Q & A with NeuroVice Founder Ashlyn Sanders: How A Life-Changing Diagnosis Inspired An Entrepreneur To Invent An Oral Device For People Living With Seizures
Sanders started a company called NeuroVice and invented a patent-pending seizure device called The Protector Against Tongue Injury or PATI for people with seizures. She developed the device after she fell ill with Chiari Malformation when she first started graduate school at Duke University. Sanders was first misdiagnosed. Finally, when she was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation she had to have emergency brain surgery. Despite those odds, Sanders was able to obtain her Master’s degree from Duke University, start up a business called NeuroVice, and invent the first medical device to help seizure sufferers manage oral health complications.
How are you doing during this time?
Ashlyn Sanders: I’m doing ok. It’s definitely been a tough time with COVID and with the injustices. I am just trying to maintain.
How old are you?
Ashlyn Sanders: I am 27 years old.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with Chiari Malformation?
Ashlyn Sanders: I was 22 when I found out. So, I had actually started graduate school at Duke University and was diagnosed a few weeks after starting.
When where you diagnosed with Chiari Malformation?
Ashlyn Sanders: I had relatively good health. This was very traumatic for me. A lot of people don’t know the backstory. I was misdiagnosed over a couple of days before getting the Chiari diagnosis. When I had my first seizure, they did some testing. The doctors did a CT scan in terms of diagnostic testing, and that was negative. They initially thought I had panic disorder, which was kind of out there because of what I’ve been dealing with. I hadn’t had any behavioral health challenges in the past. My parents were a little conflicted with that diagnosis, but we were prepared to move forward to get help for it. Then the next day, I had a couple of more episodes. I finally went to my primary care physician. He advised me to go back to the ED and push them to do further testing. I’m grateful that my family could be advocates for further testing. The research I’m aware of for minorities than to be underdiagnosed. An advocate is essential — from there pushing, they decided to do further testing. I underwent an MRI, and that is what detected the Chiari.
Is Chiari Malformation a rare condition?
Ashlyn Sanders: Yes, it is. Along with it being rare, it’s usually an incidental finding. People who have them go on throughout life not knowing they have it. Unless they or something else where they get an MRI and it’s detected. Mine was not only rare in the condition but how the symptoms presented.
How severe was it?
Ashlyn Sanders: It was pretty severe because it started effecting my spinal cord. I received my diagnosis around 2 pm and was in emergency brain surgery around 5 pm. It was a traumatic and humbling experience. Having your independence stripped from you and readjusting to this new way of life.
How long did it take you to recover?
Ashlyn Sanders: It took me several months to regain physical strength. I’ve continued to have seizures since then. Chiari causes my seizure condition.
Are you seizure-free?
Ashlyn Sanders: I’m not entirely seizure-free, but I don’t have them as often. They aren’t as severe.
So what is the PATI?
Ashlyn Sanders: PATI stands for The Protector Against Tongue Injury and the first four letters of the patient. It will be the first symptom management medical device technology that safely and effectively prevents tongue biting and oral injury during seizures. PATI can be carried in a portable container for easy, quick access before seizure onset and can also be used during sleep. It is also indicated for use by first responders as an emergency intervention and in hospitals/clinics during EEGs.
How can it help someone with seizures?
Ashlyn Sanders: Oral lacerations and injury can cause choking on blood and impede talking, eating, and swallowing. PATI will help those living with seizures live healthier, happier, safer lives.
How did you come up with NeuroVice?
Ashlyn Sanders: After I completed graduate school and throughout that time, I had been thinking about the oral health complications of seizures. I knew there wasn’t in the market to address that. Also, the seizure space has a lack of innovation. There have been some detection technologies, but very few. I even knew that this would be a solution for people living with seizures. It never went away for me. I got to work developing the concept, getting a patent-pending, forming the company, and raising capital at pitch competitions. It was sort of a combination of my creativity and personal experience. This idea never really left me — I actually had planned to go to medical school right after graduate school. I knew that if I didn’t do it, I didn’t know who would. So I put medical school on the back burner until I got this company off the ground and successfully exited.
How long did it take you to prepare to get the device to market?
Ashlyn Sanders: I would say it took me a couple of months or so of refining my concept, getting my patent filed, and ultimately submitting the application for the LLC. I founded the company at the end of 2016, early January 2017. It was a quick turnaround from graduate school to starting my own company.
How old were you when you started NeuroVice?
Ashlyn Sanders: I was 24 when I started the company.
Do you still have plans to go to medical school?
Ashlyn Sanders: Yes, of course, I do.
What would you like to study?
Ashlyn Sanders: I would like to go into Pediatric Neuropsychiatry. It is sort of a new field, whereas it’s a combination of Neurology and Psychiatry. I’d look at the emotional, behavioral, perceptional changes for people with neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, seizures, brain tumors, Chiari. Instead of treating the actual neurological condition, I would be a support system in terms of their behavioral health. I always loved children, so I would focus on treating them.
Why medicine as your chosen field and not NeuroVice?
Ashlyn Sanders: I never wanted to go into the business for money. I’ve always had a passion for health and patients. I still plan to go to medical school, God willing.
What are your next steps NeuroVice?
Ashlyn Sanders: Before I think about medical school, I have a lot to do first. The goal is to continue product development through FDA clearance. After we fully develop the commercial product, we’ll file our paperwork with the FDA.
How does it feel helping people?
Ashlyn Sanders: It’s a humbling feeling. I’ve received hundreds of emails from patients to family members that have experienced them. It’s a rewarding feeling to know that you’re coming up with something that hasn’t been done before. At the same time, it can change people’s lives. I’m consistently inspired by that, and it drives me. I know what we’re all going through. It’s not just about finances; it’s personal to me. It’s amazing to see your idea that started on a napkin will be eventually be prescribed to the world. And help them live more fulfilling lives.
When or where will I be able to buy a NeuroVice?
Ashlyn Sanders: The plan is to get NeuroVice sold to a pharmaceutical company. That way, it can be sold by prescription and an option for physicians. We’re still in the process of being approved by the FDA. I foresee the end of next year or the beginning of 2022.
What is your goal with this company?
Ashlyn Sanders: My goal is that we be the first Black Unicorn, meaning we sell it for over a billion dollars.
Any advice for entrepreneurs?
Ashlyn Sanders: I would encourage other entrepreneurs, specifically women, and People of Color. I would just say to anyone interested in or looking to start their own company to do it. It will be one of the most rewarding yet challenging things that you do. There is a lot of infrastructural support increasing around minority entrepreneurship and mentorship.