Mobile Sense Technologies, Inc. has been participating in the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP) since January 2017. The biotech startup has developed the SensBand™, an innovative, wearable monitoring system designed to detect cardiac arrhythmias.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Mobile Sense Technologies CEO and Co-Founder Justin Chickles about the startup’s involvement with the TIP and his experience as an entrepreneur.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. Is this your first startup?
JUSTIN CHICKLES: This is the first company I’ve built as a CEO. I’ve done pretty much everything else in terms of setting up a business. My experience with startups is mainly in the early-stage development—taking ideas and building them into products. When I worked at Johnson & Johnson, I formed a venture inside the company where we created an entire product based on an idea from one of the engineers. I also have experience in doing research and development, marketing, sales, and consulting.
NAN: How did you end up launching this startup?
JUSTIN: I was involved in a couple different startups in California. I was traveling back and forth between California and Connecticut when I was introduced to Dr. Ki Chon, who is the Head of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Chon had spent several years developing technology for arrhythmia detection.
We started talking about the noninvasive monitoring device he’d developed. I thought the technology was fascinating and very far advanced. I’ve been in medical bioscience for the last 20 years, including work in cardiovascular and neural stimulation, so I was familiar with what was going on in the space.
I saw an opportunity to make a big impact in terms of helping Dr. Chon combine his technology with my commercial background and build a company.
NAN: Tell us what makes the technology innovative.
JUSTIN: We’re working on embedding our device into smart watches. And we have algorithms that help detective various arrhythmias. Our devices do real-time detection and event monitoring. What’s exciting is that we built our own medical device and then can take existing platforms like smart watches and leverage their technology.
NAN: How did you become involved with the TIP and what have you gained from your participation in the program?
JUSTIN: We became a part of the TIP accelerator in January 2017. Dr. Chon that gave us the connection through UConn, he knew the TIP tries to encourage UConn technology spinouts to come to the program.
One of the things that’s amazing about the TIP is that there are so many other CEOs and startups in the same building that are going through the same or different challenges—but it’s still so related.
We’re able to share knowledge about things like how we apply to grants, how to go through that process, or how to find the right people. We have random conversations in the hall about things you didn’t know about being in Connecticut and what you need to do to set up your business license.
All those things happen in an environment like this as opposed to trying to figure things out on your own. It’s great being able to interact with people at that level.
NAN: I’ve heard that from other TIP startups—they really benefit from the collaborative aspect.
JUSTIN: Exactly. Sometimes I’m talking to investors and they’re not interested in working with medical devices, but they are interested in biopharmaceuticals. If that’s the case, I’m happy to make that introduction to one of the other TIP startups. That’s another of the collaborative attributes you gain from the TIP.
We have brilliant people with the drive to build new companies—and a sense of collaboration is happening too.
NAN: What’s the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a startup?
JUSTIN: The biggest challenge of course is always funding, because you have to start out with a very small amount to prove out a lot. You have to take some personal sacrifices to do that. As you prove things out, you can get more capital. But, then the question is how do we raise the money?
We founded the company in beginning of 2016 and then spent the first six months doing intellectual property, getting it all built, and making sure we could license it from three different universities.
At the end of 2016, we got $500,000 in funding from Connecticut Innovations. We raised another $225,000 from angel investors. And then in October 2017, we received another $100,000 from the UConn Innovation Fund and a $225,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
The next big raise for us will help us expand our team 10 to 14 people. That’s really what we need to be able to take this device to market.
Trying to raise money is heavily driven by the fact that a lot of big players are excited about this space. That’s another challenge. It is a significantly unmet need in the cardiac space that we can help address. So, we’ve got competition and we’ve got time. Lots of people want to try to make that happen.
NAN: You mentioned expansion. Tell us about your team.
JUSTIN: Our team is fairly small right now. We have two full-time employees and several part-time people. Most have been on a contracting basis, mainly because trying to find the right people in the right places has also been critical. Getting the right software engineers—the people who have that background—is a big part of what we’re trying to build out right now.
Our next step is to use the TIP to help bring in interns and students, hire an electrical engineer through UConn, and really start to build a team.
NAN: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
JUSTIN: For me being an entrepreneur really is about creating a strong team. You need to have a technology that gets people interested and excited. And then it’s having that persistence to make it happen.
There are some really amazing highs, like when you secure funding or you finish making a project. And then there are those times when you ask yourself: What just happened? And you’re trying to make sure you can overcome that.
For me, being an entrepreneur has always been about building things and really driving it myself. I love the fact that we are building something people have never done before. It’s challenging. It’s interesting. And when you start hiring people and building a team and it’s all coming together, it starts to feel really good as well. You feel like you’re doing something important.
NAN: Any advice for anyone starting out?
JUSTIN: I’ve seen some really good ideas. And I’ve seen some ideas that aren’t so great. You need to get out there and do some of these practice pitching events. You’ll get real feedback or people who give you good advice. Even if your idea isn’t going to go anywhere, if you’re willing to listen, you’ll find out more than you would by just writing out a business plan.
You need to have your business plan and your business concept. But you need other people’s input. You need people to ask: Where do you see this going? What do you see it becoming? Can you communicate that clearly to other people? Can you convince people this is a good idea? That’s what gets people excited.
I think that’s the biggest challenge I see in some of these people, they get so fixated on one part of the idea, they’re not necessarily looking out for what people need.
I had a little bit of an advantage because I’ve presented to hundreds of people before. I know how to shape messages, so I can identify what people are looking for.
NAN: You’ve been involved with startups before, but this is your first time launching one. Tell us about that experience.
JUSTIN: Being a first-time CEO, there’s a different perspective. I’ve built and been in startups, but I wasn’t necessarily leading them. You make sacrifices when you’re in the startups, but actually leading the startup you’re making even more sacrifices. I think that probably wasn’t clear when I was just working for one.
The biggest thing about being a first-time entrepreneur, I mean really setting it up from scratch, is exactly what everybody says: You have to learn everything.
When you’re an entrepreneur getting started you have to do all of it. You have to understand it enough so that, even if you hire somebody, you recognize that they’re not taking advantage of you or leading you down the wrong path.
Even with a team helping you out, there’s no stopping the fact that you have to learn accounting or project management or research and development. My big weakness by far is financing and accounting. I’m not trained to do credits and debits. It doesn’t excite me, and it doesn’t interest me. For me the easy one was marketing and sales.
Everybody’s going to get their strengths. Some people can research something really well, but they may not be able to see it from a consumer standpoint—knowing what the patients and doctors need. I’m very good at that. I bring in that commercial perspective. I can usually really help people.
NAN: Give us a little insight into the mind of the entrepreneur.
JUSTIN: The startup experience comes in waves. When you’re at the bottom of the trough, the world looks small and it feels like only one or two people are there to help. But there are always people who can help. And those who help you get to the top also love to see how your success transforms you. When you ride up to the crest it feels like you can see forever. It’s breathtaking.