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MindMics’ Dr. Anna Barnacka Pioneers Heart Monitoring Earbuds While Inspiring Entrepreneurs

Academic-turned entrepreneur shares heart monitoring earbud technology and advice on funding, clinical validation, and navigating company growth
June 2024

About the Episode

It is well known that earbuds are multifunctional, but did you know you can use them to listen to your heart? MindMics Founder and CEO, Dr. Anna Barnacka, recounts what motivated her to create these heart-monitoring earbuds: burnout and the importance of rest and recovery regardless of what stage you are at in life. She describes to podcast host Kyle Rand, Co-Founder and CEO of Rendever, her emotions around unknown variables during the early stages of the company. She also addresses the importance of perfecting clinical validation and the obstacles of fundraising. Lastly, she gives advice to novice startups trying to navigate fundraising and growth stages of a new company. Anna is an inspiration for founders, showing that hard work and staying motivated pays off in entrepreneurship.

 

Transcript

Tanya Perkins, Host:      Welcome to Age Tech Talks, conversations about AgeTech, powered by AgeTech Collaborative from AARP leading a global mission to drive innovation at the nexus of longevity and technology. You are tuning in to a series of discussions recorded live at CES 2024 that highlights the dynamic startup founders who are making aging easier for everyone by pioneering innovative AgeTech solutions. In conversation with fellow startup founders, Kyle Rand and Tanya Perkins, each episode invites an AgeTech collaborative startup founder to discuss their journey and share the invaluable lessons they’ve learned along the way. Today we’re thrilled to have Anna Barnacka, CEO and founder of MindMics, to share their story.

Kyle Rand, Host:            Hello everybody. We are here at day two at CES Anna, how are you doing today?

Dr. Anna Barnacka: I’m doing very well, thank you so much.

Kyle:                 Anna. I want to start with a quick highlight. You won, not won, but two awards from CES this year, didn’t you?

Anna:               Yes, we did. We are overachievers.

Kyle:                 What were the awards that you got?

Anna:               So, first award is in the wearable devices category, and we got it for our innovation in monitoring health, which we called in-ear Infrasonic hemodynography, which is the next generation of the wearables. So we’ve been very proud to be recognized by CES with achieving that award. And the second one is we also figured out actually how to turn the insights using that technology into giving people a way to better manage their health. And for that one, for our app, for our heart health system, we have received the award in the digital health category as well.

Kyle:                 That’s amazing. Digital health for heart health?

Anna:               Yes, for our heart health system. Using our in-ear infrasonic hemodynography technology.

Kyle:                 For people who are listening who don’t know anything about MindMics, besides the fact that you won two awards here at CES, give us the short brief description of what you guys do.

Anna:               So first of all, our technology is using ears as speakers and basically what’s happening in our body is that we are super loud creatures. We think that we are quiet, we are not, we just don’t hear it because it’s below 20 hertz and what’s happening, the ear by nature was designed to be actually transducer. The beauty of the transducers is that they can be either microphone or a speaker. So actually you can turn any speaker into the microphone or microphone into the speaker, and the same is happening with the ear canal. So nature, the brain is using the ear canal as a microphone to pick up all of the vibrations, all of the sound waves around us. We are using it as a speaker because what’s happening, ear canal is also attached to the human body. So it’s also picking up all of the vibrations that are inside us, especially we have a huge pump inside our chest, the heart that is pushing liters of blood every minute, and that generates huge amount of sound and that sound, we can detect it from the ear canal, which literally hear every heartbeat broadcasted by the ear canal and we can pick it up using the microphones in every year, but that we can use to listen to music or being on the call or just enjoy noise cancellation.

Kyle:                 I’m curious, what is your background? What got you into this?

Anna:               So that was not a straightforward path with a lot of curves, let’s say that way. So by training, I’m an astrophysicist and I was at Harvard doing my postdoctoral research and I needed something to monitor my stress because to get to Harvard, to get to where I was basically I had to work day and night and I started feeling that my body was telling me like, oh, you have to slow down, but I just got NASA Einstein Fellowship. And I was like, no, I’m not slowing down. I need something to figure out how I could monitor my health to avoid the burnout. Because it was very clear if I would keep working as I was working, I would face the burden within a year or two. And I thought in astrophysics when we think about monitoring sky, we can see the emission around the black holes across the universe.

Anna:               We can detect gravitational waves. So to me, the idea that we cannot monitor also our health was crazy. And I was very surprised because when I started doing my research for such a device, I noticed that actually there was none. Because on one side, yes, there were wearable devices that give you the heart rate, they can count the number of steps you make per day, but that’s not enough. I wanted much more from learning about my health and sure there are medical devices and they have a great precision, but they are extremely bulky, invasive. So I wanted to figure out what kind of system we could use to also get that level of medical accuracy, but in the firm factor that is easy to use. So during the day I was focusing on studying the universe, but then in my free time during the nights and during the weekends, I started diving into all of the medical devices to understand how they monitor human body and what are the aspects of the human body, the signals that we generating because also our body, everything that is moving living does generate all of signals.

Anna:               I was wondering, okay, what kind of signals the body is generating that today we are not using and how we could capture it with the devices that we are already using. So this is where from the day one I was finger away, this has to be an earbud because we wear earbuds and also the ear is the best place to capture the data so close to the brain, so close to the heart as opposed to the rest. So I started diving into it and figure it out that, oh, there is a sound that we are not actually looking into. And that idea of using the ear canal as a speaker and to capture those insights from insight. So then I got to the first prototype, started seeing the first heartbeats coming through the ear, and this is where the journey started and I said, okay, let’s leave astrophysics. I’ve done enough. And some people told me, if you want to do something really ambitious, became an entrepreneur. So I was like, okay, challenge accepted.

Kyle:                 How scary was to really finally take that leap and say, this is what I’m going to do full time?

Anna:               To be honest, there was no fear. It was a lot of excitement. Plus also my attitude to life is only things that we feel the fear toward are worth doing. So that was no brainer for me. That’s terrifying. Yes. So let’s do it.

Kyle:                    Okay.

Anna:                  But for me it was data-driven decision as well because I saw the potential, what we could do with this technology, what kind of impact I could have as a person by building the team, pushing this technology into changing how we are approaching our health. Because even those first heartbeats, seeing those, the quality of the data, the accuracy for the wearable device that was clear that this is worth doing, this will change the way we approach our health, how we are in the future. Also looking at the predictive health analytics, how we are making decisions about our health. So for me, that was no brainer.

Kyle:                 When did that happen? What year was that?

Anna:               I started MindMic’s official incorporated 2018, and it took me about two years of that work using my free time to figure it out, the technology, to get the proof of concept, to get the first investors. So basically I begin the process 2016.

Kyle:                 So for a full two years it was quote unquote a side hustle. When did products start shipping? That’s relatively new. Yeah?

Anna:               Oh yeah. Yeah. It took quite a lot of time to get to the product because it was a new technology that the blessing of entrepreneurs, especially the first-time entrepreneur is that sometimes we don’t know about things and we are going for throttle. So in our case, because the technology, we are looking at the sound waves below 20 hertz, and that’s something for which there is not even an initial standard. All of the microphones, everything is only evaluated down to 20 hertz to the frequency range that we can hear. We cannot hear it below 20 hertz. So the whole industry, why we would’ve even evaluated that. And those frequencies at below 20 hertz, they behave a little bit different at the sound that we hear because when we go to very low frequencies, the wavelength, it becomes very long. So for example, we looking at the frequencies literally like a few hertz, the wavelength is about a hundred meters at one hertz.

Anna:               So that’s a huge very long sound waves that we are looking at. And we had to build a whole infrasound lab to be able to evaluate all of the components, to evaluate all of the microphones, to evaluate the acoustics of the systems to figure it out because we were going towards the new uncharted field where you’re taking a sensor and you don’t know how it behaves in the frequency range that you’re looking at. So we had to build those standards, we had to figure everything out from scratch. And this is why also we now have very strong IP portfolio because that was something that we’ve been building from scratch. The whole field of in here, infrasonic was something that we have to build from the scratch. So that took a lot of time. And then the second thing was we didn’t want to jump immediately.

Anna:               My attitude to the health products is there is no shortcut. It’s all about the clinical validation and making sure that whatever we provide is clinically validated. So the first thing we’ve done was establishing that Infrasonic lab so we could evaluate the technology, gain the confidence about the signal and its origin and its meaning. And five years ago, technology wasn’t there at all. We were just looking at the first microphones, but as we were building our infrasonic labs, as we were building the clinical validation, the technology started maturing extremely quickly. So five years ago there was no good microphones that we could put into the earbud. All of the microphones were way too big. But what happened over the last few years, the noise cancellation took off very quickly. And what it meant to do that good noise cancellation, you have to put a microphone inside the earbud and one in the nozzle that is facing actually the ear canal. So to do the good noise cancellation, all of the earbud manufacturers and brand started putting microphones in the right place, exactly the place that we needed. And on top of that, the microphone manufacturers based on the demand for the noise cancellation started making better and smaller microphones. So two years ago when we started building our earbuds, the technology was there.

Kyle:                 Clearly you are working in a field of new frontiers. And you mentioned fundraising, I want to talk about this a little bit because to work in new frontiers in the deep tech space, you are dealing with nothing but unknowns, right? Nothing but uncertainty and everybody can resonate with navigating uncertainty. How would you recommend navigating the investor space? Because even deep tech investors are on a timeline.

Anna:               Yeah, I would say that’s one of the most difficult things. I don’t feel like an absolute expert in that field. We’ve been able to raise money. It was never easy with that kind of risk, that kind of amount of unknown to fundraising is never an easy process. We’ve been quite successful from the perspective we got the money that we needed to keep moving the technology forward. And hopefully now as we valued that we have the first partnership, it will get easier. At least that’s my hope. But on the more concrete side, I would say the lesson learned from me was all about establishing business relationships and showing people how the technology is progressing, how with the risking the technology and how we remove from the equation all of those unknowns. Then definitely the investors that are investing in that kind of technologies are not that common.

Anna:               A lot of people want to have return immediately, and the deep tech is not that way. It takes time to develop. It takes time, especially when you work in the lab, it takes time for the technologies to run it to mature a bit or the markets as well. And for me, it was all new coming from astrophysics and watching that, and I think the lesson from the last year was also how dependent it is from the market as well. So definitely the markets were not the best the last year and that’s such a key part of that equation and seeing how quickly it changed. So definitely at the beginning was much easier. Then pandemic was again crazy the first few months, but then it was El Dorado for fundraising and now it’s not El Dorado, let’s put it that way. Definitely entrepreneurship is so much about time, about black, about markets. There are so many things that we have no control over.

Kyle:                 There are always going to be uncertainties, there are always going to be uncontrollables. But one of the things you can control in your narrative to investors is what you need to do. And I think what you’ve done quite well is design your milestones really quite clearly. It’s really easy, especially for first time founders to say, okay, we have to hit this revenue target by this date because that’s what’s required to be a startup. But to be really quite diligent in saying, this is actually what we need to even get to product. And being able to stay true to that as you then engage with investors is probably really important.

Anna:               So I would say when we go toward the deep tech, you never know where you’re going to end. So yes, we always setting pretty good goals, but life throw you for so many in different directions and say, no, you cannot achieve that because technology is done there or this or that. So I think what was critical was not so much about showing that, oh yes, we can achieve, we can hit. Every single goal was about, okay, what we did when we met obstacles and how we turn every single obstacle into the opportunity for us. So it was more showing that consistent growth and our mindset to the risking our technology, the risking the whole business model. So at the beginning with technology, so this way we started with the clinical studies with the IP portfolio, those were the key. Now the next phase, once we show that, okay, this technology can be embedded to the earbuds clinical validation, show that the full potential not only what can be done today but in the future as well, what kind of markets it will enable and the potential revenue streams, and then now focusing on the next phase is the risking the business model.

Anna:               So definitely I think that was something that was critical. So not so much showing that we can hit every goal because it’s in entrepreneurship, it’s a journey that you don’t know where you’re going to end even a month, and there are so many things we don’t have control over. More about showing, okay, whatever life throws at us, how are we going to turn it into our advantage and strength and how quickly we can redefine what we are doing and find a solution and continuously showing progress, even though sometimes it feels that, as I like to say, two steps forward, one step back. But still you’re moving forward.

Kyle:                 You did just hit quite a big milestone. You have product in the market. How does that feel?

Anna:               It feels amazing actually, especially that we want to be a software as a solution, but we had to build the hardware to show that it works, that work with the partners to open a lot of doors. And having actually was in September, I went to IDM to work with our manufacturer talking about work effect. They were really happy that we were leaving because we were spending there we were leaving in the morning from the assembly line to make sure that everything is working, that we did everything in the week that we had to do. But that moment when I got the box with the product inside and seeing how well it come up and how many people put their soul and hardworking to it to make it possible, that was incredible feeling. When you feel okay, it’s real. So having that physical part that you have it in your hand is like, whoa, this is real.

Kyle:                 You have to go through so much to get to these big moments of real momentous achievement, the kind of things that win awards kind of things that really help level up the business side of the organization. How do you celebrate that, right? You do so much work. How do you make sure that you celebrate and your team feels the love and the joy?

Anna:               That’s a good question. I think for that phase of the startup, it’s all about having the team that loves challenges and that solving them. And just to phrase it correctly. So definitely the work is hard and we are all working extremely hard, much more than eight hours. And from day to day, just knowing that how much impact we can make, that’s the honor by itself. When we see those awards and those external recognition, it’s also great because it emphasizes that what we are doing is the right direction. That it’s not only us internally thinking that this is something worth doing. So definitely that’s the part, but I would say every day it’s a joy of working, even though it’s hard and it doesn’t feel like a joy in a way sometimes, but I would say it’s working on the product that you know that is going to make such a difference. I think that what propels everyone and the hours are just labels here and there, but every day thinking about what we can do, it’s a celebration.

Kyle:                 How have you navigated from when it was just you during your free time to navigating and leading a team of 20; culture changes, priorities change, your role changes? How do you navigate that?

Anna:               So when we were very small, it’s easy because it’s very easy to communicate. Then when the team is growing and you have to become a manager and you don’t have yet that structure of VPs manager C level, that does not exist. It’s difficult because you have to be leader, you have to be manager, you have to be all of that. So that’s very difficult phase because those two a little bit exclude each other in some way. But then when you start having that layer of senior people that start forming the teams, that gets again super exciting because then you directly work with the leaders and you can coach them. So that role of the manager changes into the coach, which I at least like a lot.

Kyle:                 Tell me, what are you most excited about? What are you most looking forward to both CES and for the rest of 2024?

Anna:               Oh, it’s quite a lot ahead of us, and I think I’m super excited to be at the CES and seeing everybody coming to our booth. So many great companies interested in partnerships. So I feel so now we are ready for those partnerships. We work so hard to have the product, to have our offering as a MindMics inside, but also as a MindMics heart health system as well. So we are really ready to partner and seeing so much interest in our booth, that’s quite incredible. So I hope that there’ll be much more revenue coming this year.

Kyle:                 Yeah, I hope so too.

Anna:               I’m excited for that.

Kyle:                 All the hard work, all of the deep, deep work in this deep tech space, it seems like it’s all really going to pay off this year, and that’s got to be-

Anna:               Yes. Plus fundraising, that’s what we always do as well. Is it exciting? Yeah, I have fantastic investors so far, so it’s always a joy to bring more people on board.

Kyle:                 I want you to go back into the mindset of Anna in 2016 who is just starting out, was just thinking about making this giant leap. What advice would you give to Young Anna?

Anna:               It’s a really good question because when I go back, there was a lot of sleepless nights because there were so many problems I didn’t know how to solve. But it’s all going back to getting good sleep, taking care of your health, and then getting the energy to tackle all of the problems. And that’s number one.

Kyle:                 Anna, this has been an amazing conversation. Again, I’m so excited for you. I can’t wait to see what this year brings to you. Have a great rest of CES and thanks for joining us today.

Anna:               Thank you so much.

Tanya:              Thanks for listening to AgeTech Talks. From AgeTech Collaborative from AARP. You can learn more about today’s guests and all the innovative startups in the AgeTech Collaborative by visiting the startup directory on agetechcollaborative.org.