Each year the Ferolyn Fellowship, a program administered by Fogarty Innovation, attracts a fascinating group of Fellows who bring in varied experiences but are united in their passion for the field. This year is no exception, as Ayo Roberts brings her significant background in medtech startups that cover a wide range of specialties.
Finding her Niche
Growing up in Minnesota, Ayo was immersed in the healthcare field; her father is a physician and her mother an epidemiologist. Talking with them about their research and work, she developed a curiosity about anatomy, physiology and genetics. She also enjoyed working with her hands, with a keen interest in origami and making jewelry.
She found her perfect niche at Stanford University where she discovered biomechanical engineering, which combined her passion for healthcare with hands-on prototyping. “That was a sweet spot for me, the best of both fields,” she says. Ayo graduated from Stanford with a biomechanical engineering degree and then went on to receive her MS in mechanical engineering also from Stanford.
It was a natural transition to begin working in medtech, and she joined Abbott Vascular as an R&D engineer. Her initial goal was to understand the manufacturing process, but she also got very interested in the full gamut of product development, including the early stages. This led her to join a startup, PowerVision (Alcon), which focuses on creating fluid-based intraocular lens implants, where she became a principal R&D engineer. She continued this specialty as a hardware engineer at Verily Life Sciences, also focused on ophthalmology.
Embracing the Need-Based Approach
Ayo then joined the Stanford Biodesign fellowship program, which was a perfect forum for her to explore the startup world, discover how to find large, unmet needs and address them. Before applying to the program, she spoke with participant Kate Garrett, who shared its value for learning how to better understand the different aspects of forming a company.
“Kate explained how it covers topics like regulatory issues, intellectual property and the need-based approach to designing a technology,” Ayo says. “This model resonated with me as a productive way to become curious about a problem, dive in to research it and get input before developing it further,” she says. After the fellowship, her Biodesign team formed Zeit Medical, which uses AI to detect neurological injuries faster.
After Stanford Biodesign, she followed her interest in public health, including the upstream factors that contribute to health, better understanding health equity and the formation of healthcare disparities. “I wanted to see how someone like me who works in the medical technology field could play a role in addressing issues of access and the existing barriers to equity in the system,” Ayo says.
That led her to health tech startup Sage Health, which is focused on improving access to coverage for the uninsured. “It was definitely a twist from the devices I had previously worked on but was a really interesting chance to apply some of what I knew about product strategy and needs-finding to this question of how people who are uninsured can access coverage, and how we can help providers as well.”
From there Ayo went into independent consulting where she offers a broad spectrum of expertise—such as technical analysis of new technologies, market research, diligence and more—garnered from her experience in growing companies from the ground up. “I’m able to take what I learned at Biodesign and apply those principles and approaches to different types of problems in the real world,” she says. At the same time, she enjoys having broad exposure to different types of products, problems and business models.
Ferolyn Fellowship a “Transformative” Experience
While she was at Biodesign, she had heard about the value of the Ferolyn program from several fellows who were graduates. “I had the impression that the people involved in the Ferolyn Fellowship exhibit genuine passion for the industry and an openness and desire to help so I was honored when I was selected,” Ayo says.
She appreciates that it is tailored to the individual and offers the chance to explore the industry in a very personalized way. “It’s been transformative and has given me a lot of courage to go after things that I normally might have shied away from.”
The format has been helpful as she meets with her mentor, Claudia Carasso, founder and leader of Elastic Minds and a founding member of the Ferolyn Fellowship, individually, then in a group setting with three mentors and two other new fellows. “That’s been really fun because we get to share what each of us is going through so we can celebrate the joys and discuss the challenges,” she says. She appreciates the cross mentoring and the glimpse into what other people’s work is like. “I can determine where I need new skills and can reach out to the network for help or guidance.”
Still “Hands On”
When she can find time for crafts, she turns to the fiber arts, most recently knitting and sewing. She also likes to hike and kayak, and plans to explore the many lakes in Minnesota.
About the Ferolyn Fellowship
Founded in tribute to Ferolyn Powell, a dynamic leader in the medtech startup world, the program supports rising leaders with a strong passion and aptitude to transform healthcare. Participants undergo an immersive 10-month program of customized mentoring designed to accelerate their careers and nurture leaders who will drive the next wave of medtech innovation. Fogarty Innovation plays an important role in helping to administer the Ferolyn Fellowship, and Fellows have access to all Fogarty educational programming and regular progress reviews by Fogarty staff.