May 18, 2021
7 min

Meet FedTech's Startup Stars: Ashu & Ibrahim of exci

The FedTech Startup Studios is the premier program that helps federal and university laboratories deliver on their critical technology transfer mission of moving innovation from the lab to market tech-transition by matching proven and aspiring partners with next-gen deep technologies.

In the spring of 2020, the Startup Studio cohort was one in particular that had a great batch of teams built around technologies coming from Veterans Affairs, DOE, and NNSA. When "Pitch Day" had concluded at the end of the program, from the many companies formed, one mission-driven venture stood out for the impact it was seeking to have on the healthcare system and the well-being of the world's growing chronic wound population. This company is exci.

Founded by Ashu Vats and Ibrahim Mohedas, exci is built around the groundbreaking technology of Veterans Affairs inventor Kath Bogie, D.Phil, and their product, the exciflex, is an easy-to-use wearable that delivers continuous electrical stimulation therapy to chronic wounds. With the goal of being affordable, ready for the growing telemedicine market, and home care friendly, the technology will ultimately allow healthcare providers to track healing and provide consultations remotely while providing the patient with regular updates and peace of mind.

This accelerated healing and the infection-limiting solution will help meet the rising demand for wound care products in the susceptible aging demographic that suffers from a high prevalence of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. With the exciflex quickly moving towards commercialization, FedTech sat down for an insightful Q&A with the two founders on a mission.

FedTech: Thanks so much for taking the time today to join us in this conversation. Before we look to the future for exci, let's start at the beginning. You both have varied backgrounds and experiences. How did you embark on this exciting journey as entrepreneurs and founders?

Ashu: Thanks for having us. I spent most of my career in traditional finance, and even in my current full-time role at my startup, it's still within the capital markets space. I have worked with high-growth, tech-focused startups, and I found it exciting to see people build great products and companies around their vision and ideas. I wanted to go down a similar path. In the last several years, there was a genuine desire to be in a bit more innovative space, build a company, develop a product, and bring it to market. But the struggle was always what does that look like? What is that "great idea"? And how do you get started?

Through my personal network, I came across FedTech. I discovered that here lay the opportunity to work with technologies that were already developed but needed that big commercialization push to get to market. The FedTech Startup Studios was an exciting opportunity, especially with the nineteen or so technologies in our spring 2020 cohort that were available to us. I found quite a few to be interesting. However, the electric bandage technology was the most compelling when considering the aging population, the growing number of diabetics, and chronic wound patients in the United States and globally. There was clearly a huge market opportunity for what exciflex is trying to solve. The excitement of potentially helping all of these people and overwhelming belief in the product fired my motivation. Once the opportunity to join the FedTech Startup Studios program presented itself, I knew I was all in with the ability to build a roadmap and embark on this entrepreneurial journey.

Ibrahim, you have a different background from Ashu's. How did you get started on this adventure?

Ibrahim: My interest in startups and entrepreneurship started in grad school when I was doing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Initially, I was looking to do something in the product design space. My goal was to really understand how you develop better products for the end-user and focus on leveraging product design to increase user adoption. It so happened that I was connected with an adviser who was focused on the medical space. That led me to focus on developing processes and building an understanding of how to develop easier-to-use products within the medical device space. In the process, I developed an assistive device for administering contraceptives designed for populations in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries.

I worked on design and development throughout my Ph.D. And then, during my post-doc, I applied to and was awarded several grants that allowed me to push our medical device through a small-scale clinical trial. I really enjoyed that process of starting with nothing, working with physicians to identify design problems, and then push the device all the way through a clinical trial. This inspired me to start expanding more in the entrepreneurship space. So, I applied to a lot of grants. I participated in many accelerators, and I dived headfirst into that world of trying to understand how to design a good product and really know how you bring something to market.

After my post-doc, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I was a fellow at the National Science Foundation. I was actively seeking an opportunity to get plugged into the entrepreneurship ecosystem in D.C., and that's when the FedTech program popped up. It seemed to be perfectly aligned with what I was looking for in the world of deep tech, entrepreneurship, and all the technologies coming out of the federal government labs. At Startup Studios, I was intrigued by the wound care bandage technology sourced by the FedTech team. I was excited by how far along it was with its product development. It also had good animal data to back it up.

Let's talk a bit about the formation of exci - the origin story. How did you and Ashu meet? Tell us a little more about the technology and how you connected with the inventor, Dr. Kath Bogie.

Ibrahim: It was courtesy of some excellent matching. So Ashu and I both came in as individuals into the FedTech program. We weren't part of a pre-formed team. Given the situation with the pandemic, we still haven't met in person even though it's been a year. So, we're still waiting for that to happen.

We were both intrigued by the product that Dr. Bogie created and saw she had been very deliberate in her intentions and had thought through a lot of the product development. She had also undertaken initiatives that other researchers typically don't do, like conducting focus groups with potential end-users and patients. She also had a lot of clinical expertise, so it became self-evident that she was developing this technology from the standpoint of wanting to get it out into the world and have an actual clinical impact instead of being driven purely by scientific curiosity. That's what attracted me most to get to work on exciflex. It was the fact that it had an obvious use case even if the path to market – especially with medical devices – is not always clear at the outset.

Ashu: Ibrahim summed it up very well. What worked well was that we were both excited about the technology and the positive impact it could have on society. That was a massive source of motivation. The other driving force was the opportunity to build something from the ground up. We met as strangers, and I think that was a good thing. We weren't buddies or friends. Instead, we became business partners first, which has allowed us to stay focused on the mission, and we have built a social dynamic around that.      

Tell us about your experience at the Startup Studio program. What was your biggest takeaway from the startup studio?

Ashu: FedTech checked off many of the boxes of what I believed would be a platform that would help me achieve my personal entrepreneurial ambitions. Once you start going through the program, you meet the FedTech team, the mentors, the instructors, and you quickly realize that it's an incredible ecosystem. They are all passionate about emerging technologies and are driven to help you build viable organizations. It was exciting to be around those types of people.

For someone like me who has spent so much time in the private sector with already established companies, you don't have an appreciation of what it's like to work in deep tech and actually start a company from scratch. The program does an excellent job of giving you the right playbook and provides you with the resources you need to be successful. And I think that combination of giving you the "fish," to keep the process moving along and the "teaching you "how to fish" component so you can operate independently and achieve sustainable success makes it a great experience.

Before your FedTech experience, how familiar were you with the technology transfer initiatives from the federal labs? Were you even aware that the V.A. has a spin-out program or comprehensive R&D initiatives?

Ashu: Just at a high level. I was aware that some companies were somehow sourcing technology from the government. Drone technologies are a good example. I understood that UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) were based on technologies developed by the military and then suddenly became commercially available as recreational devices. However, I did not know the process of how an organ

Ibrahim: I agree. I had very little knowledge of the specific mechanisms by which the government tried to accomplish its technology transfer. From my own Ph.D. experience, I observed regular occurrences of many people doing deep research in science and technology development without necessarily the interest in making the transition into the entrepreneurship side. So, many things fall through the gaps, many exciting technologies, a lot of research that doesn't get out into the market because the people doing the development aren't necessarily the people who are focused on getting the innovations out into the light.

It is essential to bring people together. Get the scientists in the room with the people who want to form startups and translate technologies. I think this coming together is vital because having champions for innovation is necessary for every piece of science or technology that will ever impact our world. And this, I think, is an exciting program for creating those champions and getting them into a room with the scientists and researchers.

On a more personal front, what motivates both of you as individuals and as leaders?

Ibrahim: I have a dual motivation for this venture. First, I want to see something that I develop from scratch or from a very early stage to make it out into the world. The second one, especially in the medical field, is that you have this opportunity actually to improve people's well-being and quality of life.

Ashu: We are all on this earth for a short period. Creating a lasting impact and leaving this world just a little better before that time comes to an end motivates me. I think deep down as people; there's a powerful desire and immense satisfaction that comes out from helping others. And even though this is a business, the fact that we can also improve a suffering person's quality of life helps me continue to stay laser-focused during the good days and stay optimistic during the challenging days.

Do you believe that there's a playbook or a formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur and in the current landscape of all these various technologies proliferating?

Ashu: I think everyone's journey is unique, right? Every product is different. Everyone's strengths and development areas are different, so I would say there isn't really a playbook or formula for someone to follow. I have learned through this journey that it is crucial to keep an open mind and develop a network of supporters both personally and professionally who are eager to see you succeed and support you when things aren't going your way. It is also essential to try to maintain an optimistic outlook. There will be many challenging days, but if you are surrounded by the right people and maintain an optimistic mindset, you will be ready to tackle anything.

Ibrahim: I think that's the key to realizing that there are lots of pathways to success. It's about charting your way and keeping your eyes on that end goal. And above all, to have the persistence and belief to push it to the finish line.

That's excellent advice. What's next for team exci? What are your plans for growth coming up?

Ibrahim: The SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) is what we're focusing on right now. I am sure you are aware that the wound care market is so vast and varied.

We've been in touch with surgeons, plastic surgeons, podiatrists, elderly care physicians, nursing homes; you know, all of these are potential places where our product could have an impact. And so, we're still in that exciting customer discovery phase. This is because of the potential of exciflex and all the options that exist for us to pursue. We will continue to push in this customer discovery phase to find the place where all the incentives align and have the most impact.

Ashu: Another key objective is to grow our community. In these early days, it is imperative to find advisors, supporters, and champions who believe in our mission and are eager to help us get this product to market.

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