Learning flair turns engineer scientist into commercial entrepreneur

The UNSW Founders team recently caught up with CardioBionic founder, Peter Ayre, to hear the impact participating in the inaugural Health 10x program had on his ambitions to help irradiate heart failure. For him, the experience gave him flair – a skill that helped bridge the vast divide between his world as an engineer scientist to that of commercial entrepreneur, now comfortable pitching his story to investors.

What is CardioBionic about?

It is a company developing heart assist technology. Our primary focus is low cost heart assist technology for emerging markets.


What problem are you trying to solve?

I’m interested in heart failure, It’s a major disease, it’s like cancer.  Twenty-six million people every year have heart failure; 9 million people die annually from heart failure to which there is no cure. Drugs and meds can delay the demise of people but eventually they end up dead.

There are four stages of heart failure:

  1. Class 1 you wouldn’t know you have it
  2. Class 2 you are a bit breathless
  3. Class 3 you can’t do the things you used to do
  4. Class 4 you can’t walk to the toilet without feeling like you have just run a marathon.

The 9 million people who die every year have class 4 heart failure. For them there is no way out. All you can do at that stage is to either have a transplant, or a mechanical heart put in.  There are only 2,000 transplants done annually, so the only other option is a mechanical heart.

Our aim is to find a way to find cheap mechanical heart device available to everybody with low risk – that’s the holy grail.


What is CardioBionic’s focus?

CardioBionic has two products:  a very cheap left ventricular assist device for left hand side heart failure in emerging markets which that has huge potential. The other one is a completely implantable total heart replacement – bionic heart.

So, there is the cheap emerging markets device, and then there is the heart replacement device and we can do that in two ways – we can implant it across the existing heart – both left and right side – or we can make a slightly bigger version and completely replace the heart.

Left side heart failure is the most common cause of heart failure, so most people put a device in on the left side of the heart and that keeps the patients alive. But cardiologists will tell you that 40% of those patients develop right side heart failure because they have a restored left function and that is dragging the right side.  So, if we put in a bi-ventricular device, the risk of developing right side failure minimises and we would potentially wipe out their [left side heart devices] market so that’s what we are doing.


How did you hear about Health 10x?

I’m a UNSW PhD Alumni and I was talking to Nigel Lovell, Head of Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, about the India (emerging markets) device and he said Pete “go do that”.  The core of me is an engineer scientist and I’ve headed up large R&D teams but bridging that gap to commercialisation and having a bit more of entrepreneurial spirit about the way that I am conducting myself, or flair I should say – spirit was there but flair wasn’t – was important. Health 10x is the program that creates flair.


What does flair mean?

You might have the entrepreneurial spirit as a founder, but the flair might not exist – actually having the skills to pull it off. And that’s part of the program; taking that passion and spirit in what you are doing to being able to present it to the world in a way that works for investors. You can have all the passion and spirit you like but if you don’t have the skills to present that properly no one will listen to you.


So, what was the number flair piece that you got?

How to present and pitch to investors. When you’re heading up R&D, you’ve spent all your life emerged in science and engineering you just don’t have those skills. So, you can stay in that role and employ a business development manager. But in the transition phase when you can’t afford [to employ a business development manager] and you’re not connected to those high-end businesspeople to sell your product, you’ve got to do it yourself. So, you’ve got to develop flair.


Would you say that investors want to hear directly from owners?

Having met a few now, I’ve got a funny feeling they would rather meet someone who is passionate about the idea and can communicate it than some business person that’s just come in and scraped off the top end and talking to them about a product which they really didn’t have any passion for. My guess is that when an investor invests in you, in the company, they are not investing in a business development manager, they are investing in the power of someone’s passion. They want to know how dedicated to the job you are; that you are going to drive this home; and have put the right people in place to help you. They want to know you are not going to pull out. You might have an exit point in five years, but they want to know you can take it there.


Tell me about your Health 10x experience

The people make it. I think the community spirit of it all is really important. When you’re a founder, particularly when you are a sole founder, or if you only have one or two people [in the company], being part of the program actually spurs you along. Working by yourself is one of the hardest things in the world so having people around to bounce ideas off is really good. The best experiences were some of the travel we did to India and San Francisco.

And then they [Health 10x facilitators] push your boundaries, they make you pitch. Some people find it uncomfortable. Some people don’t but that’s just something you’ve got to get through. That’s the biggest skill [I learnt] is how to pitch, how to present and pitch my idea in a way the business and investor community understands. And meeting investors is something I wouldn’t have done before; meeting investors who are looking straight through you and saying so what have you got?


Did learning how to pitch impact your business story?

Yes, a lot. As you dive into your market research for your pitching it uncovers a whole heap of new things, that can be good and bad. It can open up new market concepts, or take away markets, or reality check in your numbers. And investors already know that, so you have to know your stuff.


What message would you give people considering doing Health 10x?

I think if you are in that position that you are looking for connections and free advice on how to make your ideas become a reality and also presenting those ideas to the finance and business world, this [Health 10x] is the place to go. It’s also got the academic spirit about it which you don’t have in some accelerators.


Why is that important?

Because you are sometimes transitioning from research, you are used to the academic environment. If you just go to a raw accelerator [often] they won’t understand the academic connection. They just don’t care. But they care here [UNSW Founders].  And as you are going through the course of developing your startup, you might come across a technical risk. There is a heap of people around here who can help you with those.


So, what’s nirvana for you?

To see the product in people.

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