Ellington West, CEO

As a Black woman leading a healthcare technology company, Ellington West often feels alone in an industry where men dominate upper management. She’s raised millions of dollars for Sonavi Labs since co-founding the company in 2017, but has had to deal with people speaking over her in meetings or assuming that one of her male colleagues is the CEO.

It may not always be easy, but overcoming adversity and reaching for higher goals than others is in West’s blood.

West’s father is Dr. James West, a Johns Hopkins University professor and renowned inventor of a technology used in 90% of microphones worldwide. As a child, he yearned to pursue a career in science. His parents worried that racism and the Jim Crow laws of the South would hinder his job opportunities. But he persisted, despite being disrespected and challenged throughout his academic and professional career.

“My father is my hero, role model, my greatest inspiration, because he has always been supportive of following your own path,” the younger West said. “And I think to be an inventor, to be an innovator like he is, it was really about pushing boundaries, diving into the unknown.”

Inspired by her father

West’s father is the one who inspired her to co-found Sonavi Labs. At the time, she was a business development director for a healthcare company and Dr. West and one of his students, Ian McLane, were researching ways to reduce pediatric mortality due to pneumonia. Dr. West told his daughter that once McLane graduated, his research would gather dust in the Johns Hopkins archive.

“I realized that the work that McLane and my father were doing could have a major impact on global health and there were many millions of people around the world that could use a device capable of detecting respiratory diseases in seconds,” West said, understanding their research could have commercial applications.

So, she quit her job to co-found Sonavi with McLane, now the company’s chief technology officer. Their flagship product is the Feelix line of digital stethoscopes, which help to detect respiratory diseases by listening to the sounds of the body and identifying abnormalities in seconds. The devices alert the user when further testing is needed, thus making it easy for them to be used by anyone from a parent at home to a doctor in an office building.

In the past two years, Sonavi has won the MIT-SOLVE competition, the Innov8 Talks Pitch Competition at Arab Health 2020 and a recent investment from Nightingale Partners LLC. The stethoscopes, which are found in about 10 countries, earned approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September 2020 and are currently available to research partners.

COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by a virus, highlighted the potential of Sonavi’s Feelix stethoscopes, which have the potential to transform diagnosis of the virus, West said. Pneumonia and COVID present in a similar way. But Sonavi’s technology can distinguish between viral and bacterial pneumonia, meaning “we very well might be able to identify the acoustical signature of COVID,” West said, opening up the potential of diagnosis with a stethoscope instead of with a swab up the nose.

Global reach, devoted to Baltimore

Addressing global healthcare problems is a huge part of West’s mission, but so is helping Baltimoreans.

“The work we are doing at Sonavi Labs is intended to improve the health of people in Baltimore by creating technology that is affordable and accessible for all,” she said.

West also wants more young people to become excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She is a strong supporter of the Manufacturing Innovation Hub Cooperative (MiHUB) and the Ingenuity Project, a STEM-focused nonprofit where her father serves on the board. Students who might otherwise be overlooked instead excel because of focused mentorship and encouragement.

“While my journey has been an anomaly,” she said, “it does not have to be.”