Healthtech Leader of the Month: Anna Lisa Somera

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For the June installment of the Healthtech Leader of the Month series, we spoke to Anna Lisa Somera, CEO of Rhaeos. Anna Lisa is also a 2022 Rosenman Innovator and RISE Founder with the Rosenman Institute. 

Rhaeos is a pioneering healthtech company developing its FlowSense technology, a wearable, wireless, and non-invasive diagnostic device that assess hydrocephalus shunt flow in minutes.

Revolutionizing Hydrocephalus Care with Wireless Tech

With a 20-year career in medical device startups, ranging from venture capital to senior management, Somera had learned the ins and outs of the health tech space before joining Rhaeos. However, an encounter with a grant for flow-sensing technology at Northwestern University pulled her into a new venture: Rhaeos. “I’ve worked on many grants and seen many technologies, but I was so drawn in that I dropped everything and said I wanted to be a part of this,” Anna Lisa reflects. 

Rhaeos’ founding was clinician driven, academically founded in 2018 by a professor, neurosurgeon, and postdoc at MIT. In 2019, Somera began to evolve and commercialize the company. Now leading a team of 15, her mission is to address the underserved chronic condition, hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus is often unheard of in common medical parlance: “You can probably go years without hearing the word,” Anna Lisa comments. Hydrocephalus patients experience a build-up of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain, causing pressure and often brain damage. Currently, 1 million Americans live with hydrocephalus and the US’ healthcare system experiences an over $2 billion annual impact from treating hydrocephalus.

Traditionally, hydrocephalus is treated by a surgically implanted shunt that drains excess fluid. However, diagnosing shunt failure can be difficult as symptoms are often nonspecific, such as headaches and nausea, leading to multiple emergency room visits and ambiguous imaging results. In fact, 70% of pediatric patients are discharged after visiting the emergency department for shunt malfunction. “Shunts also fail, and that’s no secret,” Anna Lisa adds, with 16% of patients readmitted within 30 days after shunt surgery. 

This is where Rhaeos steps in. The company has developed a patent-protected platform technology and a noninvasive wireless, wearable skin patch that can assess and monitor fluid flow subdermally throughout the body. The device’s breakthrough potential lies in providing patients peace of mind by enabling early detection of shunt malfunctions, saving them from the guessing game of whether their symptoms are harbingers of failure. “Ultimately, our goal is to get the technology in the hands of those who need it all over the world,” Anna Lisa concludes. 

From Leader to Leader: 3 Lessons Learned 

  1. Don’t be scared of a non-linear path 

Earlier in her career, Anna Lisa wasn’t sure if the roles she was taking on were helping her progress. However, Anna Lisa soon realized that a linear career path is not necessarily common. “I am grateful for these endeavors because who knew that doing VC, tech transfer, and leading regulatory would lead me to Rhaeos,” Anna Lisa adds.

  1. Develop Thick Skin

“Leading early-stage startups, especially involving FDA-regulated medical devices, is tough,” Anna Lisa says. Whether it be fundraising, regulatory or clinical, a lot of pushback is likely to occur. “Have thick skin and stay resilient,” Anna Lisa emphasizes. 

  1. Lead with Purpose 

Anna Lisa’s last tip is to lead with purpose. “If your heart’s not in it, it will show,” Anna Lisa puts it eloquently. Anna Lisa’s drive has certainly had an effect on her team: “They come early and they stay late, not because anyone tells them to but because they want to,” Anna Lisa says.

Looking Ahead: Measuring More Flow 

FlowSense, a class two De Novo 510 K with FDA breakthrough designation, is on the path to carving out new frontiers in health tech. While Rhaeos is currently focused on hydrocephalus, Somera indicates the technology’s versatility could extend to monitoring various conditions: “Our bodies are full of flow,” Anna Lisa adds. Currently, Rhaeos is conducting a 10-center pivotal study to support its regulatory application. Additional outcomes-based studies are in the early planning stages, with an eye on ensuring broad adoption post-market. 

“Even to this day, when I meet a hydrocephalus patient’s mom or dad, I get that first-week feeling,” Anna Lisa expresses. Rhaeos’ journey has only just begun, and Anna Lisa and her team are ready to increase the standard of care for underserved hydrocephalus patients nationwide. 

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