As the pandemic brought the world to its knees, Melanie Aregger wanted to help diagnose respiratory diseases easier. Her startup, Avelo, develops breath aerosol collectors and plans to make them accessible also in the Global South. A quick and affordable test could save millions of lives.
One Saturday in July 2020, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, Melanie Aregger and Tobias Broger talked about how exciting it would be to create a new diagnostic test for tuberculosis and pneumonia. Come Monday morning, Tobias texted Melanie that he had quit his job to develop this product. Swept by the momentum, Melanie did the same, and the two co-founders emptied their bank accounts to build Avelo.
This origin story might seem like an outrageously rash move, but it had in fact been brewing for a while. Melanie and Tobias had known each other for a decade before that fateful weekend, and they had toyed with the idea of co-founding a healthcare company right from the start. The two friends wanted to make a real, positive impact on the world, and the need became much more urgent with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Melanie and Tobias started browsing through the World Health Organization’s Target Product Profiles (TPP). These are guidelines and desired features in new health products that would help solve real, current problems. The co-founders-to-be learned that the world in general and the Global South in particular was in dire need of simple, reliable, non-invasive tests for diagnosing tuberculosis and lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI). This was a need they believed they could meet.
“We realized we didn’t need to create yet another PRC test”
Using breath to detect diseases is not a new idea, Melanie admits. There are methods that detect Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), which are, simply put, our body’s reaction to certain diseases. These VOCs are also what trained diagnostic dogs can smell. In contrast, Avelo focuses on the disease itself: their more accurate technology detects the actual pathogens, the viruses and bacteria that cause the disease.
Blowing into a plastic tube to get diagnosed sounds simple, and indeed the process needs to be uncomplicated to become popular in various healthcare settings around the world. Yet creating the product is anything but simple, Melanie assures. What has been particularly challenging is the low amount of pathogens in the human breath. Already existing methods could certainly detect and diagnose a disease, if we had patients exhale for hours and hours into our test containers. But to identify a pathogen from a single breath takes precision that hasn’t been achieved until now. Furthermore, every lung is different, so developing a standardized sampler is no pickle.
Avelo’s innovation is about the sample collection, but the entire diagnostic process benefits from other advances, too. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests became a household term during the COVID-19 pandemic, and these tests can be used for much more than detecting coronavirus infections. The pandemic era pushed the technology to become more sensitive and the infrastructure more mature. This is important, because Avelo wants to leave the analysis of the collected sample to existing providers.
Finding this focus was one of the business lessons from Avelo’s early days, Melanie reveals. The startup’s original pitch included both the sampling and the diagnosis of breath. However, the two founders soon realized that it didn’t make sense to create yet another PRC analysis tool – many others had already addressed that problem. Instead, the real value would come from creating a simple yet accurate setup for collecting the breath.
“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur but needed a nudge to make it happen”
Melanie’s parents owned and ran a hotel, so she was dropped into a cauldron filled with entrepreneurial spirit as a little girl. “When I was eight years old, I dressed up in my mother’s business suit and told her I wanted to be an entrepreneur”, Melanie laughs. Yet Avelo is the first company she founded; the timing never felt right or the ideas good enough. She studied business administration and worked as a consultant in order to delay having to choose an industry. Once Melanie had landed in healthcare, it took the encouragement of her husband and the example of her co-founder to finally nudge her to make the move from salaried executive to company owner.
Avelo secured seed funding in 2022, and the company has also received a few non-dilutive research grants. Melanie estimates that she made around 170 pitches to get their startup off the ground. Telling the same story over and over again was exhausting, Melanie remembers, especially when you’re supposed to be passionate and enthusiastic every single time. But it was their vision, and they stuck with it.
Perseverance is what Melanie considers the most important trait of a successful entrepreneur. Every part of the startup journey has been a challenge, she states, and the way through has been a stubborn belief that somehow they will solve every puzzle.
What also helps is knowing what she is working toward. A handful of like-minded people in Switzerland are building something that, ten years from now, may have saved countless lives with accessible testing tools. That’s worth a few challenges and repetitive pitches.
This article is partially based on this podcast episode.