“There is a World of Opportunity When It Comes to Healthcare in Africa” — An Interview with Sona Shah, the CEO of Neopenda
Through INVEST, CrossBoundary and Asoko Insight are supporting Prosper Africa’s Virtual Deal Room, which connects investors with investable companies across the African continent. This is the second in a series of four interviews with female founders whose companies are actively fundraising and listed on the deal room.
By Kristin Jangraw, INVEST Communications Director
Like many American college grads, Sona Shah spent a few months after college on a service project. In her case, it was teaching in Western Kenya. But unlike most students, Shah’s experience inspired her to launch Neopenda, a biomedical device start-up focused exclusively on emerging markets. The company’s first product, neoGuard, is a wearable vital-signs monitor designed hospital settings. Neopenda is an early-stage company, recently completing the transition from R&D and certification to a more commercial focus. Now, with about 1,000 devices in-market, the company is looking to grow.
Prosper Africa, the U.S. initiative to increase trade and investment between the United States and Africa, is working with Neopenda to identify potential investors. You can find Neopenda, along with other investment-ready companies at various growth stages, in Prosper Africa’s Virtual Deal Room.
We interviewed Shah on co-founding a start-up in East Africa and opportunities she sees in the healthcare sector.
This interview has been edited for length.
Congratulations on your recent certifications. What’s next for the company?
Sona Shah: Thanks. We recently received a CE mark [certifying the product’s safety] on our wearable device, and we are a certified ISO 13485 company. That gives us a stamp of approval and a lot more freedom to launch in new countries. We have already launched in Kenya, and will soon in Uganda, and we’re looking at scaling to five countries before the end of the year. We’re also excited to adapt the neoGuard for different patient populations. We’re really excited for the next phase of the company and for the growth that we’ll see in the next several years.
How did you adapt the business when COVID-19 hit?
Shah: We realized we had a medical device that could help respond, so we very quickly adapted the neoGuard for use in adults. Vital signs monitoring is really important for COVID patients. It can help identify common symptoms, assess their severity, indicate whether a patient needs to be on a ventilator or oxygen, and whether a treatment is working. So, we calibrated the device for adults and added an extender strap on the headband, and we did a remote patient-monitoring test in the U.S. We also did a COVID-related pilot study at a hospital in Uganda. It opened up a lot of doors to be able to respond to the pandemic.
How did you identify a business opportunity in the healthcare sector in Kenya?
Shah: I was a teacher in Western Kenya for a few months after college and I absolutely loved it. But I had a job lined up in the U.S. So, I switched gears entirely and started working in R&D at a large pharma company in Indianapolis. I loved it, but I kept thinking that the kids in Kenya may never see the medication that I was helping make. I went back to grad school at Columbia to figure out some way to provide more equitable access to healthcare. I didn’t know I’d end up with a start-up.
There is a world of opportunity when it comes to healthcare in Africa, both opportunity in terms of the impact that we can have with medical devices and healthcare solutions that really help most of the world’s population in emerging economies, but also the opportunity from a business perspective.
I think there’s often a misconception that Africa is one country that’s very poor and that’s a misconception that we work very hard to fight against. We’re excited to be able to combat those misconceptions together with Prosper Africa and help investors understand the opportunities that are available and what the business case is, in addition to the impact of our organization. We’re also excited for the exposure to potential partners that can help us scale things much more broadly.