NFANT Labs is shifting the standard of feeding care in the NICU to provide healthcare teams with actionable data that helps improve the continuity of care for infants and better feeding outcomes.
Name: NFANT Labs
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Product / Service Offering: nfant® Feeding Solution/Digital Health
Co-founder Interviewed: Dr. Tommy Cunningham, COO
This article is part of our Business Startup Spotlight series featuring entrepreneurs and their companies. We hope that these founders’ interviews will inspire and motivate you as you undertake your own entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us a little about yourself with a focus on what motivates you.
My goal is to leverage my training as an engineer and biomechanist to develop and commercialize evidence based medical technologies that will provide patients access to the best possible care without prohibitive costs. The philosophy I thought may have the greatest effect on accomplishing that goal was simple:
- Find unmet clinical needs.
- Make medical devices smart and cost effective by leveraging commoditized advances in wireless technology from other fields.
- Create a cloud database to aggregate and analyze patient data.
- Apply and improve machine learning predictive algorithms to provide actionable, accurate insight and rapidly shift the standard of care.
To make any of this possible, you have to create a self-sustaining company to drive the innovation and create the mechanism to reach as many patients in need as possible.
This strategy was the basis of the founding of NFANT Labs and the development of nfant® Feeding Solution. We are the first IoT medical device ever cleared by FDA for the NICU. NFANT helps infants transition to feeding on their own from Neonatal ICU. Knowing every day our team works toward the goal of reaching the millions of premature infants with feeding issues with technology we developed is rewarding on many levels.
When did you establish your company and where did the idea originate?
In 2012, Dr. Gilson Capilouto, NFANT Labs Co-founder, and I teamed up at the University of Kentucky to take an entirely new approach to infant feeding transition. Dr. Capilouto observed many issues with feeding babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and hypothesized that it could be related to having a weak and uncoordinated swallow.
There was no product available for her to test this hypothesis. With that knowledge, we set out to build a measurable smart bottle prototype for a small clinical trial. Low and behold, preterm infants seemed to be lagging in tongue strength despite gaining weight and maturing. After some market research, we decided to build a company around the idea. We brought cutting edge smart technology to the NICU and addressed the overlooked, unmet need of trouble with infant feeding.
What needs does your company seek to fill for its customers?
Feeding is the most complex skill a newborn baby must learn. Trouble with learning how to feed on their own is a main cause of delays in discharge. Delays in feeding can last anywhere between two to forty-five days at a cost of $2,000 to $5,000 per day. We are shifting the standard of feeding care in the NICU to a more objective approach – to assess and track feeding performance and make feeding transition predictable. We provide the healthcare team with objective, actionable data to replace a largely subjective process. This in turn helps improve the continuity of care for the infant, resulting in improved NICU quality and better feeding outcomes.
What is one thing that sets your company apart from its competitors?
Our primary strength is in our unique approach to a medical problem, mainly utilizing our cloud data services. Creating a medical device to help feeding issues is nothing new. Our uniqueness is in the ability to integrate the latest technology that creates objective data with minimal workflow issues and apply predictive models through machine learning algorithms on demand at a large scale.
We currently provide immediate value to our clinical customers by delivering objective feeding data in real time. This allows them to quickly iterate recommendations for each infant. Aggregate progress metrics on their mobile device are there for review, facilitating collaboration with the healthcare team.
Now with every feeding, our predictive algorithms grow stronger and stronger. That data can be aggregated and used to provide insight to the next infant that comes into the NICU. Insight and clinical value creation becomes exponential.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while getting your company up and running, and how did you overcome it?
When we started the company, it was crystal clear what and how we were going to accomplish our goal. We also knew what it would mean for the patients, families and healthcare if we succeeded. If I underestimated anything, it was the amount of difficulty to get access to early capital when we were just an idea.
For example, my first investor pitch was something like,
“Hi, I’m Tommy. I just recently quit my job to address a problem that’s been overlooked by some of the top doctors in the world, in a market that’s considered niche by most, serving the world’s most fragile patients, leveraging technology that’s never been applied in one of the most heavily regulated industries. Who’s with me?”
Needless to say, initially nobody lined up with their checkbooks. It took months of preparation and refinement to get to the point where we were even prepared to confidently accept capital to execute a sound business plan and achieve success for the company.
What resources have you utilized that other founders might find compelling or useful?
I was very fortunate to be introduced to leadership in a business mentoring group, CEO Netweavers. They had a particular program that was an initiative for CEOs to give back and help entrepreneurs navigate whatever hurdles they were facing. Regardless of if you were just an aspiring entrepreneur, such as myself, trying to get a company started or growing a company from $100M to $200M, they provided support and mentorship. This process undoubtedly accelerated my professional growth and benefitted NFANT Labs. It helped me distill our strategic plan and cut substantial time on our development curve. We also avoided potential pitfalls that NFANT and other companies have traditionally struggled with.
What steps have you taken to secure funding for your company and what, if anything, would you do differently if you had to start over?
We have successfully raised a seed and Series A totaling .5 million through a private placement. With that capital, we delivered on all of our objectives ahead of schedule and under budget. Doing so has allowed us to show a level of market viability prior to our Series B.
I am not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when many great ideas do not make it due to lack of capital securement. It is always easiest to raise capital, on favorable terms, when you can point to past and continued success. We will continue to work hard and secure the capital needed to hit our growth targets.
What questions have you had as an entrepreneur of a fledgling startup that you had a particularly hard time finding the answers to?
As a startup you have limited resources, not least of which is time. The hardest question for me is where I prioritize my focus on a daily, weekly, monthly basis depending on the ever shifting demands within a startup. The main question to ask for all of these is whether there is somebody on our team who can do the task better. If so, let them manage the task instead of being heavily involved. The next question comes when you are particularly lacking in several skill sets but only have certain resources. Sales, R&D, marketing, etc., which do you fill? The team must pick up the slack until the next need.
What challenges are you grappling with?
The length and complexity of hospital sales cycles are always frustrating, but it is the nature of the business.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your company?
Currently, we are raising a $5 million Series B round. We will use these funds to expand our current sales force, increase marketing efforts, and fuel the development of new product lines, mainly focusing on our data services. We have accomplished quite a bit but are eager to take the company to the next level in our goal to have NFANT become the standard of care for infant feeding.
Are you familiar with other startups you believe should be spotlighted? If so, we would like to hear from you. Tell us about them in the comments below!