“Sorry guys, I’ll be with you in just one moment. I just have to close out this service ticket very quickly.” Sid Kandan’s eyes are glued to his computer screen, and although his demeanor is friendly and ever-so approachable, it’s clear as a third-party observer that servicing the client is priority number one. Moments later, our conversation begins.
The Co-Founder and CEO of Stel Life, Inc., begins to recount the pivots and turns his company has taken since 2016, not unlike so many other startups that call ic@3401 home. As a former employee of Facebook working on Bluetooth technology, Sid was fascinated by the idea of products being able to “care” for the consumer. The first iteration of his at-the-time nascent side-business was a smart water bottle that could help the end user track hydration. This soon evolved into a smart toilet that could help patients manage care with prescribed diuretics. His motto was, “tools, not toys,” as a means to create value in the healthcare industry.
A move back to a familiar city and a chance encounter would steer Stel Life into a new direction.
After receiving an initial angel investment from physicians at Mt. Sinai and quitting his job at Facebook, things got...well, not surprisingly, costly. As a Philly area native, Kandan returned to “reclaim his roots and buy a little bit of time,” as he himself describes it, and to enjoy the affordability and the proximity to not just other healthcare focused individuals, but talented engineers too. He rediscovered his love for the city and “stoop culture,” where he met Sandy Gomberg along the way. She would help him discover that the real market need wasn’t smart sensors, it was the workflow tools. The focus would shift to creating aggregators that would simplify the workflow between patients, their care teams, and the actual manufacturers of the smart devices.
That transition came with its own set of bumps in the road. “We were subleasing for a little over a year and in June of , we got notice that our lessor was reducing their footprint because of the pandemic. We had thirty days to find new space. It was the same thirty days that many of our components were coming from overseas. It was a stressful time,” he recalls. “I remember, we really had to deliver, or we ran the risk of folding.”
Eamon Gallagher, Senior Director of Commercialization at the Science Center threw them a lifeline at just the right time: “We joined ic@3401 in July of last year. We saw the space and it was perfect for us. Eamon helped us on many fronts initially and immediately, and he has continued being such a bastion of startup knowledge, therapy, and investment since, both for entrepreneurs and companies themselves from an emotional investment standpoint.”
Decked out in gloves, masks, hand sanitizers, and socially distanced, the team recreated their own mini production plant and assembly line right at ic@3401, expanding from an initial product deployment of slightly over 1,000 units to 10,000; and with the building blocks in place to scale effectively going forward.
"The Science Center’s intentions seem very pure in supporting companies through their unique challenges. We love that aspect and community that they’ve built. It’s really rare to see that. A lot of people advertise that, but ic@3401 is the real deal."
“It’s so easy to think there’s a standard startup playbook when seeing startup fundraising headlines. In reality, there’s an ebb and flow of the unique circumstances for every company. The Science Center’s intentions seem very pure in supporting companies through their unique challenges,” he adds. “We love that aspect and community that they’ve built. It’s really rare to see that. A lot of people advertise that, but ic@3401 is the real deal."
A change in workspace wasn’t the only byproduct of the pandemic; it accelerated the second pivot in Stel Life’s product offering, shifting to at-home connected devices that send vitals data to healthcare providers remotely.
According to Kandan, that redirection was already well underway prior to 2020, but became more urgent as the team realized they had the unique skill set to produce the hardware and the operating systems needed to distribute to thousands of patients now in need.
“During the pandemic, there were two things that happened that really accelerated the growth. One is the emphasis on remote monitoring. Everyone came to understand that that was going to be the ‘new normal.’ And the second thing was the focus on access to care.”
He continues, “Patients were struggling because of the digital divide, meaning they didn’t have Wifi, lacked cellular connectivity, digital help literacy or technology literacy. The channels of care had changed, but they didn’t necessarily guarantee access to those channels. We had a unique device where it didn’t really matter if you could read or speak English, or could navigate a tablet, or go through pairing or setting up your profiles. You just have to use your device near the hub and your care team will get the data and feel connected to you.”
So why did he feel that responsibility?
Kandan maintains that first and foremost: people needed the product. Secondly, not many people could build it in a similarly sustainable, commercial way. Stel Life could deliver the hardware at affordable prices, getting it in the hands of thousands of disadvantaged patients that struggle with access to technology.
To him, it really was as simple as a combination of the demand and their ability to create the supply. To sum it up, why not Stel Life?
“It was a major milestone because it’s the first time the FCC has invested and allowed for expenditure for health devices. Even those in Congress concerned with national spending, understood that the world needed this, the U.S. needed this. This was going to be something to help during the pandemic and afterwards.”
A Historic Push
In addition to doing their part to help combat healthcare inequities brough on by the digital divide, Stel Life became involved with the FCC's push to allocate $250M towards the more equitable distribution of telehealth services throughout the U.S.
“It was a historic program, and we were happy to be a part of it,” he beams. “It was a major milestone because it’s the first time the FCC has invested and allowed for expenditure for health devices. Even those in Congress concerned with national spending, understood that the world needed this, the U.S. needed this. This was going to be something to help during the pandemic and afterwards.”
Stel Life was not only naturally excited by the effort because of their aligned mission, but also was well suited to offer their perspective on the benefits, gained by years of experience and research into their target market. They could consult with Congress on the need to ensure devices were covered without passing on copays, and that they would be presented to patients in a way that would make them feel cared for.
“I think between the technology becoming affordable and everyone understanding that digital health tools are necessary, that combination of the two made for agency priorities to support bridging the digital divide as telehealth expands. And we just want to support [the agencies] in any of their current and future initiatives.”
So now that Stel Life is living out their mission of expanding accessibility for remote care and helping to close the digital divide and addressing health inequities brought to light especially over the past year, what is Kandan’s best advice for other life sciences startups hoping to get in the game?
He laughs, humbly: “I’m not sure if I’ve done enough to offer advice quite yet to the next batch. It’s really grit, and perseverance that have led to us to being here today. Any investment you make timewise, make sure that the payoff of that investment gives you some institutional, foundational or core knowledge or some expertise that you’d be able to expand elsewhere. We gained expertise in Bluetooth and from that we now have a patent for passive connectivity to all Bluetooth vitals devices. Which is mind-blowing. The people that started off with a smart toilet and smart water bottle now have a patent for passive connectivity for all Bluetooth vitals devices!”
I tell him that, respectfully, I disagree with his premise that he has no advice to impart the next generation of innovators. He insists it’s luck and preparation, meeting opportunity.
As our interview ends, I feel more keenly aware that there are many remote patients who can’t simply step into a better service spot when they are disconnected from the outside world. There is still much to do. And for Stel Life, the work continues.