Congratulations to Elise Sutherland, the winner of the Luminary Tech Visionary award for 2022! This award celebrates young people harnessing technology to lead the way with groundbreaking ideas that positively impact the way we live. The Luminary Tech Visionary Award is part of the 7NEWS Victorian Young Achiever Awards, and the winner was announced at a gala dinner at the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne on Friday 29th April.
Marty Drill, Luminary CEO, was impressed with the exceptionally high calibre of nominees in the Tech Visionary category. Of the winner, Elise Sutherland, Marty said, “We believe in supporting young people. When Luminary started, I was 21 and needed the support of the business community. The candidates for the Luminary Tech Visionary Award continue to amaze me with their ingenuity and vision. They go way beyond simply starting a business, they are truly innovating and are deserving of our admiration. I am delighted for Elise.”
Elise is the 27 year-old founder of Stelect, a company that has developed the smallest high-resolution ultrasound medical imaging sensor in the world. What started as a uni project in Elise’s final year of her Biomedical Engineering Masters degree at Melbourne University, Stelect has raised close to $1m in funding to date and is changing the game in medical imaging.
This is an outstanding achievement for a young woman in a highly-regulated field dominated by large, established players. “We have been able to move through multiple iterations of designing, building and testing our sensors in collaboration with the Melbourne Centre for Nano-fabrication and have attracted the attention of clinicians and medical device companies around the world,” said Elise.
The Stelect technology is groundbreaking because it allows for imaging to occur in places in the human body where this has never been possible before. This includes imaging inside blood vessels within the brain, inside the coronary arteries, peripheral vasculature and endobronchial (inside the oesophagus and lungs).
The data these novel sensors collect is then transferred via digital technology to create 3D models of an individual patient’s vasculature. For example, in coronary imaging, the Stelect device reconstructs a 3D model of a patient’s artery, critical to identifying and treating coronary blockages. The digital technology utilises machine learning to inform the treating clinician of the extent of the blockage (length, diameter and severity and impact on blood flow), along with the composition of the blockage (e.g. fatty plaque or calcium).
This information, which is currently not available to clinicians, enables doctors to make more informed treatment plans, resulting in better health outcomes for patients, along with reducing the overall cost to the healthcare system with reductions in re-admittance and repeat procedure rates.
What’s even more impressive is that big companies have been trying to solve this problem for 30 to 40 years. Yet, according to Elise, uptake globally of (competing products) is under five percent globally. That Stelect is succeeding where others have failed is a testament not only to Elise’s unique perspective and fresh thinking, but persistence and resilience in an industry that often signals the message that it’s not possible to succeed and not worth it to try.
The idea behind Stelect was born out of The University of Melbourne's BioDesign Innovation course, which partners Masters of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Engineering students together and places them within the healthcare system to identify unmet clinical needs.
During this course, Elise’s team was observing a coronary stenting procedure (Percutaneous Coronary Intervention) whereby a patient was having an emergent heart attack, and the doctors were working quickly to restore blood flow. With the only imaging available to the clinician being a coronary CT scan, the clinician was required to make an educated guess at the required stent size that would cover the blockage and restore blood flow. (A stent is a metal scaffold that keeps the artery open ensuring blood-flow).
Unfortunately, when the clinician inserted the stent, he had underestimated the size and therefore it did not cover the entire lesion. The clinician then had to insert a second and then a third stent in order to restore blood flow. Not only did this add significant time to the procedure, the patient was now at higher risk for complications. “Further research highlighted that inaccurate stent selection occurs in 70 percent of all procedures. As a result, this became the problem that Stelect set out to solve.”
Elise understood the problem as others did but she also saw a pathway forward that others couldn’t. Where the big players had failed, Elise succeeded because rather than being limited by her youth and relative inexperience, Elise was focused on one thing: solving one problem at a time to reach her ultimate objective. And that driving goal is to save someone’s life. “That for me is when I know the company is a success… that’s the ultimate goal in all of this,” said Elise.
Her vision has inspired technical specialists in the industry to work with Stelect and attracted venture capital funding to transform a possibility into reality. The product, which is now in the development phase, is set to go into mass production and commercialisation within the next two years. The applications for the technology are diverse, from cardiology, to neurology and ophthalmology – basically any part of the human vascular system.
Stelent has been informed and developed with clinicians’ needs and inputs because they will ultimately be the drivers of uptake. Material selection and other factors to reduce costs have also been deeply considered to make the technology affordable and practical for hospitals to implement. Elise has paved the pathway for her product to be a success and meet a vital need that has not been adequately answered until now.
This is an extraordinary trajectory for a woman who encountered doubt and negativity early on. “When I started this, a lot of people told me the technology wouldn’t work, it doesn’t make sense, the physics behind it is not even possible,” said Elise. But persistence and positivity paid off as Elise and her team, “shocked a lot of people early on”.
Elise explains that the key to her persistence was having the right support ecosystem around her. From her family in Western Australia, to her colleagues at Melbourne University and the other entrepreneurs and founders she now shares a work space with, having the right people and the right messages around her made all the difference. “You have to know who your supporters are,” said Elise.
This support allowed her to back herself and attend networking events, pitching her idea over and over until she found the financial backing to progress Stelent. Attracting venture capital investment transformed the business and the possibilities available to Elise. And this took an enormous effort because venture capital is difficult to secure, especially for female entrepreneurs.
As Elise explains, “ If you look at the stats in Australia, two percent of female start-ups are funded. So basically, for every female start-up that is funded 50 male-led startups are funded.” This statistic could dissuade many women from even trying, but Elise Sutherland is proof that persistence can pay off. As she puts it, “You have to keep knocking on doors, presenting, and finding the right people to be champions.”
The other factor in her success is her resilience to push through problems and difficulties. “Resilience is critical to success… because you will get knocked down,” said Elise. For her, resilience is about taking one step at a time, not dwelling on the past, and celebrating the highs when they come around – such as winning the Luminary Tech Visionary Award and being celebrated alongside other inspiring, passionate young people changing the world for the better.
When asked what advice she has for other young people looking to walk an entrepreneurial path, Elise says the most important thing is to take that very first step, “If you’ve got a good idea, why not give it a crack and see how it goes?”
Luminary CEO Marty Drill presenting the Tech Visionary award to winner Elise Sutherland
Congratulations to the other Luminary Tech Visionary finalists
Grace is the inventor of Abi, an autonomous Bipedal robot designed to revolutionise aged care, by taking over administrative and routine tasks to assist human staff to provide a better experience for residents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj1oadAlTTM
Empowering NFPs and other social enterprises through access to pro bono and low bono data science and tech services, Tess Guthrie, CEO and founder of WhyHive, is on a mission to democratise data science: https://www.monash.edu/arts/news-and-events/articles/alumni/monash-arts-grad-tess-guthrie-leads-change-in-not-for-profit-sector
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