Entrepreneur Profile: Riley Ellingsen
From Medicine to Entrepreneurship
Riley Ellingsen comes from a family of doctors and lawyers, inspiring him to take a pre-med track during his undergraduate studies at Whitman College in Washington state. After graduating Whitman in 2019, Riley began working as an ocular lab technician in New York City. Riley’s experience in healthcare coincided closely with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic really showed me the bureaucratic factors of practicing medicine in the United States,” Riley said. “I decided it wasn’t the path for me.”
After coming to this decision and leaving his job, Riley had to decide what he wanted to do. Since a recruiter from the University of Notre Dame ESTEEM program spoke to his class during undergrad, the program had stayed in the back of his mind. He applied and was accepted into the program in 2021.
“What drew me to medicine is what made me want to become an entrepreneur, I wanted to have a tangible and visual impact on the community around me,” he said.
During his time in ESTEEM, Riley showed his entrepreneurial spirit by taking on two startups at the same time. The first was a custom outdoor event furniture startup, BLYTZ, which he ultimately shut down in March of 2022. The second was a startup he co-founded with one of his roommates, called heARsight. heARsight is developing smart glasses which employ existing core technologies to deliver subtitles for d/Deaf and hearing-impaired individuals.
The inspiration for this idea came from Danny Fritz, Riley’s roommate, and heARsight’s CTO. Danny had a close friend who was hard of hearing and heavily relied on lip reading in order to communicate effectively with other individuals. When masking was in effect during the COVID pandemic, Danny noticed that his friend was having an extremely challenging time communicating and thought to himself while watching a movie, “Why can’t we take the subtitles off the screen and bring them into real life?” From there, heARsight was born.
Development of heARsight
Danny and Riley found there are 430 million people worldwide that suffer from hearing loss, and learned the World Health Organization estimates this will increase to 2.5 billion people by 2050. Additionally, they discovered that there is a huge treatment gap in those who currently have hearing loss, with only about 18 percent of people getting treated. Riley explained that there is no definitive reason why there is this treatment gap, but based off of what he has discovered, he concludes it is a combination of the stigma associated with hearing loss and hearing assistance technology, and lack of affordability. Riley explains that heARsight’s product is not seen as a substitute to hearing aids but, rather, a supplement to them.
Once the two discovered the already large – and continually growing – market for their product, they got to work on customer validation and, later, fundraising. During their time at ESTEEM, the two participated in the IDEA Center’s Friday pitches, where they were able to win $1,000 in Proof-of-Concept funds. After achieving this, the two turned their attention to the McCloskey New Venture Competition.
“Potentially participating in McCloskey pushed us to hit different milestones in developing our business model,” he said.
The pair was able to take home $11,000 in cash and in-kind awards from the pitch competition, which allowed them to do the early-stage development work for their startup. Then, heARsight participated in the IDEA Center’s Race to Revenue program in the summer of 2022 and an online accelerator, which provided them with additional funds and helped them to develop relationships with potential customers and various chapters of the Hearing Loss Association of America. Riley and Danny graduated from ESTEEM in May of 2022, and had a decision on what to do next. Would they stay in South Bend and continue the momentum behind their idea, or would they try their luck somewhere else?
They decided to stay in South Bend, and the decision was made easy for Riley once he discovered enFocus’ fellowship program.
“If it wasn’t for enFocus, I wouldn’t have stayed in South Bend,” said Riley.
Riley credits enFocus for allowing him to be an entrepreneur, while also having a steady paycheck and speaks glowingly about all the support he received during his funding round. By the end of 2022, Riley and Danny were able to raise $302 thousand for heARsight, ultimately providing 12-months of runway for him and the startup. Riley has recently transitioned to devoting 65 percent of his time to heARsight and 35 percent to enFocus.
Adversity and Advice
Riley is a perfectionist, which is a difficult trait to have while being an entrepreneur, as a common saying within the entrepreneurship world is “fail fast and fail forward.” However, Riley doesn’t like to fail at all, and has had struggles with overcoming his perfectionist mindset from time to time. Recently, he encountered a setback, which tested his resolve. This setback coincided with significant progress announcements from heARsight’s competitors.
“I thought then and still have to remind myself now that there is no expectation of perfection,” he said. “There is no such thing as the perfect entrepreneur. Everyone has those ‘oh shit’ moments but what defines your success is how your respond to them.”
Riley feels that battling through adversity is character-building, and that it has helped him to become a more well-rounded entrepreneur and person.
“My time management probably doesn’t help, still haven’t completely figured that part out yet,” he said, laughing.
Riley is also an instructor for the Regional Innovation and Startup Education (RISE) Startup Moxie program. He works from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. every morning to shape and influence our region’s young entrepreneurs.
“What attracted me is the same thing that attracted me to entrepreneurship,” he said. “I am able to have a tangible impact on young entrepreneurs and help them in their journey.”
To learn more about Riley and heARsight and to sign up for their product’s waiting list, please follow this link.