Where did the name “Sunu” come from?
The name Sunu is derived from a Mayan word that means ‘colibri’ or hummingbird. The logo represents the hummingbird and our colors represent positivity, willpower and determination. Our branding is inspired on our mission to empower independence, freedom of mobility and harnessing and enhancing human willpower and determination through technology.
How did Sunu get started - what was your inspiration behind the concept?
Marco: I’ve always had a strong passion for creating technology. Growing up, my childhood best friend was fully deaf. We were the same age and grew up closely together. We had a blast creating games accessible for both of us, competing between each other, and crafting all sorts of things. We even built our own sign language. We built such a strong bond that I was the only person he could communicate with profoundly. Over the years, I naturally helped him on many things. We learned official sign language together, I helped him study for exams, and even translated disputes with his parents.
As I grew up I realized that he was not the only person having a hard time living in a world with limited accessibility, so I started to research more on disabilities. I became engaged with multiple local centers for people with disabilities as a volunteer. In my spare time, I learned robotics and won a few competitions starting at 15 years old. When I was 18, I created a device for kids with cerebral palsy. In the span of three years, during college, I built 6 more devices for different disabilities. The last one being the first prototype of the Sunu Band for a local school of kids with blindness. It was after that fulfilling experience with the school, that I decided to start a technology company. The sonar bracelet was our first product.
MassChallenge in Boston, where I was mentoring. I tried the Sunu Band for the first time and it immediately changed my life. I joined the team as their lead mentor for the program and became a co-founder after winning MassChallenge.Fernando: I was born with low vision, I’m legally blind because of albinism. My first and only assistive technology was a hand-held magnifier. I became interested in science and technology through my father, who was a pilot. Growing up around airplanes, and flying with my dad, even though I could never get my pilot’s license, allowed me to feel empowered and that there are really no limitations. After graduation, I received a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. At NIH, I worked with the leading expert in albinism and became active in the community. I then pursued my PhD in Chemistry and went to Harvard to continue my postdoctoral research in Physics in 2006. Soon after, I created my first company. By 2014, I had one of my products acquired. I met Marco in 2014 at the
How did you two meet?
Marco: After winning a pitching competition in Mexico, Reto Zapopan, I decided to spend the award to build a better prototype and attend the MassChallenge accelerator in Boston. I met Fernando there, and after a few meetings I invited him to be part of my mentor team. He got involved with Sunu’s operations more than anyone else, and by the end of the program, we had won the pitching competition and raised $1M in multiple awards. After the competition, I asked Fernando if he would like to join full time as a co-founder. He accepted immediately.
What’s been the #1 challenge you’ve faced while launching your company?
Our number #1 challenge has always been raising capital and meeting investors who recognize the potential for Sunu as both a social impact and high tech company. Most investors are knowledgeable about the size of the problem we are addressing, but at times, it's difficult for them to take in consideration the business opportunity. When it comes to disabilities and assistive technologies, some investors shy away from these opportunities because of certain social stigmas; it's typically viewed as a charitable exercise. These social stigmas fog the business opportunities and potential for high returns that a venture like Sunu is capable of achieving.
You split your time between Mexico and Boston. What is your biggest piece of advice for leading with remote teams?
Fernando: Since I live most of the time in Boston and the rest of the team is in Guadalajara, my biggest advice is to learn how to effectively work and collaborate remotely.
I also advise that teams make diversity and inclusion an integral part of their company’s DNA.
Marco: Having a split operation in two or more countries has challenges that can be more easily solved these days, and benefits that you won’t get otherwise. In our particular case, being a hardware startup, we take advantage of Mexico’s manufacturing ecosystem and highly competitive, yet financially reasonable engineering community. We also take advantage of Boston’s highly developed startup ecosystem and market to conduct our business activities.
It is also important to prioritize communication on all levels. Make sure no one is at a disadvantage and that bonds are happening.
If you could describe each other in one word, what would that be and why?
Fernando: Free spirit. Marco has a strong connection to the earth and is spiritual.
Marco: Wisdom. Fernando is a successful and experienced entrepreneur, but he is also someone who, despite the challenges he has gone through, remains a sensible and humble person.
What was your experience like at Y-Combinator?
Fernando: My experience at Y-Combinator was amazing and very eye-opening on a couple of levels. As a TechStars alum (Boston’12) I’m very familiar with the pressure of going through one the world’s most elite accelerator programs, as I’ve lived through the stress and pressure building to demo day and working with brilliant people in tech and in business. Y-Combinator was unique because it enabled our team to work and live together for over three months. We rented a house in Santa Clara, California which became my home away from home and HQ.
Marco: The experience was hardcore and exciting. We grew as a team and as a business. Coming from MassChallenge and Reto Zapopan, I could say that this was totally a different experience. We had many resources to help us, brilliant minds all over the place, and a laser focus on one thing: revenue. We ended up physically exhausted and mentally drained. However, for what we achieved in three months and how much we grew, it was totally worth it.
What’s your team culture like?
Fernando: The team culture is driven by our vision and mission. Our vision is a world where no human is labeled as ‘disabled’ or treated with pity and discrimination. Rather, everyone is included and embraced as one global community. Our team culture is focused on the pillars of empathy, courage, empowerment, inclusion and respect. We practice empathy towards our customers, partners, and team members, always seeking to understand without prejudice. We practice courage by taking on the hard problems, asking questions and always seeking to improve our work. Finally, we strive to be inclusive to every person regardless of their abilities and we find ways to make our workplace, community and the world more accessible.
Marco: Sunu’s core values are courage, empathy and gratitude. These values drive all aspects of our culture towards our ultimate shared goal: that people with disabilities are truly embraced and fully integrated in our society. Some examples of how we create this culture is by setting goals with deep learnings (stretch quarterly goals, massive action sprints, learning debriefs and team retrospectives), maintaining transparent communication at all levels (work dynamics feedback, company progress, personal performance), caring about individual well-being (well-being monitoring, open discussions/keynotes, perks for personal development), empathy development (volunteering visits to centers, conversations with customers, sensibilization activities), and more.
What is your superpower?
Fernando: My superpower is empathy. I’m naturally empathetic and have found ways to apply my empathy in product design, user experience, user research and sales/business development.
Marco: My superpower is willpower. Many times along my personal and entrepreneurial journey, I’ve faced challenges that seemed impossible at a glance, but one way or the other, I managed to get through. In these moments, my logic, knowledge or emotions didn’t provide a solution.
What’s your kryptonite?
Fernando: Bacon glazed donuts.
Marco: Competitive team video games.
Do you have any other hobbies or things you like to do in your spare time?
Fernando: I love film and media. Video production is one of my favorite hobbies. Being legally blind, the camera is like a giant magnifier and helps bring out the details of the world that I may miss out on. With a colleague and friend, I’ve co-produced and worked on various film projects for his media company including a documentary series called Startup Cuba and Puerto Rico After Maria. I’ve also filmed interviews, one with Tom Stayer, one of the democratic presidential candidates. Most recently I produced a video blog mini-series, partly featured on CNN Health, where I interview and converse with experts, leaders and activists within the blind and low vision community. The goal is to provide information, inspiration and advice to help people who are blind and low vision cope and thrive during the global health pandemic. I also play the guitar and enjoy learning how to code.
Marco: On a daily basis, I meditate at least once a day, read my current book (usually on a soft or hard skill I want to master), watch an episode of an anime series with my wife, watch YouTube (I follow channels entrepreneurship, spirituality, science and hip hop culture, usually competitions), and take a long walk to think.
On a weekly basis, I Latin dance with my wife, break-dance by myself, or train gymnastics at the gym (I used to dance professionally during college). I also spend time with my family, usually for Saturday breakfasts, or hang out with my friends, and work on my personal project. I’m currently crafting a miniature pirate boat.