March 1, 2022 BACK
Presenting This Month:
Featured in this issue:
Yezin Taha from Nevados Engineering
Spine Align with Amir Soltanianzadeh
Jamie Bennett, Pasadena Angels' member profile
This month we have two presenters and two updates. Below is a brief summary of the companies presenting on Wednesday. Then you'll find a profile of a founder (Yezin Taha), a medical device company with a successful exit (Spine Align), and a member of the Pasadena Angels, Jamie Bennett.
Startups Presenting Wednesday, March 2nd
COMPANY: Milo Sensors
Presenter: Bob Lansdorf
Milo Sensors has created the first discreet wearable alcohol sensor, using patented technology. ION Wearable is a game-changer in the alcohol monitoring market where bulky and stigmatizing breathalyzers and ankle bracelets are the current market leaders.
Presenter: Mia Umanos
Clickvoyant is the analyst in the cloud that works 24/7 analyzing marketing data for money making insights and presents findings in an easy-to-read download.
Company Updates, Wednesday, March 2nd
Presenter: Mirianas Chachisvilis
The TruScore is a proprietary, non-invasive, low-cost, hand-held device that aids a non-expert user to rapidly and objectively determine whether a suspect skin lesion is cancerous. The patent pending technology works by detecting pathological angiogenesis which is a well established hallmark of cancer.
Presenter: Emma Toshack
Nomadica is the wine brand for the next generation. Our current product portfolio includes 4 core SKUs of premium wine, packaged in artist-designed cans. We sell primarily via wholesale to on and off premise accounts.
Founder Profile - Yezin Taha, CEO of Nevados Engineering
Yezin Taha is founder and CEO of Nevados Engineering. They design and manufacture mounts for solar panels. Not the dumb, immmovable pedestals, but the smart, flexible mounts that move to track the sun. Like wheels on luggage, this is an idea that was overdue eight years ago when Yezin started working on it. Somehow, it’s taken this long to really start catching fire.
Yezin didn’t start out to revolutionize solar energy. He started out as a mechanical engineer from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign looking for a small company that he could see himself running a few years down the road. So, he took a job with GE. Surprisingly, the experience didn’t live up to his expectations.
A friend put him in touch with Trane Commercial Air Conditioning. It was a technical sales position in Sacramento. He had to learn a new role and create his own development path. It wasn’t a long term fit, but he stretched himself in new directions and began to explore renewable energy power plants. Then, he took a position with GSH Group, an English energy efficiency company, and helped launch a new office, which moved him to San Francisco. He schooled himself on energy efficiency and guaranteed savings contracts, but the Credit Crisis convinced GSH Group to retreat back to their east coast home base.
Just at that time, Yezin had a terrible skiing accident. He crushed his ankle, and it was not clear if he would lose all functioning in that foot. He spent years on-and-off crutches and recovering from additional surgeries. He couldn’t sit for more than five minutes, so he started looking for non-traditional ways to make a living. He started working on projects that ranged from energy efficiency consulting to building custom motorcycles. That latter project tapped into his love of motorcycles and his mechanical engineering pedigree. It was a passion, but not an occupation.
With a ton of medical debt to pay off, Yezin found a traditional job, this time with Black and Veatch, an international energy consulting firm. They touched half of all commercial solar projects in the United States in the early 2010s, and were a great springboard into Solar. Yezin was doing bankability studies and due diligence, working with tracker manufacturers who made mounting structures for solar power facilities. Yezin became something of an expert on those devices, and he realized that the industry was doing it wrong. Technology and software could be used to make things smarter and better and allow the industry to make the leaps it needed to transition away from flat-land desert projects.
Then a friend gave him a challenge that would change his life.
“If you quit, I’ll give you a treasure map to a motorcycle hidden in the mountains in India.”
It planted a seed that would eventually take root.
Not long after Yezin was in Spain doing a bankability study on a solar project when his car took a detour due to construction. He looked outside the window and saw a string of people using walking sticks with shells hanging from their packs. They were walking the Camino, and suddenly he knew what he would do.
He left Black and Veatch, and he walked El Camino de Santiago. He then visited Germany and polished up his German language skills. And then he was ready for India. He voyaged to India and tracked down the family entrusted with the motorcycle. It was gone. But they put him up in a guest house so he could explore the mountain’s trails while eluding leopards. He got his own motorcycle and toured the mountains of India. From there, he made his way to Columbia and explored the high Nevados mountains.
By then, the ideas had percolated in his mind long enough. He could envision how to apply technology and software to the solar industry.
It was 2014. Yezin and his co-founder embarked on the new venture with excitement and determination (and very little money). He worked on the side to make enough to live so he could pursue his vision, but his partner lasted only a year. Government grants were a tenuous lifeline. Nevados landed several industry partners who could manifest the vision, but each in turn folded and sent them back to square one.
It was a hard march, but Yezin was used to hard marches. Then it became a grind. Then it became misery… for years. The company shrank to just two. He knew that Nevados could succeed, if only they could catch a break. Then, they did. They landed two projects. That enabled them to raise money through a Series A. That money enabled hiring, and suddenly they were a company, and then it got fun. That was March of last year. There was still pressure, but there was also the sweet satisfaction of traction!
Investors have been a key element in their success, and Yezin has a long list of Pasadena Angels and Tech Coast Angels who have been there for him when he’s needed them throughout the journey. He named a few, but then implored me not to include a list because it would surely exclude someone whose input and goodwill were cherished.
Yezin’s insight: businesses come from the people who stick it out. Tough places breed strong people, and Yezin has endured winters in the midwest, trails in Spain, and motorcycle repairs in the remote mountains of India. Now he sees the path ahead, and there’s a billion dollar valuation somewhere ahead on that path. The two best parts of a journey are undoubtedly the departure, full of promise, and the moment when you crest a rise and suddenly see the destination in the distance, with its assurance of comfort and reward for many sacrifices.
For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years.”
- Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Company Profile - Spine Align (and Amir Soltanianzadeh)
In the last days of 2021, Spine Align signed a deal to be acquired by a global orthopedic medical device company specializing in musculoskeletal disorders. In one sense, the exit was the culmination of five years of tireless days and nights by founders Amir Soltanianzadeh, Dave Gullotti and Dr. Nicholas Theodore. But in another sense, it was just a big leap forward in an ongoing journey to provide solutions that will make surgeons better and improve the lives of patients around the world. Amir, the former Spine Align CEO & co-Founder, has joined the new company and will continue his efforts to commercialize Spine Align’s technology.
Spine Align was founded to help solve one of the biggest problems surgeons face in spinal deformity surgery: how to measure their progress while they are constantly adjusting the final design of the spine as conditions change during surgery. Surgeons start with 2D alignment measurements on X-Ray images of the spine and a rough design of the desired end shape. The biggest challenge for surgeons is that they do not have an easy way of quickly measuring the complex 3D shape of the spine during surgery. The position of the patient on the table, their reaction to anesthesia, and the mechanical response of the body to the surgery itself - they all create a dynamic environment. As surgery proceeds, the spine changes from the starting state, and surgeons have to use their imagination to conceptualize their progress and how to adjust to arrive at the final desired alignment.
The vision of Spine Align was to create a means of measuring the 3D shape of the spine and contextualizing how the current point in surgery compares to the end goal. Quantitative measurements and visualization mid-surgery would provide surgeons with the information they need to adjust more appropriately, succeed more consistently, and minimize trauma to the patient along the way. That’s a big deal, because about two-thirds of spinal alignment surgeries have complications and many of them don’t achieve their desired state and instead require additional surgery.
The launchpad for this medical device startup was Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design (CBID). Seven years ago, a class of 25 graduate students embarked on the program, doing rounds with doctors and becoming embedded in the healthcare delivery process. They did rotations through specialties, and using their varied backgrounds, they made observations and identified issues faced by doctors and patients. They amassed more than 400 problems and then filtered and prioritized them in terms of impact, feasibility, commercialization potential, etc. In the last couple weeks of observations, Amir, Dave and Dr. Nick Theodore met to discuss the biggest limitations in spinal deformity surgery, and it became immediately clear that solving this pain point for surgeons and patients can make a tremendous impact on spine surgery.
The challenges were significant. First, they had several constraints that were self-imposed but they believed were critical to adoption: no additional radiation, and no interruption to the surgical process developed and honed by doctors over decades. That means, for example, no 40-minute detour for more imaging. The solution had to be instant and not just minimally-invasive, but non-disruptive to the process.
Immediately after graduation, the core team of three coalesced around the startup that was incorporated in Maryland. They knew they needed funding, so they jumped on the grant treadmill. They scored an early Abell Foundation fellowship aimed at keeping entrepreneurs and innovation in Baltimore. They then received early grant and mentorship support from VentureWell, a non-profit that focuses on growing entrepreneurs that come out of academia. The Spine Align team eventually really gained speed when they won a NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2019, which enabled them to subsequently validate their technology prototypes and hire employees.
One of the most daunting aspects of the startup, from the perspective of an outsider, was that it was a combination of a physical product and a software solution. The physical product would be a handheld device that the surgeon would use to take measurements. The software would be able to calculate and visualize the progress towards the planned endpoint of the surgery, leveraging the existing computing power and displays available to spinal surgeons. As a result, this startup would require programming expertise, CAD engineering expertise to design the device, and manufacturing expertise to actually create the physical product.
But, this is a team of Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers and neurosurgeons, so they had all the right components to make this dream a reality. They built the prototypes themselves, doing the CAD design work, machining and 3D-printing parts, and assembling it themselves. They wrote their own code and software interfaces, often rewriting an entire demo every few weeks. And then Amir put the product demo in a suitcase and spent most of 2019 traveling to conferences and meeting surgeons. He sat down with surgeons and asked them about their techniques and pain points. He was so immersed in spinal surgery that when he used technical jargon to ask follow up questions, they assumed he was a surgeon, too.
By the end of 2019, it was time to freeze the design and commercialize it. That process needed investor funding, because grant funding is too slow and hard to come by. So Amir set out to meet what seemed like most of the Angel investors in America. The trip culminated in a March 11, 2020 presentation to 300+ investors at the Angel Capital Summit for the Rockies Venture Club in Denver. The next day he landed in Baltimore not knowing whether he’d landed any funding. He was immediately locked down, just like everyone else, thanks to COVID mitigation measures. He answered questions remotely for a couple months while the investor world tried to sort out whether they would be heading for their bunkers or investing as usual. Slowly commitments started to come in. Then he started to syndicate the investment, and soon he had investors from every time zone in continental America, from Pasadena, Berkeley, Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, Virginia, New York and Baltimore.
Investor funding enabled Spine Align to move faster. They leveraged outside software companies to validate and enhance their code. They partnered with experts to make final design tweaks to design for manufacturing and make the hardware sterilizable and reusable to drive down costs for hospitals. And, they opened discussions with strategic industry partners. That’s when they found the ideal partner, one with other spinal surgery products, one with a history of delivering new innovations, and one with an ambition that matched that of the Spine Align team to advance spine surgery. The platform will still take perhaps a couple more years to commercialize at scale. There is an FDA process, after all.
Amir and his co-founders faced years of challenges, setbacks and failures. Like all entrepreneurs, they wondered whether the time they were spending would eventually be wasted. Was this just another set of fancy technologies that will never make it to the operating room? But, Spine Align is well on its way. The acquisition was a validating milestone, but it wasn’t what the team thinks to be “success.” That will come when it’s in operating rooms all over the globe and an integral part of how surgeons perform the next generation of spinal surgery. One measurement at a time.
Member Profile - Jamie Bennet - Two Thumbs Up!
If you read Wikipedia’s entry about Siskel & Ebert, it describes that “following a contract dispute with Tribune Media in 1986, Siskel and Ebert signed with Buena Vista Television.” It sounds like the contract dispute just materialized out of thin air, but the real story is that it was Jamie Bennett. He was the reason for the contract dispute, because Jamie poached Siskel & Ebert away from Tribune and embedded the duo at Disney, and this is the story of how he did it.
Jamie was destined for show business. He worked in college radio and always loved entertainment. He interviewed with CBS right out of grad school and took a job there. Within a few years he was programming director in Chicago. After a 13 year career at CBS, he went to Disney in Los Angeles, and after six years at Disney he spent a decade at an entertainment startup in London known as ACI (later Freemantle and then Pearson).
But, it was at that middle tenure at Disney that Jamie was responsible for making the content that he had previously been responsible for buying. In that role as head of programming for syndication, he created programs like Regis and Kathy Lee. And, in that role, in 1986, he was responsible for Siskel & Ebertmoving to Buena Vista (within Disney).
He was standing in the lobby of his hotel in New Orleans waiting for an elevator. It was the huge annual entertainment convention where talent and production mingle with distribution. When the elevator opened, Gene Siskel was standing there. Jamie and Gene went way back. They’d been friends in Chicago. Gene even attended Jamie’s wedding. So, Jamie smiled, greeted his friend and said, “Gosh, Gene, when’s your contract up with the Tribune Company?”
It was a silly question, because why would Tribune send him off to a convention if he wasn’t under an iron-clad contract? It would be like sending your date to a single’s bar to pass the evening while you were busy. And yet, Gene said: “Funny you should ask. It’s up right now.”
“Hold that thought! Would you be interested in moving?” Jamie asked.
“Make us an offer,” Gene encouraged him over his shoulder as he walked off into the lobby.
In 1986 Jamie’s bosses were Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In life, sometimes it's all about timing. As Jamie was standing there watching Gene walk away, the elevator dinged and Jeffrey Katzenberg walked out. Jamie was filling him in when Jeffrey stopped him: “Close the deal.”
Before the conference was over, Jamie and Gene had a handshake deal, which, for two old friends, was solid. Jamie flew back to L.A. through Chicago, and on the second leg of the trip, he found himself sitting next to the president of the Tribune Company’s Television Syndication Division. Jamie’s heart skipped a beat. He had just picked this man’s pocket, but the victim wouldn’t learn of the crime for another week. So Jamie smiled and carefully talked shop. Three hours later, the flight got two thumbs up.
In 2002 Jamie moved back to L.A. from London. A friend introduced him to the Pasadena Angels, and right away he jumped in with two feet. He worked full time for something like six years on the organization itself and a variety of startups. Meeting CEOs, learning about their industries, and understanding their unique approaches to solving market problems - they’re all engaging, but doing those things while working with colleagues that he likes and admires is what elevates it to a labor of love.
Jamie and his wife have lived in Ojai for about twelve years - long enough to have survived the Thomas Fire. It burned to within feet of their property on every side and took out an oak tree or two. But, that couldn’t deter them from growing deeper roots in the community. Jamie holds a seat on the planning board, where he’s leveraging decades of experience in building and development.
In parallel with his vocation in entertainment, Jamie spent decades volunteering on school boards overseeing building. He helped his daughters’ school Marlborough in Hancock Park for about a decade manage their building projects. And, he spent six years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) as the COO/CFO. So, architecture and development are languages he speaks. The irony is that in a community like Ojai, the preference is to slow and constrain development. The folks in Ojai aren’t in a hurry to change things. They love Ojai just the way it is now, and so does Jamie.
May: MagicLinks, Christopher Hussain and Janice Orlando
June: Ready, Set, Food, Dr. Mirianas Chachisvilis and Joseph Pitruzzelli
July: Electrum, Jose Gomez and Julie Pantiskas
September: Luk Network, Brandon Cavalier and Nancy Dandridge
October: Dr. Chorom Pak of LynxBio and former president Al Schneider
November: Roy LaManna, TotSquad and John Keatley
January: Ksenia Yudina, BeTheBeast and Larry Uhl
February: Phoenix Gonzalez, Repurpose and Marcus Filipovich
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Dave de Csepel
Chairman, Pasadena Angels