the way coronary stenting procedures are done (for us common folks — it’s the procedure you go through to improve blood flow to your heart, by expanding narrowed blood vessels). Elise chatted with Telescope about Stelect’s journey, how she pitches a technical product, and how she manages the ups and downs of startup life.

For our readers, can you tell us a little bit about Stelect and how it got started?

Stelect came out of Melbourne University’s Biodesign Innovation Program. It’s a program that partners engineers and MBA students and puts them in clinical settings. You’re there to find needs that technology can address.

As a team, we were really interested in the cardiovascular area. We partnered with a cardiologist and followed him around the hospital — watching him perform procedures and asking questions as to why decisions were being made.

One of the procedures we got to observe was a coronary stenting procedure. This is a procedure for blockages in an artery. When unaddressed, it restricts blood flow and can lead to heart attacks. For a standard procedure, they insert a tiny metal scaffold called a stent, into the artery. This keeps the artery open and ensures blood flow. When we were watching clinicians perform these procedures, they’d go in, insert the first stent, realize they incorrectly sized it, and go back in for a second or third stent. When you insert a stent, you can’t remove it, and it can end up being a chain-like feature. There were a couple of problems with this. First, stents are expensive devices, ranging from $1000 to $3000. Second, the excess metal can bring health consequences to patients (for example, chances of getting thrombosis from blood clots forming increases). We set out to solve how clinicians can be more informed when making stent selection. We also wanted to look at improving patient treatment and patient outcomes.

This led us down the imaging path. Currently, the standard is relying on CT scans or X-ray images. This only gives a 2D image to make all the decisions. The clarity isn’t there. We set out to achieve more accurate imaging and tools to improve this process.

Since coronary stenting procedures are quite technical, what is your advice for pitching to investors who don’t have the relevant technical understanding of your product?

We found one of the best ways is to use video animation. On our website, we have a video on there that shows what our technology does. At an early stage, investors don’t need to know how our technology really works. They need to know the outcome, what it provides. When you’ve got five minutes, avoid complex technical knowledge. Talk about it on a high level and keep it basic.

Could you tell us a bit about your product development and what stage you’re currently at?

For the last three years, we’ve been working on the sensors. We knew we had to have imaging capabilities on a device that could fit inside a coronary artery. Now, we’re nearly concluding that phase and moving into our core product. The process is a long one, probably looking at three years until market. But it makes sense for it to be this long, we’re trying to create a technology that will go into someone’s heart!

Do you have partnerships with the university to develop your product? How does funding come into that?

For the sensor development, we have partnerships with RMIT University and Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication. We do all of our fabrication and testing work with them. They’ve been a great help.

In terms of funding, we are a privately-funded organization. We’ve done two funding rounds; one led by a VC and one led by a group of high net-worth investors, including cardiologists. We targeted individuals that would know the area to help us.

Later down the line, do you have plans to expand to investors who don’t have the background knowledge?

Definitely. In the early stages, it was easier to target investors with the relevant knowledge we needed more direct help. For our next funding round, I don’t think that will be as crucial because we’re moving towards commercialization. We’d probably also need broader skill sets, so opening up to more ‘traditional’ venture capitalist firms will help with that.

What channels did you use to find early-stage investors?

Through direct outreach, pitch nights, and our networks. We’ve also participated in a MedTech accelerator, the Actuator. There are people with relevant background there which also leads to that investment path.

With clinicians, we did an outreach by targeting cardiologists and running information sessions with them. Interestingly, a big barrier for cardiologist buy-in is that they don’t have a lot of investing experience. While they get the problem, understand our solution, and are ultimately our end users, they don’t understand the investment process. So for part of our raise, we went through a company called Venture Crowd. We had leading Angels, high net worth investors that set the terms of the investment (e.g. valuation, shares). Then whoever wanted to invest smaller amounts of money into the business is grouped as one shareholder on the same terms that the existing shareholders organised. That took away the barriers for cardiologists to invest in us.

What was your experience going through the Actuator?

The Actuator was great for us because it was market-specific. We did a lot of research around which accelerator to go towards. The best part about it was the network. They teach you a lot. Another big help was access to funding. The Actuator gave us access to a whole heap of investors that know this space. That’s super helpful because you need to start talking early to them, roughly 12 months before you even ask for an investment. This allows them to get to know you and get comfortable with you.

Accelerators are also a great way to get the confidence, network, and funding you need. I started Stelect straight out of uni. I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience in the startup space. It can be quite daunting for a first-time founder to take that leap of faith and start something new. Accelerators give you the support, knowledge, and confidence to go ‘Yes, I can do this’.

When building your team, what are some things you look for?

We look at skill sets we’re currently missing. For myself, when I look at our timeline as a startup going to commercialisation, we essentially go through a whole lot of ‘de-risking’ phases. We look at the biggest risk in our company today, what we’re trying to solve, and find people for that. For example, in the beginning, we needed to hire someone to help create our custom sensors. We scouted in the tech space, found someone with the relevant expertise in France, and work remotely with her.

What advice do you have for young founders wanting to hire in a startup?

It’s can be quite hard to hire as a startup. You’ve got limited funding and run on funding cycles so it’s hard to guarantee somebody there will be a job in two years. However, there are other ways to incentivise. For example, giving them equity in the business. Equity is just as valuable, if not more. It can act as a driver for them and their hard work. If it pays off, they can reap the rewards and it can be really attractive as an employment proposition.

With everything going virtual, how does Stelect maintain relationships and networks in this ‘new normal?’?

Stelect sends out quarterly updates to all shareholders and any major stakeholders in the business. We run down our big milestones, things we’ve achieved. If we need any help, we might add a section in the update. This updates our community and keeps them engaged, particularly in this online environment.

What advice do you have for solo founders?

When Stelect started, I did have other co-founders. But the startup life can be quite difficult — it isn’t for everyone. It can be really amazing, but there are also some really low points. That instability can be quite difficult. I underwent changes to being a solo founder and I definitely underestimated it. It’s a lot more isolating. Even simply bouncing ideas, you can’t really do that. To help with that, I put in a board that was really involved. They’ve got the skillsets and background to support me in a variety of different things. That support system really helps.

Something else that really helped was working out of the Translating Research At Melbourne offices (TRAM). You’re surrounded by other startups which are so helpful. It’s likely a challenge you’re facing today has also been experienced by another founder.

How do you manage the ups and downs of startup life?

I’ve had a lot of founders talk about all the success that they’ve had but no one really ever talks about how hard it is. It really surprises me. Stelect’s had a lot of success and I’m super grateful for it. I wouldn’t want to change that. But there’s also been moments where it’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m thinking ‘what is our next step forward?’. You’re at what feels like a dead end.

Often, what works for me is a good night’s sleep, regrouping, and talking to others. I’ve been lucky and had other startups to reach out to. I can talk to them and ask ‘Hey, have you ever been stuck on this?’ or ‘Do you know anyone that has been through something similar and can help?’. There’s a saying “A problem shared is a problem solved”. Being able to rely on others and talking about it is really helpful.

What’s next for Stelect?

In the next couple of months, we’ll open a new fundraising round, which will be exciting. We’ll start the commercialization process of the core technology. That’s something the team has been working really hard on for many years. So it’s really exciting to see that all come together.

Where can we find you?

You can find me on LinkedIn, and Twitter. Our website is www.stelect.com and you can see more information about the company there.

If you enjoyed this interview and would like to collaborate, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on LinkedIn. Share your startup journey with the community!

Telescope Ventures: Website, LinkedIn and Instagram.

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Vivian Yang

Marketing Associate @ Hudled | Head of Content and Marketing @ Telescope Ventures