Ramp Up: An Interview With Aterica CEO Alex Leyn

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Aterica is a digital health startup building smartphone-connected EpiPen cases that reminds patients to carry their EpiPen and alerts family members if the EpiPen is ever used.

Tell me about yourself and your company?

Aterica is focused on the growing global issue of anaphylaxis and food allergies. The company was co-founded by Alex Leyn and Mike Fisher and, with several of the core members of the existing Aterica team, we worked together with the intent to enter the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition. Alex is an electrical/computer engineer and a “chronic entrepreneur” with previous work and companies focused on broadcast television, telecom, video, mobile infrastructure equipment and consumer digital video, and compression chip design. Mike also has a long career of start-ups and starting new businesses in large organizations and has focused on medical imaging and health IT domains. Our growing technical team consists of clinicians and electrical, mechanical, industrial, cloud software, mobile software, and bio-molecular engineers.

What problem in healthcare are you trying to solve, and how are you solving it?

Currently, individuals and families living with anaphylaxis and food allergies do not have a lot of options to help them cope with everyday vigilance required to stay safe and healthy. Today, the best daily strategies require individuals to read labels, ask questions, educate friends, teachers, and food servers about the seriousness of a person’s allergy, avoid unknown foods, and always carry multiple epinephrine auto-injectors should the vigilance fail due to someone’s error or unforeseen circumstances. But it is extremely difficult to maintain diligence all day, every day, and it’s particularly difficult for children and their parents. Such requirements generate constant worry and anxiety.

We think we can improve this situation for everyone: children with allergies and their parents, individuals living with anaphylaxis, and their respective extended support networks. Based on the large number of universally positive comments that we’ve received from our customers after announcing pre-order availability of the Veta smart case, our customers wholeheartedly agree. Veta smart case, and its associated cloud-connected iOS and Android apps, ensure that you or your child are never without your auto-injectors and will even help you locate misplaced auto-injectors quickly, especially during a crisis. Veta gives parents and others peace of mind by confirming that the EpiPens are where they should be, are not expired, and have been maintained within appropriate temperatures. And Veta stays on standby to inform the friends and family support network that an EpiPen is being used, allowing them to assist the person experiencing the allergic reaction, even if they are not with that person.

What inspired you to tackle this particular problem?

We started in the anaphylaxis and food allergy domain because it is a very serious health issue that affects millions directly and many more millions indirectly. We’ve seen a significant increase in serious allergies in the both developed and developing countries. It’s a problem that requires complex daily vigilance and such continuous attention is very difficult to manage for individuals living with anaphylaxis and creates significant anxiety for their families. Additionally, mobile-connected technologies have reached a stage of maturity and ubiquity to allow us to rely on that ecosystem as part of our solution. Both the need and capability are intersecting at this point in time.

Your team originally formed to pursue the Qualcomm X Prize Challenge. How did the decision to pursue Veta instead come about?

Aterica was formed specifically to focus on individual-centric digital health technologies and products to help individuals and families proactively manage their own health on their own terms. While preparing for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition, we gained critical insights and observed multiple unfilled needs that had the potential to positively impact the lives of millions immediately. As a result, we put the competition aside and focused our efforts on delivering innovative and supportive tools to improve the lives of families living with anaphylaxis. Nonetheless, the X Prize competition was a key catalyst to assemble the team, immerse us in the digital health domain, and launch the commercial company.

Tell me a little about the path you took to bring Veta from the idea-stage to market release.

The idea became real and funded in 2013. After many discussions with families and clinical immunologists, we realized that this complex problem required a system-level solution, rather than just a tech gadget. Veta anaphylaxis and food allergy support system is unique because of its multi-tiered system approach. Individuals and families living with anaphylaxis know that every second counts and an app alone is not going to save you – EpiPens save you. Our Veta support system includes a smart case and app because keeping a life-saving epinephrine auto-injector close by and in good working order is the only way to provide safety, and reassurance, to families living with anaphylaxis.

Our team rapidly prototyped the mechanics, electronics, firmware, software, and infrastructure components to allow us to examine each element and interaction in extensive detail. This was a critical step in the development process – one can have a theory of how things should work, but holding it in your hands and using it is the only way to really understand all the critical intricacies. As it often turns out, Veta’s simple and easy user functionality is a result of a significant level of complexity and attention to detail in the background in all parts of the design, from battery life to security to scale.

How did you go about designing a manufacturing process that didn’t overwhelm your budget when you were just starting out, but will be able to scale up to meet demand now that you’ve taken Veta to market?

Design and deployment of consumer hardware and products to serve millions of people is not a trivial undertaking. The team has extensive experience bringing large-scale hardware, mobile, and cloud-based infrastructure products to market. The foundation of any successful manufacturing deployment is good engineering, so we’ve relied heavily on rapid, and relatively-low cost, prototyping for both hardware and software development, leveraging modeling CAD, 3D printing, existing ecosystem of reliable cloud service providers, careful and intentional choice of development languages and security systems, as well as traditional bench and agile prototyping of every element of the product. Careful attention to manufacturing optimizations such as test and assembly automation, design margins, and assembly simplicity during the design stage is allowing us to ramp and retain manufacturing to significant volumes within North America, while preparing for the complexity involved with higher volumes and global logistics with potential off-shore manufacturing facilities. Our software systems are architected for efficient, reliable, and secure scaling to millions of users from the start.

What is your monetization strategy? Do you see payers, providers, pharmaceutical companies or any other organizations as potential customers, or will you focus on growing Aterica primarily through B2C sales?

The Veta revenue model is simple. Our customers purchase one or multiple Veta smart cases to replace the stock cases that already come with their auto-injectors. The current version of the Veta smart case is not disposable and can be used with your next EpiPen when the current one expires. To support the need to carry and track multiple auto-injectors, we offer significant discounts on the purchase of multiple Veta smart cases. Each purchase includes one year of connectivity subscription standard, and two years when purchased during our current pre-order campaign. While we haven’t released the pricing for the subscription after the initial period quite yet, it is intended to be nominal and very affordable, again with even further discounts to allow you to track multiple EpiPens. The iOS and Android apps are free for everyone, to enable your immediate and extended support network. We very intentionally do not derive revenue from ads or from selling your data.

We’ve launched the pre-order campaign directly to consumers affected by anaphylaxis and food allergies. We have also had very significant interest from clinics, distributors, and multiple pharmaceutical partners to carry and integrate our products both in US and globally and we do expect to utilize retail channels at an appropriate time in the future. There is a very interesting potential to enable schools, workplaces, public buildings, and businesses, such as restaurants, to provide additional protection to their pupils, employees, visitors, and customers. And we are sincerely hoping that many of our customers will choose to participate in a public network of epinephrine auto-injectors, allowing them to come to the aid of someone having an anaphylactic reaction nearby.

Have you done any trials that measure Veta’s impact on population health?

We’ve spoken with and demonstrated Veta smart case and app to dozens of individuals that live with anaphylaxis every day. We’ve also received hundreds of direct and social media comments on the system. Some of these observations have shaped the product directly, some have informed our future product directions, but all have been incredibly enthusiastic. We will be launching a closed beta trial closer to the shipping date this fall and we will be inviting our pre-order customers to participate in that early trial if they are interested.

Do you plan to bring other support devices to market that you can tell us about?

In fact, we have quite a number of products in the development pipeline to help people living with anaphylaxis and food allergies. Because our customers rely on various brands of epinephrine auto-injectors, we can mention our intention to support additional epinephrine auto-injectors as part of the Veta support system. While we can’t talk about some of the other products on our roadmap quite yet, we can tell you that they will fit seamlessly into the Veta anaphylaxis and food allergy support system as critical components that support our customers every day.

What’s next for Aterica?

Right now, we are razor-sharp focused on ramping our manufacturing, ensuring reliability and security of our systems, and delivering the pre-orders to our customers. Next, as mentioned, we do have quite a number of additional allergy-focused products on the roadmap. And beyond that, Aterica was created to deliver tools for individuals and families to proactively manage their health on their own terms and we have a many lifetimes of products and solutions planned in that context.


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