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There are a number of parallels – perhaps coincidences – between the businesses started by Alex Cook and Michelle Ridsdale. Both are healthcare-related. Both draw on personal, “lived-in” experience. Both businesses were founded in 2021. And, of course, both founders are Herbert Smith Freehills alumni.

Alex Cook is the co-founder of Samphire Neuroscience. The company is about to launch a truly innovative product – a medical device that targets pain and mood symptoms associated with chronic women’s health conditions, such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder and premenstrual syndrome. The headband uses low-current electrical pulses to stimulate certain parts of the brain to modulate pain sensations and stabilise mood. The underlying technology is already being used to assist people suffering from depression and has been extensively studied, but this is the first application of it for women’s health. Alex founded the company alongside his partner (both business and personal), Emilė Radyte, who is a neuroscientist.

Michelle Ridsdale has developed an app called Kaboose, which offers a safe space for the autistic and neurodiverse community to connect with peers around interests and find friends, mentors and jobs.

Michelle joined Freehills (as was) in 2004. Coming from a HR background, she was attracted by the idea of working for Freehills, which had recently merged with a patent firm, as HR manager for the patents and trademarks practice across Australia. Naturally interested in technical things, the role also appealed to the technophile in her. As with Alex, she liked the problem-solving aspect of the particular practice and the culture of the firm.

After being with Freehills between 2004 and 2007 (she left because of an internal reorganisation which would have meant being based in the Sydney office, which didn’t suit her). Michelle has since had a number of other roles, including being chief people officer with Envato, a community for creative people, and national diversity and inclusion manager for KPMG. She also qualified as a coach.

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Alex Cook
Alumnus of Perth office
2019 - 2020

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Michelle Ridsdale
Alumna of Melbourne office
2004 - 2007

The motivation for Michelle to start Kaboose was a highly personal one. Her son is autistic and her daughter, as well as being autistic, has also been diagnosed with ADHD. Michelle saw the impact that this was having on her son’s schooling and, in particular, his ability to find friends. Her son felt excluded, and she saw a need to create a place where autistic and neurodiverse people could belong – what she calls “finding your tribe”.

She also recognised that these challenges of social isolation would carry through to the workplace. “It struck me that the social part is such a big part of a workplace, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to make and find your tribe before becoming an adult, then it makes it much more difficult from a mental health perspective,” she says. “Often, we find our tribe at work or through a shared interest. And if these kids don’t have that opportunity, that can leave them isolated.”

Her solution was to develop an app, knowing that apps are the most effective form of linking people – particularly her children’s generation. Michelle had absolutely no experience of designing or developing an app. However, she found a software engineer and also tapped into the local university in Melbourne, who provided extra support.

One problem that she hadn’t anticipated and which set her back was the effective theft of the name that she first proposed for the app, Tribefinder. She was in the process of registering the name as a trademark, when she was approached by someone on LinkedIn, who found out that the name had not been registered. That person deceived Michelle into expressing interest when his real intention was to register the name and then attempt to charge her to buy it off him.

Michelle didn’t succumb and came up with the alternative name of Kaboose, drawing on the idea of the caboose, which is the last car on a freight train where the train crew congregates to relax.

Alex had a somewhat unusual introduction and time at Freehills. Having studied commerce at university (in Western Australia), he switched to law after working as a transcript officer in the law courts and becoming interested. He was also drawn to the world of legaltech and, while at university, took the initiative to set up a club for law students to learn more about legal technology. He wrote his thesis on the commercial strategy for engaging with regulators on the impact of technology as it applied to law.

He then put his theory into practice, helping start a financial technology company called Bamboo, which developed proprietary mechanisms for investing in alternative assets, including cryptocurrencies. When Bamboo was acquired by a PE company (a deal in which Herbert Smith Freehills advised), Alex pondered his next move and did some academic research and consulting, including with the Australia Tax Office. It was this that brought him into contact with Freehills. He discovered that Freehills had – at the time - a legal technology joint venture with IBM, working on emerging legal technologies. To Alex, the Freehills team working on that joint venture seemed like a great example of how lawyers could effectively work on emerging technologies, and very unique in the market at that time.

Seizing an opportunity, Alex agreed to join that team, but, in discussions with managing partner Tony Joyner, said he would like to qualify as a solicitor at the same time. After this was agreed, he joined the Perth office in February 2019 and settled immediately in the commercial and technology practice group. Working directly under then Global Head of Digital Law Natasha Blycha, Alex was involved in establishing the firm’s Digital Law Group. After the joint venture completed, and the Digital Law Group was established, and encouraged by both Tony and Natasha, Alex felt it was time to set his horizons a bit wider, leaving in September 2020.

Alex’s wider horizons took him to Oxford University to study for a master’s in both law and finance. He gained more than another academic qualification. He found himself neighbours with Emilė. Together, they pursued her idea to set up Samphire Neuroscience (so-named because samphire is shaped like a neuron, the parts of the brain targeted by the headband, and also because samphire grows best in salty terrains, and the way the product makes a channel for electricity is through ionised salts). The company was founded in September 2021.

Alex’s role in the company is to manage the technical product development teams across many regulated domains and countries, using his legal, financial and entrepreneurial skills. They have a manufacturing partner in London. As with any new product, there are myriad issues to deal with, but this is particularly so when it comes to new medical devices. Alex leads the company’s engagement with regulators across the EU, UK and US. This has followed months of tests and controlled trials to make sure not just that the headband works but is completely safe to use. He also manages relationships with core external stakeholders, such as the world’s largest medical device investor (who is on their cap table), as well as government grant bodies.

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Alex says: “I am not a woman, obviously, and I am not a neuroscientist, so it is really important that I listen more than I speak. At the same time, I have a lot of operational, regulatory and technical expertise that I can give to the cause, and I get a lot of meaning out of working on something that I know is impactful and deeply needed.”

For Michelle, she has had to tap into the expertise of others to push her business forward.

In particular, she has worked with product developers, working from the sketches she drew up. An absolute priority has been to ensure data security and protection from potential abusers.

Having said that, she finds herself handling product strategy, project management and fundraising, among other things. Michelle is funding the business herself at the moment, but is hoping at some stage to attract investors and/or to be able to monetise the app. She is not looking to charge individual users, but to get support from employers. “More and more employers are recognising the need to have neurodiverse workforces, and so that should give scope to support my app.”

She may be pushing at an open door there: many businesses, including Herbert Smith Freehills, take neurodiversity seriously and are putting appropriate policies in place. Another potentially good source would be national health services.

Meantime, Michelle is getting the word out about the app. She is using podcasts and social media, and is gaining traction not least because of the authenticity of her story. “I also find that videos of animals and small children do well!” she jokes.

For Alex, marketing involves specific targeting. “As a pre-market medical device, a lot of our community and patient engagement is happening through our partner clinics. We’re involved in five different clinical trials across the world. Emilė is also extremely active within the local women’s health and scientific communities.”

Both reflect on how useful their time was at Herbert Smith Freehills and the skills they gained to equip them as they embarked on their business ventures. Michelle says, “Working at Freehills, specifically in the IP area, gave me a fantastic insight into innovation and the IP process. Having this knowledge as an entrepreneur is extremely valuable. As the people manager for the department, I was also exposed to presenting to executives and senior partners, which has helped my confidence to pitch Kaboose to investors and others.”

Alex adds: “From my time with Freehills, I gained attention to detail, problem-solving, a strong work ethic and not being fazed when dealing with regulators! However, the real secret sauce I got from working at Freehills is that the people at the top of the organisation, were not just brilliant lawyers but were able to seamlessly add commerciality on top, to really deliver what businesses require.”

There are obstacles to overcome, not least the disruptions the aftermath of a global pandemic, or complex geopolitical structures, can play on hardware supply chains. But Alex has taken these steps in his stride, motivated by the entrepreneurial drive that he and Emilė have developed a truly groundbreaking product that has the potential to help literally millions of women worldwide.

Michelle, too, is driven to succeed, in her case inspired to help those who have been excluded from mainstream settings draw comfort from linking with others and lead connected lives, particularly in the workplace.

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Both say that, as their business could consume their every waking hour, it is important to relax. So how do they switch off? Alex: “Apart from the obvious ones of exercise, trying to eat right and not drink too much coffee (I’m succeeding or failing on all three of those to various degrees, depending on the intensity levels at Samphire), I’ve always been motivated by building new things. I try and do that in my downtime as well. I’m currently working on designing a smart mirror that incorporates facial recognition, generative AI and a number of environmental sensors to control things in the house.”

Michelle: “I am very fortunate that my brain is able to compartmentalise, which is helpful because I have plenty going on with the children. I try to walk the dog a couple of times a day. I have made a pact with myself to get out to nature at least once a month. We are fortunate in that we live in Hampton in Melbourne within easy reach of the beach.”

One final coincidence is that Michelle was also thinking of developing a wearable headband to help those with autism. Perhaps Alex and Michelle should collaborate!

Advice for others

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Michelle: “I’d really encourage people to make sure they have good self-care practices and support around them. Managing a startup, particularly without a co-founder means it’s hard to take a break in the early stages. You need to be really passionate about what you’re building as it does consume a lot of your waking (and sometimes sleeping!) hours.

I’d also recommend leaning into the network groups and skill building workshops in the functional areas that you’re not as comfortable with. You want to make sure you know how to ‘do’ before you outsource to someone else (where practical of course!)”

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Alex: “Make friends with scientists, engineers, artists and others who don’t share your ways of working or thinking. It will be easiest to work in law, with other lawyers, but the hardest (and in my view, most fun) problems require a multidisciplinary approach.”


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