As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ron Chiarello
Ron Chiarello, Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Chairman of the Board of Alveo Technologies, is a compassionate and successful business leader who has led a distinguished career building on more than 25 years of expertise in designing, developing and manufacturing cutting-edge micro-fluidic, micro-electronics and semiconductor technologies. An entrepreneur at heart, Dr. Chiarello has successfully founded, led, and sold multiple startups specializing in applying these technologies to a range of sensing and diagnostic challenges.
Alveo Technologies was born out of Dr. Chiarello’s vision to transform the way the medical field diagnoses, tracks, and treats infectious disease. The company’s novel diagnostic platform, be.well, has been in development since 2015. With this technology, real-time, low-cost disease detection will become broadly accessible, and could revolutionize the way we respond to, and recover from, the threat of infectious diseases like flu, RSV, COVID-19, and new threats yet to be discovered.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
That’s a great question — there are so many things that have influenced me throughout my life and career — but I would honestly say that my experiences of the world growing up had the biggest impact on my chosen profession as an adult.
I have always been very inspired by big cultural and historical moments. For example, the post WW2 investment in scientific projects exposed me to so much possibility — we sent a man to the moon, and the United States even had a project called “Project Warp Speed,” an inspired reference to Stark Trek, and intended to expedite response timing to emergency situations of national importance.
As a kid I loved Star Trek and the Star Trek medical tricorder was actually the inspiration for the Alveo be.well platform. It was a multifunctional and handheld device used to scan and record data that diagnosed the crew of the starship. This is a great example of the intersection of pop culture and historical moments. With the US’s investment in science, so came content inspired by science which then influenced so many young minds, including myself. This type of content reinforced in my consciousness that the impossible was possible through optimism, grit, and taking failure as a learning opportunity rather than defeat.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When it comes to science, not everyone finds mistakes necessarily funny. However, there have been some humbling and humorous moments along the way. When I first started developing the be.well platform it was just a few of us working out of my garage, and we definitely lost a few of the early prototypes to my dog, Mojo, who seemed to have an affinity for circuit boards and would bury them in the backyard.
I also have a great memory of my oldest daughter commenting on an early prototype and her comment actually altered the entire direction of the product. Originally the platform was going to be the size of a toaster and powered by a 1000-volt current. Needless to say it was very large and powerful. Knowing that this device was intended to be in households my eldest daughter aptly wondered what would happen if say, the device fell into the bath tub. While of course that outcome would be terrible, it was definitely a funny moment and resulted in the complete reimagining of the device, which is now much smaller and is powered by 15 milivolts — so we reduced the energy factor by roughly 1 million times.
Ultimately at the end of the day, mistakes and missteps are bound to happen and personally I like to take these experiences and learn from them. Because the more learnings we can take away from our “failures” the greater likelihood for longer term success. And of course, if we can find the humor and learn to laugh at ourselves at the end of the day, that’s never a bad thing.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m constantly listening to podcasts and reading different books. Right now as far as podcasts go I’ve really been enjoying 13 Minutes to the Moon — which I see as another pop culture reinforcement of significant historical moments. I also love Startup which explores entrepreneurial stories and what contributed to their success. Both of these podcasts have themes of grittiness, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, resilience — and these qualities are all so essential to success throughout ones’ career. I am also a big fan of Michael Singer’s books which emphasize the importance of compassion as being a core component to success among business leaders.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I first started the development of the be.well platform my intention was to solve a problem in testing diagnostics. I have been very interested in the teachings of Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, who wrote a book about his story and emphasizes the incredible power of resilience and purpose. People need a purpose in order to feel joyful and like they matter, and this idea has been a significant guiding principal in how we do things at Alveo. A friend of mine, Richard Lieder, and a student of Frankl’s, does purpose training and actually did a purpose workshop with the Alveo team. During that workshop we did a few exercises to sort of unpack and understand Alveo’s purpose a little more clearly — its purpose being to relieve suffering through the use of technology.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
There is no such thing as failure, just feedback. Relax into mistakes and use them as learning opportunities. It’s important that we don’t get too high on our success when we are doing well, or too low and discouraged when we are not doing as well. If we can look at our mistakes through a humorous lens it can help to alleviate some of the stress we may have about our failures. Pointing fingers and placing blame or criticism in moments of failures is not productive and can result in feeling stuck. Frankl (who I mentioned above) says the space between reaction and response is where we reach our potential. If we can examine our failures through a rational lens and formulate a response rather than an emotional reaction, we are more likely to find a path to success.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’m not sure how empowering this anecdote is, but the impact of COVID is incredibly pervasive and at one point or another we will all feel the effects, whether it’s from the restrictions and monotony of daily life, or losing a loved one, and even the impact on mental and emotional health is serious. Recently the father of a friend of mine passed away due to COVID. The stories my friend shared revealed a long and uncomfortable process for their father in terms of seeking medical attention, getting tested, being admitted and discharged from the hospital multiple times — it sounded emotionally, mentally, and physically draining. Listening to my friend describe their experience was incredibly profound and really emphasized for me the purpose behind Alveo and what we are trying to do to eliminate suffering. If be.well was already available and accessible in people’s homes, the outcomes for so many infected with COVID could be so different. As far as addressing challenges brought on by COVID, being resilient and pushing through this difficult times is so important. And for me personally, I am continuing to focus my efforts on bringing the Alveo be.well test to market as soon as possible.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Fortunately, Alveo has not really experienced the same kinds of challenges as most other businesses have during this time. When the pandemic hit we were able to immediately separate those who could work remotely from those who had to be in the office. However, because our product directly relates to infectious diseases and we were focused on rapidly bringing our test to market, we had to make new hires and operate at a very high level. Our team grew by 20% which presented the unique challenge of training employees amid a pandemic, and we’ve also experienced issues around international suppliers and demands for test resources, which make sense given the fact that when COVID hit the U.S. developing a COVID test was moving at warp speed and there was little by way of protocol management. Because we feel it is our social responsibility to make this test available and accessible as soon as possible there have been many long nights and weekend spent working. Keeping morale up, and encouraging folks to take time to rest and recharge has been a big focus for us because if we can keep people feeling energized and positive we will have a greater likelihood of achieving success more quickly.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Studies show that people who do not read the news are happier than those who do. This is no surprise since TV and news programs play on people’s fears with jarring sound bites and headlines. The pandemic is certainly very real, but the media isn’t relaying information to help us feel better, they are relaying it to activate fear. These days people are so tied to their devices it can be hard to escape the news, but honestly, it can really help stress and anxiety if people limit the amount of time they spend watching or following the news.
Over all, the practices work — the social distancing and masks — so I always recommend people follow the protocols, stay home and socially distanced whenever possible. The data and science behind the distancing and masks are very robust and show how impactful it is to reducing the spread of the virus. In the meantime, while we’re patiently waiting for this to pass, finding ways to socialize distantly is great. Recently friends of mine did a virtual wine tasting and had a great time. Sure, it’s not the same as being together in person, but it beats being isolated. If you have family and pets at home, spend time with them and enjoy their company. The more time we spend alone, the more likely we will get in our heads.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
Necessity is the mother of invention. I personally predict we will see a rise in certain types of services that we didn’t necessarily see prior to the pandemic, from decontamination to online classes. Certification businesses will start to grow and expand to provide “COVID-disease-free” certification and additional services like health checks for people and environments. We are already seeing an uptick in the use of telemedicine and video conferencing in order to provide socially-distant care whenever possible. I expect we’ll see an uptick in the supply chain for testing, vaccines, distribution, containers, and health tech. With people working at home more and no plans to return to the office, we can expect to see more workout classes, art classes, cooking classes, etc. taking place in a virtual/digital format. We’re starting to realize that things that once seemed to require specific types of infrastructures can now be done as digital services.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
As we are seeing with the development of at-home diagnostic tools and testing kits, the seal on at-home testing has been broken. Non-esoteric, low-complexity testing costs about $1.5 trillion each year. This rise in accessible and easy testing will reduce the cost per test and empower people to take more ownership of their health. When be.well makes it into the hands of consumers, it will absolutely change the way people think about and act on their health because it will quickly produce testing results and help people make more informed decisions about their health status — whether it’s seeking out a provider consultation or staying home from work.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
Thankfully for Alveo, business is doing incredibly well, but I know this is not the case for so many others. Because of the industry we are in and the demand brought on by the pandemic, we are incredibly busy. The need for testing has accelerated our commercial plan and we are now working at warp speed to get our platform to market as soon as feasibly possible.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
While Alveo has not experienced some of the same challenges as many other businesses, I would encourage folks not to get discouraged or disheartened by the pandemic, which of course sounds easier said than done. Throughout my career some of my greatest successes have emerged from moments of “failure.” These moments of feedback and learning opportunities helped to push me to where I am today. The world will likely look very different in the aftermath of the pandemic, but that’s ok and will present us with so many new possibilities and opportunities for technology innovation and more. I know people are really going through it right now, but I do believe that resilience can get people through really tough and dark times, and can help lead them out onto the other side. I also think for me personally it’s required me to slow down, as under normal circumstances I travel quite a bit for work and have an otherwise busy schedule. While I recognize everyone is dealing with their own challenges during this time, I would say that whenever possible I would encourage others to savor the slower pace of life. These days I have found more time to devote to interests that I had previously brushed aside in favor of work and have even taken up new hobbies that I previously would not have ever given a second thought to.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The two quotes that have been at the core of all of my professional pursuits are “there is no such thing as failure, only feedback,” as well as “it’s not about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward,” which of course is from the iconic film Rocky.
I really love both of these quotes for their emphasis on grit and resilience which are two concepts I keep coming back to, but I really believe are great indicators of success in humans. It’s so important for people to have a combination of optimism and creativity, with the ability to repeatedly fail and not be discouraged, rather to keep trying and innovating until they find success.
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