We talked to Alex Newton, CEO, and founder of Navi Medical Technologies, about the contribution of medical innovation to children, and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Alex Newton: We’re doing well, my wife and I had a baby girl in March 2020 so the lockdown has been a really interesting time – from a personal point of view it’s been great to be working from home.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Navi Medical Technologies.
Alex Newton: I trained as an Aerospace engineer and worked for about a decade throughout Australia and the US for companies such as Lockheed Martin, Airbus, and Boeing. I loved the technical side but noticed I was becoming interested in the commercial side of things so studied an MBA at the Melbourne Business School where I happened to enroll in a subject called BioDesign Innovation. The BioDesign course gave me exposure to the process for developing medical devices and I was fascinated. I formed a team with five other people with really interesting backgrounds in business, biomedical engineering, and neonatology and we spent a year examining the challenges that doctors and nurses face caring for critically ill newborns in intensive care. After the course finished we decided to spin out a start-up company to commercialize a medical device that assists with the placement of central venous lines in premature babies. That’s the short story of how our company, Navi, was born.
How does Navi Medical Technologies innovate?
Alex Newton: We follow the BioDesign Innovation principles which are a human-centered design based philosophy. We partner with leading hospitals and physicians and nurses to explore unmet clinical needs by embedding our team in the clinical setting to try to understand the challenges from a new point of view.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Alex Newton: The COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of disruption in the medical device industry. Based on a few interactions I can sense that some very early-stage start-ups are finding it difficult to get angel funding, and later-stage companies that are close to the market are having a tough time getting the attention of hospitals that are focused on dealing with an unprecedented health challenge. At Navi, I feel like we’re fortunate to be in a relatively safe position in the middle. We secured funding just before the pandemic hit hard, and we looked to raise a small round of additional capital once we recognized the potential scale of the risks posed by the COVID-19 response, just to give ourselves a bit of extra runway if we needed it. In retrospect that was a really good decision, and gave us the confidence that we could reorganize our work and carry on through the year without too much additional stress.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Alex Newton: We have a small team, 3 full-time founders, 3 part-time founders, and one part-time casual employee. We keep our team very lean on purpose. This meant that we didn’t have to make many hard decisions, but we did learn a lot of lessons around how to be more flexible with our work arrangements and keep people engaged throughout a difficult year. It’s interesting to note on reflection that working from home wasn’t nearly as detrimental to our progress as we had thought, although I think our team is keen to get back to the office sooner rather than later. It’s good to know that a more flexible approach to work can work out just fine.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Alex Newton: Our customers are the hospitals that care for sick kids, so for most of 2020 we were limited in our ability to visit our Australian hospital partners unless it was to continue our clinical research – but even that was limited. We did manage to build new relationships with some hospitals in the US via an FDA sponsored program called the ‘Pediatric Device Consortia’. This has been a great tool for learning more about our customers in a key market and even asking for assistance in key areas like regulatory and reimbursement support.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Alex Newton: We received support from state and federal programs to keep companies afloat throughout 2020 which helped us weather the storm, but we were also successful in several larger grants that we applied for at the end of 2019. Navi was provided with funding from the Australian government Accelerating Commercialisation program in early 2020, and later we received a grant from the Victorian Medical Research Acceleration Fund to expand our clinical research at the Royal Women’s Hospital Neonatal ICU. Later in the year, we were also selected for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grant, in conjunction with our research partners at the University of Melbourne, Royal Women’s Hospital, and Royal Children’s Hospital. This is a larger grant and will enable our research to continue for a few years which is a huge boost.
Your final thoughts?
Alex Newton: As a pre-revenue startup, navigating a global pandemic has been a challenge. But we’ve learned how to reprioritize our tasks, work flexibly, and keep our team happy and motivated. We made great progress in several key areas, and I think we’ll come out of the pandemic in a stronger position than we started which is a wonderful thing to be able to say.