By Sonia K. González, DrPH, MPH
Dr. Anaïs Rameau is an Assistant Professor of Laryngology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Dr. Rameau was an otolaryngology resident at Stanford University and then a fellow at UC Davis Medical School, under the mentorship of Peter Belafsky, MD, MPH, PhD. Her research focus is the application of new technologies in the diagnosis and management of laryngeal and swallowing disorders, especially in the prevention of aspiration. She has received multiple grants, including the Triological Society Career Development Award and a KL2 award through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
I am a laryngologist, i.e. a surgical specialist focusing on restoring voice, swallowing and breathing. My career path was inspired by my grandfather, who was a writer and poet. Unfortunately, he was also a smoker, and developed cancer on one of his vocal cords. He had the tumor removed in Germany, and when his family came to pick him up at the airport, he looked the same, but he no longer had a voice. This was devastating for him because it limited his social life and he could no longer read his poems in public. Voice is such an important part of our identity, and unfortunately, there has been little innovation in voice restoration for patients with limited phonation capacity. This is a problem I’m obviously very passionate about. It led me to propose a moonshot idea at the Weill Cornell Hackathon in 2018, to create a non-invasive wearable device that would convert electrical activity from articulatory muscles into speech. We won the hackathon, then decided to submit and protect our intellectual property and incorporate the company.
MyophonX is an individually tailored wearable device that applies machine learning to silent articulation to restore speech in patients with limited phonation or ability to speak. Our device runs data from electric activity of face and neck muscles active during articulation through an algorithm that recognizes specific phonemes and translates this data into speech via mobile devices. The physical device is held on the face like a cell phone during a phone call, and is removed when not used.
We have been working on MyophonX for the past year and half, and still work very intensely on the technology. We have one article published in the top journal in head and neck oncology and have submitted our provisional patent via Cornell University. We are submitting grants for non-dilutive funding.
We have two patient populations we’re focusing on initially:
I have not fully transitioned to business and do not intend to. I love being in academic medicine, it allows me to explore ideas with freedom and to serve patients without vested interest. The reason MyophonX was incorporated was to accelerate the production of a device that is needed by patients. I’m working on other technologies with commercial potential, but have decided to open source them for the greatest good. The hardest thing for me when wearing the business hat is to focus on generating profit, rather than creating value for our patients. But I recognize the necessity to generate revenue for the viability of a product. We have thus developed business strategies to keep expanding our market and revenues.
I moved to NYC from the Bay Area for my current faculty position. It was a difficult transition at first, as I was used to the future oriented thinking, the abundance of engineers and the culture of innovation of Silicon Valley, and the NYC medical community seemed a little traditional initially. But I quickly realized some significant advantages of being in NYC: the amazing diverse population, the broad pool of talent, the proximity to top financial institutions and the rich biomedical research environment. And NY state is heavily investing in biomedical innovation. It’s so great to sit in a café here and hear people talk about fashion, theater, finance, science, current events, etc. I remember sitting in Coupa Café in Palo Alto and only overhearing big tech and start-up discussions. The diversity of ideas and people are fertile ground for meaningful and creative entrepreneurial ventures. Furthermore, the academic support for entrepreneurship is palpably growing in the city. For instance, the Weill Cornell BioVenture ELab continues to be an amazing resource for MyophonX.
The greatest challenges in health tech remains access to patient data, and how slowly medical systems are able to change due to the multitude of regulations, high cost and stakeholders.
The greatest opportunity is the infinite number of challenges that need solutions in health care. So far healthcare has been mostly managed and innovated from within, by healthcare workers and biomedical scientists. We are in a truly revolutionary time, with engineers, designers, computer scientists, business specialists etc. looking at new ways to approach existing and new medical problems. This disruptive force is very much needed in health care and creates new competition for traditional players. This further fosters innovation and pushes physicians among others to think in new ways and collaborate across disciplines. It is critical though that health data privacy remains upheld and that the end goal is human well being (not the accumulation of wealth at the expense of human health).
I’m passionate about the geriatric population and the functional impairments associated with old age. Geriatrics is not a very popular field of medicine, so it is nice to see an increasing number of startups focusing on this growing section of our demographics and finding its challenges “sexy”. There is a new medical discipline named gerontechnology that tries to resolve those impairments with technological innovations. Japan has a great model, with collaborations between hospitals and industry players to create technologies that meet medical standards, such as robots and gamified rehabilitative devices for physical therapy. Regulation remains key though when it comes to frail and marginalized communities.
The team is the most important part of a start-up. Without a good team, a great idea can die. And conversely, with an outstanding team, a mediocre idea can be successful. Find collaborators who have the same work ethics as you and who compliment you with their social and technical skills.