When we created the first product at ValhallaMED in March of 2020 — a 3D printed ventilator splitter — we were really just trying to pull whatever resources we could to help deliver some stop gap measures because things had gotten bad, quickly, and no one seemed ready for the pandemic. That led us to creating one of the first fully 3D printed medical devices authorized for emergency use by the FDA — an achievement we take a lot of pride in for our agility and innovative thinking.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Ehlinger, CEO and Founder of ValhallaMED.
Chris founded ValhallaMED during the pandemic — connecting his passion to solve problems as a management consultant with his experience as an engineer on a submarine — to help accelerate our return to normalcy and ensure we are better prepared for whatever the future may hold. He’s spent a career successfully navigating complex operating environments and helping businesses transform to do the same. With over 20 trips to the emergency room growing up, he’s finally repaying a debt to those healthcare heroes that have inspired ValhallaMED’s solutions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the only thought that comes to mind is “How the hell did I end up here?” or much like Ron Burgundy jumping into the bear pit only to announce “I immediately regret this decision.” It’s funny how life can be a lot like Anchorman and those “could be” regretful decisions become the best things that ever happen to you.
My Anchorman moment was the summer after my freshman year of college when I was afforded the opportunity to spend a day on the USS Alabama. Close your eyes and imagine standing on a boat to board a submarine for the first time. You are about to walk onto a 560 foot long, sleek black, ballistic missile boat. Enormous. Powered by one of the most sophisticated nuclear power plants in the world and capable of delivering enough firepower to obliterate life as we know it from anywhere, and nowhere, simultaneously. Now, I know what you’re thinking, NERD! That guy loves submarines but I actually prayed for that to be the first and last time I’d see one of these things, but come senior year the Navy needed submariners.
So I’ve been asking myself the same three questions I did when I made the decision to select submarines, “Is there a need? Am I capable of helping? Will it be interesting?” As a submarine veteran, it’s crazy to think we found a way to live more normally hundreds of feet underwater than present day — so I started ValhallaMED and now we’re specifically designing innovative products like the NE-1 Helmet to help safely get back to normalcy.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
When we created the first product at ValhallaMED in March of 2020 — a 3D printed ventilator splitter — we were really just trying to pull whatever resources we could to help deliver some stop gap measures because things had gotten bad, quickly, and no one seemed ready for the pandemic. That led us to creating one of the first fully 3D printed medical devices authorized for emergency use by the FDA — an achievement we take a lot of pride in for our agility and innovative thinking. Over the past 6 months we’ve learned two things: 1) 3D printing is just making inroads into the medical device world and 2) our healthcare professionals have a lot of unmet needs. We connected the two lessons to create our latest product, the NE-1 Helmet, the first full face respirator designed for everyday use. A new type of air purifying respirator, the helmet bridges the gap between expensive surgical protection like Powered Air Purifying Respirators and a basic consumer need for functionality. Utilizing air pumps and nanofiber filters to remove germ particles in air, the helmet is engineered to reopen the economy safely and comfortably.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we were first working on the helmet ventilator, the project that led us to the NE-1, we used a poly bag during the early testing because it was easy to source and the global supply chain was in disarray. At the moment it made sense. It was the same material, we could make it the same volume, and we could go through a lot of them. While it worked great for testing, no one is going to want to put something that is or looks like a bag over their head. No duh! Right?
From that, I learned that you really have to think of the associations others are going to make with your product. We’ve put that lesson to good use in designing the NE-1. Taking a few cues from the SpaceX helmets, we wanted it to have really positive associations so that it looks as good as it works and inspires you to think about what’s possible.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
We definitely achieve more together and I’m no exception. I’ve been very blessed to have some great people looking out for me and mentoring me along the way. Coincidentally, I have two mentors who both knew each other long before they knew me and I met them in different parts of my journey, Ernie and Craig, work and school, respectively. They happen to have both trained as pilots though I didn’t know either of them until after the Navy.
There are two things that make them stand out. First, they both have given me tough but necessary feedback. That’s really hard to find and only gets harder. Second, each has an uncanny way of checking in when you don’t even know you need to be checked in on. It’s easy to underestimate how far just a quick, “Hey, how’s everything? You good?” goes, especially now.
Thank you, Ernie and Craig, for your continued support!
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Whether or not disruption is good or bad, I think the more important question is who is the disruption in service of? Disruption is always good for someone while the best kind of disruption is good for everyone. Good disruption adds more value to the system than the disorder it causes. Tesla is a great example of a really positive disruption because, yes, it disrupted the automobile industry and now everyone has to move towards electric, but more so, it disrupted how we think about energy across the board. Prius offered you a fuel efficient alternative to the current automobile landscape, but Tesla allowed you to envision an entirely different energy landscape.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“It’s better to be the most helpful person in the room than to be the smartest person in the room.” One of our founders at WP&C said this all the time and you can accomplish so much more with this mindset.
“You win some, you learn some.” Keep trying and make every failure another brick in the foundation of your future success.
“If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” There are going to be a lot of nos, there are more if you don’t ask.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Totally agree and it starts and ends with great content — with one huge caveat. You don’t get to decide what’s great content. You only get to learn what’s great content after the fact so that means you have to listen and iterate.
We didn’t initially think about people with allergies as a need group for the NE-1, but we listened and got that feedback. Now we can pivot and direct awareness about the NE-1 to that audience and how it provides value to people with allergies too.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
In August we introduced the NE-1 Helmet that hit crowdfunding sites later in 2020. It was a big leap in the evolution of the face mask. We hope it helps us accelerate our path to normalcy and ensures we’re ready for whatever tomorrow brings. NE-1 also addresses challenges faced by the deaf and hearing-impaired community. We built it to have full visibility of facial expressions with an anti-glare, anti-fog face shield as well as internal and external speakers and microphones for audio clarity. We’re really looking forward to sharing stories of it being used to bring people together again. The NE-1 is just the first step in ValhallaMED’s mission to “Take Back Tomorrow.” Stay tuned…
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I was fortunate to have been teaching at The University of Texas in 2014 when Admiral McRaven gave his now famous “Make Your Bed” commencement speech. It was awesome and it’s a really powerful message that everyone should hear. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to create something incredible, solve this unsolvable problem, or do this amazing thing to change the world. But when you think like that, you really limit the impact you can have. It’s easy to get stuck trying to do the impossible when you don’t have to cure cancer to change the world. You just have to do what you can and it’s amazing how far that might go. The simplest act of leadership is doing what needs to be done. Anyone can change the world and everyone needs to be told that they can. Just make your bed, you’re one accomplishment closer to changing the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a quote from Kennedy’s inaugural address and reads, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” I’ve had this frame in my house for a long time and it’s always reminded me not to wait for someone to give you permission. You can and have to be the difference. The rest of the planet is just waiting for you to go forth.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Right now, we just want to inspire movement, period. The ability to safely go to the places we want to with the people we care about. We hope that we can get the NE-1 to everyone that needs it and we also know that the more of them we can get out there, the sooner we can get back to normal. That’s why we’re donating all of our profits to supplying NE-1 helmets where they’re needed most until we’re all on the other side of this pandemic. When times are hard and you can help, I believe it’s important to do what you can.
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow Chris and the team @NE_1Helmet on Twitter and Facebook
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!