Capturing Lightning
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Nick Delmonico

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“I try and do things that keep my mind thinking about things besides work, because that can consume you.”

Nick Delmonico, founder of Strados Labs

Nick Delmonico is the founder of Strados Labs, a company that has created a wearable respiratory monitoring device paired with an AI platform that allows users and health care professionals to monitor and better recognize the signs of respiratory distress. Here, he talks about his own struggle with respiratory illness, and how it’s right to show proper appreciation for the time and effort of the people involved in bringing a business to life.

What was your initial vision for Strados Labs?
I was nine weeks premature. I ended up with a respiratory virus that led to me being hospitalized for weeks right after I was born, and then struggled through respiratory issues through most of my childhood. I have severe asthma, and ending up in the hospital for asthma is something no one really wants. So I thought it would be interesting if, as a patient, I could know when I was wheezing, when I was coughing, when I was having shortness of breath, and then also be able to communicate that back to my nurse, my care team, my school nurse, whoever it was so that I didn’t ever have to end up in the hospital again.

Outside of being a patient suffering from a chronic illness that this technology would be able to serve, I’ve always been really interested in and passionate about healthcare. I come from a family of clinicians. I did some work when I was in college for my dad’s hospital and his physician office and I really liked the business of healthcare. It was a topic I talked about over the kitchen table growing up and in high school and college.

Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur? 
Yeah, I had no idea what that meant. I was an accountant. I had a CPA. I couldn’t have been more risk-adverse in the business world. So I thought I would be behind the desk and have a cushy job. I don’t have one of those stories like, “I was an entrepreneur when I was 12. I was selling baseball cards and had my own business selling lemonade.”

I liked business. It was always exciting to me to have my own business. I never thought it would be in a tech space like this. I was very afraid of jumping into the unknown. But for me, a lot of it was, I was already in business so I knew what it takes to build a business model. I knew how to set up accounting and the operations of a business. I did management consulting. So I think I leveraged my existing knowledge set to build a foundation, but there’s still so much that you just don’t know until you dive in.

What has been your greatest struggle in founding Strados Labs? 
It’s probably the most obvious one: raising capital. I didn’t think it would be this hard. We’ve raised money, and it’s still hard. But what it teaches you is: you have to fill your gaps before you get capital. Building a good team is important, getting traction, willingness to pay for a product, having contracts with people that believe in what you’re doing and would be a good channel partner, building your product—all of those things are ones every entrepreneur wants to do. Not everyone can do it, and certainly not everyone can do it when you don’t have money. That’s one way of getting weeded out that you don’t really understand when you start. My first couple of business pitches, we didn’t have anything but an idea. But as we’ve shifted away from a cool idea and a business plan and we’re trying to raise money from venture capitalists who actually want to make money with the money they provide us, the bar gets a lot higher.

It’s a daily struggle of: How am I going to make payroll? How am I going to move the product forward so I can provide it to our partners who have already signed contracts with us and want to use our product? And how do we do that in a timely fashion? It’s not easy and it’s still something we struggle with. I can’t pretend we’ve solved that problem yet. Although I really thought at some point, somebody would just like me enough to write a check, it’s not that way. [Laughs]

What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey? 
The first day that I walked into hospital with my product and got to see a doctor place it on a patient and see the look on a patient’s face who was in exacerbation and had come into the hospital because they couldn’t breathe. They agreed to enroll in our study and our pilot, because they were so excited that there was something that could help them recognize those signs and symptoms so they could avoid sitting in that chair. That almost brought me to tears. That’s what keeps us all going. 

We have six partnerships with hospitals, health systems, home health agencies, and an outpatient clinic all looking to do the same thing. So the fact that it’s not just going to be that one person—it’s going to be hundreds of people, and then one day thousands or millions, that’s really awesome.

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“It’s not quite being humble, but appreciating your team and the people around you—your support system. It’s really those people that allow for this to happen.”

Nick Delmonico, founder of Strados Labs

What has been your biggest sacrifice? 
It’s almost like you have to string them together. So for me personally, I went a full year without any salary. For a long time, we were raising capital. I was on the hunt. I was getting paid by my co-founder, who was picking up night shifts at the hospital. That was a big sacrifice. I thought it would be three months. It ended up being closer to seven, eight months of not having been paid absolutely anything. I was on Medicaid. I had pulled all my money from all my savings together. My 401k I was pulling money out of. So that kind of financial, but also just a personal sacrifice. That was a dark six months in a lot of ways.

Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
My dad has been such a good source of support. He’s a doctor, so he sees this as a valuable tool for him. He’s a family physician. He’s got a lot of patients with chronic respiratory illness. He’s always been thinking about, “How do we do a better job keeping patients out of hospital? Keeping them healthier? Keeping them happier?” And then using technology to do that.  

He’s the first person to sit there and talk to me for two hours straight about how this would be so great. Yes, he’s my dad, but he’s also a doctor, so if he thought it was stupid, he would have told me to do something else.

Tell me about your work-life balance.
What is that? [Laughs] I do try to do a much better job than I used to of that. Really for me, I preach this to our company and our team: We’re going to work, but you’re going to need to find your own balance. So I personally like to stop my day around 5 p.m. so that I can go to the gym, and then I can eat dinner, and then I’ll do three or four hours after that. And I love coming in on Saturday mornings. I am a weirdo. That is perfect because it’s silent and I can catch up on a bunch of stuff.

I like to do rock climbing. I actually tried to pick up painting. I won’t even show you my computer right now—I spilled turpentine all over it. I ruined the screen. I try and do things that keep my mind thinking about things besides work, because that can consume you.  

It’s just so different. It’s hard to explain. You just can’t do a lot of the same things you could do when you’re not doing a startup, I guess. It’s not like a clock-in, clock-out thing. It’s always there, it’s just, can I turn myself off for a minute to do something else? 

Did you ever come close to giving up?
Probably July of 2018. I graduated [from graduate school] in 2017, so [that was] about 13 months of full-time not getting paid. We had a couple of investment opportunities, but they were the kind of things that you apply online and you hope you get in and all that. We were able to close with SOS Ventures [SOSV], which is a venture fund that does accelerators. We had just gotten out of Texas Medical Center’s accelerator, which I had to pay to be at. I was sleeping on couches in Houston, Texas for $20 a night on Airbnb.  

We were going down the road with some investors but they weren’t going to give us money unless we had some other investment deal going on and it was really our last hurrah—hoping these investment accelerator things will stick. So SOS Ventures was that sticking point for us. They accepted us into their accelerator. We then were able to convince a couple of angel investors to invest in our company, and so we were funded by September of 2018. And I spent the last couple months in China building this product. July of ‘18, if all of that stuff didn’t go through, it would have been almost impossible for us to keep going. I couldn’t keep doing it financially. That’s crazy to think about, that that would have been it.

What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with Strados Labs?
On a true personal level, I want to get this product to market because it’s going to be a really weird conversation to have with our current partners when they’re in the midst of using our products in the ER, in the midst of using our products at their public heath organizations and their neuro-ICUs and their COPD clinics and their primary care clinics and saying, “Sorry, we can’t do this anymore. Thanks for being a partner.” It’s amazing to think that that’s a potential end, to have gotten to that point, when it could have ended at any point when we were just an idea. But for us, to be a product that is achieving its potential, for me that would be really great. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
It’s not quite being humble, but appreciating your team and the people around you—your support system. It’s really those people that allow for this to happen. If you don’t have the right advisors, if you don’t get the right team members, if you don’t have good connections—good meaning people who believe in you and are willing to help you out—it’s not really going anywhere. Sacrificing equity, like giving up part of your company or part of your stake in this, in order to bring in good people to help you do it is something that I think very early on founders probably don’t pick up on. You want to have the best advisors, some of the best team members you can possibly find, and they’re probably going to want—because they’re worth it—an equity stake. I think finding those people is key, and then being appreciative of both their time and effort.

This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.