Meet Shavini Fernando, Founder and CEO of OxiWear

Given only two years to live, she took her health into her own hands

Shavini Fernando took her health into her own hands after she was diagnosed with Eisenmenger syndrome at 33. 

Shavini Fernando with her arm resting on a bookshelf

Fernando is the founder and CEO of OxiWear, a vital-monitoring and emergency-alert accessory worn on the ear. The device can monitor a person’s oxygen levels, notify them when those levels dip too low, and alert the proper medical authorities if need be.

Her health condition came as a result of an untreated atrial septal defect, a birth defect resulting in a hole near the heart. Fernando said she had experienced breathing problems her whole life, yet doctors simply diagnosed her with asthma as a kid. She had seen more than 50 doctors and tried various medications and inhalers before getting to the root of the problem. 

Fernando found out about her atrial septal defect in 2015 from her doctor in Sri Lanka, who at the time told her she only had two years to live. Not willing to accept such a bleak diagnosis, she came to the U.S. to get a second opinion from Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with Eisenmenger syndrome.

Person wearing an OxiWear wearable

"Being a rebel my whole life, I didn't want to let him decide how long I get to live," Fernando said about her doctor in Sri Lanka. "So I told him that just because he is a doctor, he doesn't have the right to decide and tell me how long I get to live and that I will prove him wrong and will be back after two years to meet him."

It’s been five years since Fernando’s diagnosis and she’s thriving physically and professionally. After receiving the news about her Eisenmenger syndrome, she began treatment at Hopkins’ Baltimore facility and taking graduate classes at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Following an incident in 2017 in which Fernando’s face turned blue because of her low oxygen levels, she consulted with her doctors and began developing the OxiWear device.

Quick facts about Shavini Fernando:
Age: 38
From: Kandy, Sri Lanka
Video games she was into as a kid: PAC-MAN, Super Mario, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat.
What’s a key quote or motto you live by?: "Your brain is the CPU to your body and everything that’s happening around you. If you program your brain the way you want through positive and optimistic thoughts, your body and the rest of the universe will work in your favor."

From Sri Lanka to the Nation’s Capital

Raised following the Buddhist religion, Fernando said she was taught to value and be content with all that she has. Despite growing up in an upper-class household equipped with perks like servants and a chauffeur, Fernando said her parents also have taught her to be humble and gracious. Instead of throwing parties on birthdays, her family would donate supplies to less-fortunate families, something Fernando continues to this day.  

"The first chores my mum gave us was to clean the toilets, including the servant's toilets in the house," she shared. "And she said if you can do that you can survive in any part of the world at any level."

Shavini Fernando presenting

A software engineer and technologist by trade, Fernando was no newcomer to the technology world when she began developing OxiWear. As a kid, her father emphasized her studies, so education has always been at the top of mind for her. 

"We had the freedom to study what we wanted, but my parents were very strict when it came to discipline, like all Asian parents," she said.

Fernando recalls some of the first toys she got as a kid being the LEGO Technic kits and Nintendo's Game Boy devices. Long before she even realized she was a technologist, Fernando often was making electronic gadgets and fixing broken devices around the house at a young age.

From receiving her first computer in 1996, Fernando has gone on to earn a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and an international MBA from Edith Cowan University in Australia. Fernando has also acquired a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology, with an emphasis on visual computing from Georgetown.

I would say I’m blessed to have such an awesome team and advisors who're backing me up with my mission.

As a minority woman founder, Fernando said she’s still surprised sometimes to see her white male friends raise more funding than her, while potential investors often tell her to come back when she's able to share some revenue numbers. She said investors sometimes even doubt her extensive portfolio of tech credentials, so she often finds herself trying to convince them of her expertise in this area.

"Sometimes I feel like a convicted criminal while pitching, where they have already decided you are guilty, but still giving you a chance to prove your innocence [even though] they have already decided not to fund us," she shared. 

Despite the doubt, Fernando has been able to carry OxiWear to this point with the limited resources and funding she does have. She’s confident she will bring her product to market, no matter the cost or obstacles she has to overcome.

"It’s frustrating sometimes, but I’m known for my perseverance in my work and life," she said. "Just like I was able to surpass the two year lifeline that was given to me."

OxiWear Saved Her Life, and May Save Others

At OxiWear, Fernando is on a mission to reduce patient vulnerability to hypoxic injury through wearable, continuous oxygen monitoring that will ultimately increase safety and peace of mind. 

She decided to launch her tech startup in D.C. for various reasons, one being the fact that she’s unable to take flights due to her condition, so she’s confined to the area. Another reason is that she’s built a large network of supporters in the D.C. region, both from studying at Georgetown and participating in local pitch competitions. She also needs to stay close to Johns Hopkins.

Isometric 3D model of OxiWear stored in a carrying case

While still overseeing much of the software development process, Fernando has a team of seven employees behind her, some of whom have taken over the hardware engineering of the device. On having a small team, Fernando said that "although there is a hierarchy in positions, there’s no hierarchy when it comes to work," meaning everyone has been doing their part to bring OxiWear to market.

"The whole team has been supportive and been working without a pay [since the pandemic started] to get the work done so that we can reach our milestones," Fernando shared. "I would say I’m blessed to have such an awesome team and advisors who're backing me up with my mission."

It’s frustrating sometimes, but I’m known for my perseverance in my work and life.

Fernando said running a hardware startup poses a bigger challenge than your typical tech startup. Hardware costs more to develop than software and non-tech products, she says, so bringing the product to market has been challenging. And with the lack of funding support, she’s doing this all while being bootstrapped.

Since building the first OxiWear prototype in 2018, Fernando is working on bringing the vital monitoring device to market in Spring 2021. Without much funding support, she’s relying on pre-revenue funding to complete the product. Despite the challenges, Fernando is confident that OxiWear will change health outcomes for years to come.

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