Sathya Elumalai of Aidar Health: Inspired by Family

By Mark Ogilbee posted 07-14-2022 08:45 AM

Sathya Elumalai of Aidar Health

Aidar Health is a technology and digital medicine company that aims to provide access to clinical-quality care to people at home through breath- and saliva-based biosensors. Their mission is to ensure that their users receive care of the same caliber the founders and staff would want for their own families. 

Aidar co-founder Sathya Elumalai recently shared his personal inspiration for starting the company, along with some things he’s learned along the way. 


Please tell us a little bit about yourself and Aidar. 

I'm the founder and CEO of Aidar Health. We're a digital medicine company, and we’ve built a device called MouthLab that helps predict a decline in health to help prevent hospitalizations, and ultimately to diagnose chronic conditions. My co-founder, Dr. Gene Fridman, calls it a “check engine light for humans.” 

MouthLab actually measures users’ overall health in just 60 seconds. It measures temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, pulse rate, respiratory rate, heart rate variability and other parameters. It’s a handheld device with a mouthpiece; you blow into it, similar to a breathalyzer. When you’re done with it, you can treat it like an electric toothbrush and put it back in its charging base.  


What inspired you to found Aidar? 

The main reason I founded Aidar is because my mom developed diabetes, and then she got hypertension. And, honestly, because I spent 10 years working at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, I didn’t take it that seriously. Millions of people have diabetes, and — you know — people tend to think of cancer as a major health condition, but maybe not diabetes. 

But then, because my mom’s diabetes and hypertension went unmanaged, she developed chronic kidney disease. And it’s at a point now that if it’s not managed, it will be very serious. And I thought, “OK, I could pay for my mom to get the best health care available, or I could actually build a solution for her — which would maybe make her a little bit happier, because she could think, ‘This is something that my son made.’” 

So many companies out there are building apps to help manage health conditions, but I wanted to make some kind of gadget that she could use every day. And we wanted people to be able to pair it with a daily habit, which is why this device pretty much acts like an electric toothbrush. I thought this would be an easy thing to make, but it’s taken us seven years to get this far. 


Is your background more on the medical side of things, or more on the technology side of things? 

I started off as a biomedical engineer. From there I did pancreatic cancer research, and from there I was an administrator at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, I was more a manager of people who were building products and technologies. But in the initial days of Aidar, I helped build the MouthLab prototypes, and I also designed the new version of the device. 


It's taken seven years to get to this point. What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome? 

We’ve gone through seven or eight different versions of the product, because we want it to be medical-grade. If we were building a consumer-grade product, we could build it and scale it fairly quickly. But with something medical-grade, you have to ensure it works for every single person who uses it. And the benchmark for me was: My mom was the first user of the device, and I wanted it to be of such high quality that if she uses it and it tells her something is wrong, she will go to the hospital or the ER right away. I don’t want her to feel that it’s unreliable, or to think, “Oh, I’ll just go to the doctor tomorrow.” 

Everybody on the team thinks the same way: “This is my product. I want it to be the kind of quality that I expect for my family.” And it’s satisfying to know that we’re doing something meaningful. We can go home every day knowing that we’ve touched somebody’s life — maybe even saved somebody’s life. 


I'm curious about what personal or professional surprises you have encountered. 

When I started Aidar, I really wanted to treat the company as a family, where everyone works together to support each other. I found that it’s really challenging to do that, because as the CEO of a small company, you’re also the HR department, you’re also probably the janitor. Still, it’s hard to establish that family feeling because people draw a kind of invisible line between them and you as the CEO. 

From a technical perspective, a good experience for me was learning not to wait to produce the “perfect” product right away, but to produce and then iterate toward what you envision. It’s like, “Let’s build this version, make sure it works, then focus on building a better one.” 


Do you have any advice for other founders just getting started? 

I think my biggest advice is to learn from your users and their needs at a very early stage, then make sure that you're building something that meets those needs – and also that your product is simple to adopt and use.  

Also, it’s important to be patient. Spend the time to iterate and get your product right. I thought we could get Aidar’s product out in two years, and it’s been seven. So if profit is your primary motivation, that’s not really the right approach. It’s critical to take the time to build something that people won’t pick up and then just stop using.