Q&A with Ryan Gessner of Sonovol – SBIR Success at NSF

By John Ujvari, SBIR/STTR Specialist, NC SBTDC

Please give our readers an overview of SonoVol.

SonoVol is developing a medical imaging technology that can be applied to the drug development pipeline, specifically to evaluate the efficacy and toxicity of new drugs before they enter clinical trials. Their first product will be a standalone robotic benchtop ultrasonic imaging instrument which has direct commercial application to several disease research markets. The company’s product development is led by Ryan Gessner, Ph.D. and three R&D Engineers: James Butler, Max Harlacher, Nick Norman. A veteran advisory board team from organizations in both academic and industry are currently helping to craft the company’s go-to-market strategy.

How did you determine that NSF’s funding interests aligned with SonoVol’s?

UNC’s Carolina Kickstart program was very active in helping us identify funding sources during the early days of SonoVol. They would regularly meet with us to discuss funding opportunities, and one of those discussions led to the NSF SBIR solicitation for the Engineering directorate (#6: BM6. Medical Imaging Technologies). Upon further examination, their website listed some potential projects including: novel or improved imaging technologies and/or imaging agents to advance the diagnosis and treatment of disease, and to improve prognosis. Since we were trying to develop a novel platform imaging technology, we decided to apply. So far we have been awarded a Phase 1 from NSF and received a promising score for the phase 2. We expect to hear more about the phase 2 soon.

What were you key learnings from the proposal writing process? In other words, what you wish you knew when you wrote your first NSF proposal, that you know now?

The NSF is more commercially minded than I was expecting. They expect you to have done an extensive customer discovery, which requires getting out of the lab and talking face to face with potential customers – not to sell your idea, but to listen to their problems. My understanding is that if you can write a proposal which is supported by this type of customer discovery research, your chances of funding (and, more importantly, subsequent market success) increases. I also would recommend starting the commercialization plan writing process much sooner. The more people that can read it the better off the document will be. Students in the business school at UNC helped review aspects of the document, and assisted with some market research, which was very helpful. I would definitely recommend reaching out to business schools, as working with startup companies is a valuable experience for entrepreneurial-minded students.

How the SBTDC helped with the funding/commercialization planning process?

Having 3 members of the SBTDC review the commercialization plan was critical. They were very thorough in their analysis, and provided feedback on the document’s readability and content. By the time they were done with it, much of the content was the same but it actually looked like a legitimate business plan. Additionally, the SBTDC provided and mentored an MBA intern who worked with us over the summer. He was able to step in and act as an internal team member to assist with business development activities.

What other sources of R&D funding have you have attracted?

We have received an NIH SBIR, and funding through UNC’s Carolina Kickstart program to help with prototype development.

What are the next steps for SonoVol

We will continue working on the prototype. We expect a functioning alpha unit by New Years Eve of 2015. During early 2016 we will begin engaging early adopting customers to get the minimum viable product we’re creating in front of them. We will then commence our iterative product development throughout 2016. We will continue supporting our R&D efforts with grants and subcontracts, while seeking outside equity based financing when we are ready for wider scale product launch.

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