We breathe an average of 2,000 gallons of air every day – enough to fill a small swimming pool. When healthy, it’s something we might take for granted. But respiratory health is critically important, and monitoring lung function can play an important role in identifying underlying issues before they become a more serious problem. The global impact of chronic respiratory issues affects millions of people, with the most common conditions being chronic pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. It’s estimated there are over a half billion combined sufferers worldwide, with asthma the leading chronic illness among children and young adults.
The global healthcare burden is huge, but one company is aiming to help patients with respiratory health conditions breathe a little easier. California-based startup Airflowy develops smart spirometry to assist people to accurately and remotely test their lung health. The company has recently unveiled plans to expand its focus on the growing telehealth industry and the move is attracting the attention of investors.
We had an opportunity to sit down with the company’s 17-year-old founder and CEO Rhiannon Black shortly after announcing its seed funding round to find out what makes Airflowy unique in the respiratory health space and what she has planned for the future.
Can you explain to our audience what makes Airflowy unique?
I started Airflowy in 2019 in an effort to make lung function testing easier and more accurate through the use of smart spirometry. Spirometry is the most commonly performed test of pulmonary function. The regular use of a spirometer can significantly aid in the early detection of a decline in lung health and provide doctors with valuable data to better manage a patient’s care.
During the test, the patient rapidly exhales into a monitoring device that measures the flow and volume of air exhaled. Although spirometry can be fraught with human error, typically, the test is administered by a trained professional to ensure that the data is accurate. But in many instances, an inexpensive portable spirometer is used by the patient at home, and that same data is virtually meaningless if the test is performed incorrectly.
Airflowy has designed a smart and stylish Bluetooth enabled pocket spirometer that provides real-time feedback to indicate whether a test is done correctly. Through the use of an intuitive LED display, haptic vibration and our mobile app, patients get live cues when a test result is satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Test results can also be shared on our app with their primary care physician. We’re excited to have developed a smart solution that can help reduce the need for trained professionals, increase testing accuracy, and lead to better patient outcomes.
What new developments are you currently keeping an eye on in the healthcare space?
There are so many promising developments, but if I had to choose one that Airflowy is focused on, I’d have to say remote care or telehealth. The idea of patients seeing their doctors without the need for an in person office visit is a concept whose time has arrived. They say necessity is the mother of all invention, so naturally, we saw the popularity of telehealth increase dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, not all doctor visits lend themselves to be done remotely, but patients love the convenience. It’s the same idea behind the popularity of workers wanting to work remotely from home instead of hours spent commuting and in office meetings. We’re currently in talks to raise a round of venture capital financing and one of the first initiatives we’ll be rolling out is making Airflowy positioned to take advantage of the growing trend of telehealth.
One question I’m sure you get asked a lot – you’re obviously younger than the entrepreneurial archetype. Are their special challenges or benefits to being a teenage founder of a startup?
That’s really two sides of the same coin. The best part is that when you start a company at a pretty young age, you get a lot of interview requests. The youth angle sells papers like clickbait because most people don’t expect the CEO to still be in high school. The free press has been great since it helps get Airflowy noticed with customers, healthcare providers and investors. The downside is, when you’re sending investors your pitch deck, naturally, the first questions you usually get are related to your age. The biggest VCs have an investment strategy where they invest in people, not the company. The idea is that if you’re a special talent, even if your current company fails, you’re likely to try again with another startup. Plus, you’ll give your VC a first look at the next venture. So while much of my energy is spent selling Airflowy, just as much time is spent having to sell myself.
Your typical high school senior is probably busy daydreaming about college or the prom. Do you have other plans in mind?
I’ve got a naturally curious mind and love learning new things. For me, that goes far beyond any textbook. I like to think that education comes in two flavors – book smarts and street smarts. So much of learning takes place by just going out into the real world and taking risks and taking action. On the other hand, school has played such a valuable role in my life. It’s provided me with much of the foundation for what I’m doing today in business. Ultimately, if I found a college where I could grow both as a woman in business and as a person, then I’d jump at the chance. As for prom, I haven’t yet been asked.
It’s almost become a trope in business folklore. Brilliant visionary drops out of an elite university like Harvard or Stanford to pursue their dreams of success… Could you see yourself following that path?
Well, that would be a dream opportunity. If I were so lucky to be in a position like that, I can’t really say what I’d do. Life is full of choices. Some safe, some involve taking risks. I can say that I absolutely love taking risks – living every day like it’s my last. Education is also really important to me and my family, so if I could find a college that was just the right fit for someone like me, that’s a chance I’d gladly take.
Many entrepreneurs like to fancy themselves as dreamers with big visions. What drives you most in life right now?
First and foremost, I want to make the most meaningful and lasting impact in peoples’ lives that I can. I love building a company that allows me to be a changemaker and focus my passion on doing good in the world. I’m working to be the kind of entrepreneur that sees opportunity where others see obstacles and coming up with new solutions to old problems. In business, I’ve learned that ideas are good, but action is better. And lastly, for some people, success is defined by money or fame. For me, it’s simply a measure of how happy I am. It’s what drives me and will continue to do so in whatever I decide to do in the future.