Within the course of a few days, Ashlyn Sanders went from a typical graduate student at Duke University to experiencing severe seizures, to undergoing emergency brain surgery.
In October 2014, the Cary, North Carolina, native was diagnosed with a rare incurable brain abnormality called Chiari Malformation. The neurological disorder involves structural defects in the base of the skull and cerebellum, the area of the brain that regulates balance. The defect can cause breathing difficulty, severe headaches, dizziness and convulsive seizures.
The former White House intern underwent emergency brain surgery the same night she was diagnosed with the disorder.
“Without surgery, my symptoms would have become fatal,” Sanders said. “Following the surgery, I had a challenging physical and emotional recovery. It was traumatic. Over a period of three months, I regained my ability to talk and use my extremities.”
In the year following her procedure, her seizures only intensified. During the frightening episodes, she often experienced painful tongue biting, drooling that can cause choking, and overall oral trauma.
“It got to the point where I could no longer safely and effectively manage my symptoms at home,” she told Free Enterprise. “I also realized that there was nothing on the market to address the drooling, tongue biting and oral trauma that can occur during seizures, nothing specifically with the seizure patient in mind.”
That’s when she decided to create her own company and product to address the hole in the market, and to help the millions of seizure sufferers in the U.S. In the summer of 2015, after graduating from Duke with her masters of arts in bioethics and science policy — and while still enduring three to four seizures per day — Sanders launched NeuroVice, LLC and developed the Protector Against Tongue Injury, also known as PATI.
“I refuse to let my condition define my future,” Sanders said, “and I want to inspire this outlook for the millions of other patients who are facing emotionally and physically debilitating chronic illnesses.”
The inventor-entrepreneur’s unique ergonomic device, inserted into the mouth prior to seizure onset, is designed to prevent cheek and tongue biting, teeth grinding and saliva build-up during seizures. The sensor-equipped tongue protector can also be used while the wearer sleeps, to prevent oral injury and aspiration of saliva during sleep-related seizures (which sometimes lead to death).
We chatted with Sanders to find out more about her deeply personal entrepreneurial journey, how NeuroVice is faring so far and what’s next for the innovative startup. Here’s what we found out:
Can you take us inside the precise moment when you knew you wanted to create a product to help fellow seizure sufferers?
“For a few months, I was having multiple seizures a day. Oftentimes they would be associated with oral injuries and sometimes other injuries, but the oral injuries were definitely problematic for me, especially when they happened in public. I’d asked my neurologist if there was a product she could recommend to palliate the oral injury symptoms. She said no, there was nothing available. So I was still left coping with oral trauma situations and I might aspirate on saliva. I immediately started thinking about symptom management and control for patients like me. That’s really where the idea started. It wasn’t long before I dove into creating the intellectual property around developing the PATI device.”
How does the device you created help curb oral trauma during seizures?
“PATI, which is in the early stages of the design process, is made to be a protector against tongue injuries. Ergonomically, it’s designed to fit over the patient’s tongue, with two components of the sensor-enabled device that fit inside the patient’s cheeks. Any time during the day when a patient feels a seizure coming on, they can insert this device, which they could wear around their neck or somewhere on their person where they could easily find and access it. Once the seizure is over, they would discard part of the device that is no longer needed.
While the device is protective and stops oral injury, the sensors can also alert the caregivers that help the seizure patient when they’re having a seizure, including while the patient is sleeping. It can alert the caregiver in the next room, who can then come to the aid of the patient.”
How does it feel to develop a product that you have such a close personal connection to?
“It’s definitely been rewarding and also particularly cathartic to talk about my experience, to get comfortable discussing my condition, my surgery and what happened, and what I learned from it. It feels really good to help fill an unmet need that no one had really thought out about. It feels great to know that what I’m working on every day will help those with similar diagnosis in similar situations. That gives me the push that I need when I sometimes wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
Again and again, my mission brings me back to why I started this company and why I’m so passionate about helping others. Some good can come out of a bad situation, and this will help me be a more empathetic physician when working with patients in the future.”
Congratulations on winning the 1776 Challenge Cup in Durham, North Carolina. Soon you’ll advance to the 1776 Challenge Cup global finals in New York City. How are you feeling about taking part in the competition, and what do you hope will come of it?
“At the 1776 Challenge Cup that took place at American Underground in Durham. It felt important to share why I developed this product, and why I’m on a personal mission to share it with individuals who struggle with seizures, along with why there is such a large need for what NeuroVice is offering.
I was really excited and I knew how big the opportunity was to represent North Carolina at the finals. I’m looking forward to the final competition. It’ll be really interesting to see what innovative solutions to problems that other entrepreneurs in the finals have come up with. I also look forward to networking with investors, mentors and other entrepreneurs, and to getting key feedback on PATI from others in the tech startup community.”
What’s next for you and for NeuroVice?
“I have plans for medical school and am starting on the path to becoming a neurologist next Spring. In terms of NeuroVice, we’re still working actively on the financial pieces needed, so we’re still working on the development of PATI.
In terms of finalizing the product, we’re looking to by the end of this summer or by the end of this year. Once it’s officially launched, I hope to approach companies about perhaps licensing our technology or purchasing the intellectual property behind PATI, which I think would expedite commercialization, and get it to those who need it the most the fastest.”
What’s your best advice for early entrepreneurs on a mission to help others with their products and services?
“When you face challenges, and you will face them, don’t give up. Of all of the experiences I’ve had, launching NeuroVice has been the most challenging. Progress doesn’t always come right away and it requires a lot of hard work and persistence, but I am pressing forward.”