Innovator Profile: Guelay Bilen-Rosas

Couple posing together

Guelay Bilen-Rosas is the director of Pediatric Transplant Anesthesia at UW Health and an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the School of Medicine and Public Health, focusing on pediatric transplant and airway management.

Head shots of Guelay Bilen-Rosas, Humberto Rosas, and Irene Ong
The Ayrflo team: Dr. Guelay Bilen-Rosas, Dr. Humberto Rosas, and Irene Ong, Ph.D

The research she leads at her Airflow-Ultrasound lab focuses on ultrasound signal behavior across flow boundary layers. Her partners in this work include her husband Doctor Humberto Rosas and data scientist Irene Ong. The team has been working for the last 4 years to develop a novel respiratory monitoring device that can detect airway compromise by measuring airflow across the windpipe, detecting changes in breathing immediately and earlier than “surrogate” factors like pulse oximetry. Real-time monitoring provides critical extra time for medical professionals to address problems and save lives. This year, the trio founded AyrFlo, a startup company focused on developing the technology further for eventual introduction to the marketplace.

In the spring of 2020, the team took part in D2P’s Innovation to Market program as they worked to understand the potential market for the device and developed the plan to get their company off the ground. The team has also gotten support and guidance from the Center for Technology Commercialization, the UW Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center, and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. In fall 2020, they participated in the National Science Foundation’s Midwest Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Node program and applied for a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant to develop and test a custom prototype of the device. The team will be intensely focused on both market and technology development over the next several years.

Two women at a table discussing an issue
Guelay chats with another one of D2P’s mentors (Aimee Arnoldussen) during the Innovation to Market program.

“Guelay exudes energy and passion. It’s clear that she is driven by a deep desire to better protect patients; those under her care, under the care of those she teaches as a medical educator, and more broadly those at risk of sedation related airway compromise, “ comments Abram Becker, one of the mentors for the project. “Guelay and her team have done a great job in advancing from an initial idea spurred by Guelay’s first-hand clinical experience to the point where they have a prototype that has been used for data collection in patients undergoing cataract surgery. In addition, they have embarked on the discovery interview process to better understand how their innovation may be able to provide value to the various and diverse stakeholders within the healthcare ecosystem. They have identified that there is real unmet medical need across a number of different settings that could be addressed by the introduction of a novel real-time and quantitative respiratory monitoring platform. But they also recognize and have embraced the need to continue their discovery interview efforts as they work to further develop their understanding of how to best bring their innovation to market.”

We sat down to talk with Guelay this fall to learn more about what drives her, how she balances it all, and her philosophy for the company.

Your collaborators are both personal and professional connections. What does it feel like to work in that setting?

A couple poses together.
Guelay and Humberto are partners in business and life.

It feels safe. It’s so helpful to have partners who look at that same problem from a different perspective. I think hardest part of an innovative path is that you always question yourself… as you should. But this uncertainty sometimes can lead to frustration or a sense of feeling alone. Having those companions with you, having these people who are your biggest critics but also your biggest supporters, that provides a pillar you can lean on when you’re not doing well. And they can lean on you when they’re not doing well. It helps everyone remember to not give up. When you feel safe, only then you can really unleash your biggest potential. And I think that is our greatest strength as a team.

How has D2P helped you, and what have you learned along the way?

I think the most valuable aspect has been the process of learning to look at tech development from a customer perspective and focusing on trying to develop something that is truly going to solve a problem. It humbles you in ways that you never thought.  Prior to interacting with D2P, we had spent a lot of time thinking about the mission, data, and technology side of our research. What we didn’t know as a research team was that there was a whole new component to our work related to understanding the needs of the potential end users. D2P’s process forced us to ask, “are you sure this is really important?” There is entire new vocabulary we had to learn that helped us understand our customers—what are their pains? What gains would our solution provide? It’s an entirely new world and participating in that process really helped us look at our technology development with different eyes. I learned that even though I am also an end-user, my experience may bias my assessment and maybe cause me to miss a chance to understand the challenges other healthcare workers experience. Another interesting component is the realization that just because somebody likes to use it doesn’t mean that somebody is going to buy it. The more we talk with providers and patients, the more we’re understanding what we have to improve, and also where we can feel validated. It’s fascinating.

We participated in the NSF Midwest I-Corps Node program this fall, and we also felt that it was so invaluable to go into that with already learned language from D2P’s programming. If we hadn’t had D2P beforehand, it would have been an enormous amount of learning and we might have not been as effective in absorbing all the information that we are hearing right now as we continue interviewing potential customers.

Is there an experience during the development of your project that surprised you or had a particularly strong impact on your direction? What did you learn from it, or how did it change your thinking?

It surprised me that it took me almost one decade to actually see this problem. I learned that it is so easy to accept the status quo and work with it. I learned that it is OK to ask tough questions and dream about what your ‘ideal monitor, technology or tool’ would be able to do without having any proof that it is doable at the moment. I think the hardest step is to just first believe in what you want to solve even though you do not have a solution YET. Then go after that solution. I have found that being doubted and being told that this is a very difficult task, is only a sign that one is on the right path. I also learned to feel very comfortable to say ‘we do not know how to do this yet, BUT we will.” I feel for new inventors who are starting out. All I can say is, just believe in yourself and believe in your team.

What advice would you give to other campus innovators that are just starting out with exploring the potential for their ideas?

Just go for it!! Do not let anybody tell you that you cannot do it or that it is not doable! Break down barriers and follow your passion. It is worth it! I also encourage people to surround themselves with collaborators who are kind, honest, genuine, and who really believe with you and in you. Great things happen with a big community.

How do you balance the time you need to spend on your project with other work and life responsibilities?

It is hard! Because the project never ends! It is very important to have very good discussions with your partner and your children to discuss how this project will affect family life and express the challenges ahead and even ask permission. For me, I could have never done this without the unwavering support of my husband and project partner Tito and the kids. They are the fountain of strength because they do share my vision and are so proud of it. It is truly a family business!

As far as work goes, I am so incredibly grateful to my Chair Dr. Kelly McQueen who has been an amazing and strong advocate for translational research and support. Dr. McQueen encourages to dream big and follow your passion. I feel very lucky to have her genuine support and trust.

You describe yourself as a clinician with your heart. What does that mean for you?

It means that we are entrusted with another human. We are entrusted with somebody that has a heartbeat: has a mother, has a sister, has a father. Even though in this society, where we are so driven by speed and dollars and turnover and profit, I will never ever lose track that we are first humans, and our obligation is to protect these people who trust us with everything that we have. So when I call myself a clinician with my heart, it means that for everything we do in medicine, we cannot just accept the status quo. We have to always make things better for tomorrow. I think the biggest source to fuel the fire for this project goes back to the respect we all have for the humans in our care. If we save even one life, that would have been worth it. We’re approaching company formation based on our own family and ethical values. And we are trying to lead with those same principles, heart, and empathy that we would like to give and extend to our future employees. I think the best leaders are the leaders that don’t forget that human needs, kindness, and family relations matter. If you can grow a company that values those things, I think that you can bring out the best of the best in people, because they will feel safe. That has always been our team philosophy that we hopefully can carry on into our company.

Read more innovator profiles from D2P