Moniker magic: The adventurous world of naming a startup

As a proud Colombian, Maria Artunduaga, M.D., wanted her startup to have a Spanish name that could easily be pronounced in English. Since she was focused on building a technology to predict the deterioration of lung function, Artunduaga picked the name Respira Labs ("respira" means "to breathe" in Spanish). 

But, after being profiled in the media in 2022, the company received a cease-and-desist letter from a law firm on behalf of Respira Therapeutics, maker of inhaled therapies for cardiopulmonary diseases. It had a trademark and was ready to enforce it, demanding that Artunduaga stop using the name Respira.

Maria Artunduaga of Samay
Maria Artunduaga, founder and CEO of Samay (Maria Artunduaga)

Artunduaga was familiar with the company. “We just never thought people would come after us,” she told Fierce Healthcare. “At the time, I was very scared.” 

After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a co-existence agreement, Artunduaga decided fighting wasn’t worth it. Respira Labs rebranded to Samay ("to breathe deeply" in Quechua). “I was heartbroken, of course, because I had grown attachment to a name,” Artunduaga said.

Then, another hurdle: was not an available domain. Artunduaga hired a broker to try to buy it from the existing owner and was willing to offer up to $10,000. “It’s all about budgeting,” Artunduaga said. “We don’t have a lot of money.” But she never heard back. So Artunduaga picked 

Every founder has a different story to tell about naming a startup. Two main approaches exist: Do it yourself or outsource help. Some may feel it is important to establish early on. Others feel they have higher priorities. Founders must also decide whether and when to pursue a trademark, buy a domain name and secure social media handles. 

For some or all parts of that process, they may hire a lawyer. In fact, on its FAQ page, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office itself says it’s the smart thing to do. But it all comes down to what founders can afford. 

The unexpected and nonlinear nature of naming

More than 80% of customers say trusting a brand is the main deciding factor in their purchase decisions. When customers feel connected to a brand, more than half increase their spending with it and three-quarters will buy from it over a competitor. A McKinsey analysis from 2013 found that B2B companies with a strong brand outperformed those without one by 20% in EBT margin. 

“It seems sometimes like a trivial thing, a name, but there’s a lot to it for sure when done right,” said Chris Gallagher, M.D., CEO of telemedicine solutions company Access TeleCare. 

Chris Gallagher of Access TeleCare
Chris Gallagher, CEO of Access TeleCare (Access TeleCare)

Back in 2011, Gallagher was overseeing a multispecialty telemedicine practice. “Like most entrepreneurs starting out, we had no funding … no board, no advisers, and were totally winging it,” Gallagher recalled.

Due to a paperwork snafu with their lawyer, what was meant to be the description of the company ended up as its registered name: Onsite Physician Coverage Services, PLLC. “It’s probably one of the worst names, like, possibly ever,” Gallagher said. To make the best of it, the company nicknamed itself Onsite for short.

“All the details matter,” Gallagher said. “You have to be agile and creative to deal with the consequences of the decisions you make or the results of what you delegate.” 

"ChatGPT is actually an incredible tool to support that conversation. You want to really provide a lot of guardrails." — Kenji Health CEO Nora Hackmann

Some, like Harry Ritter, the founder of practice software company Alma, might not immediately realize all the potential uses of a name. When Ritter’s attorney asked if he had incorporated the business yet for tax purposes, “I was embarrassed to say 'No, I didn’t know I needed to do that,'” Ritter recalled. 

Ritter previously worked at Oscar Health, formerly known as Mulberry Health. (The name was officially changed in 2021.) Mulberry had been a working title when the company first incorporated, inspired by the name of the street running behind its first office in Manhattan, co-founder Mario Schlosser told Fierce Healthcare.

To register the business, Ritter decided to borrow from the Mulberry idea; he chose the name of a street in Israel that he liked. It wasn’t until after Alma’s first seed round that he began the process of figuring out an official name. “It would’ve been cost-prohibitive without our investment,” Ritter noted.

Eventually, Ritter and his team worked with a branding agency to compile a list of possible names. Prioritizing a name invoking “humanism,” they sought feedback from friends and early clients and settled on Alma ( "soul" in several languages, "world" in Aramaic). “It was one of the more fun parts of starting a business,” Ritter said. 

Lisa Gurry, chief growth officer at real-world data company Truveta, agrees. “The startup experience is quite fun and interesting,” Gurry said. Truveta comes from “truth” and “veta” (Sanskrit for "knowledge"), and originated as a code name when it was still a project being conceived at Providence. Like Alma, Truveta would also eventually work with a branding agency to bring its identity to life.

"I really think that the name is, in some ways, the most important piece of brand development.” — Amy Dowell, startup creator at Redesign Health

Kenji Health, a startup building an AI companion to combat pediatric obesity, has yet to engage a branding agency or apply for a trademark. “As a super scrappy startup, we have a clear order of priorities,” co-founder and CEO Nora Hackmann told Fierce Healthcare. That includes building out its technology, landing customers and collecting evidence that Kenji meaningfully impacts outcomes. 

Nora Hackmann of Kenji Health
Nora Hackmann, founder and CEO of Kenji Health (Nora Hackmann)

After identifying her company values and mission, Hackmann leveraged the very technology her company is working on—AI. She fed her parameters into ChatGPT: four to six letters, two syllables, starts with a high-value Scrabble letter, embodies empathy. She tried different languages. She tried different prompts, like what are the pros and cons of using a certain name with an American audience. Eventually, Kenji came up ("healthy child" in Japanese). 

“ChatGPT is actually an incredible tool to support that conversation,” Hackmann said. “You want to really provide a lot of guardrails.” She also ran the name by friends who work in communications or speak Japanese before incorporating and securing the domain name.

Once the business amasses enough customers and is growing, Hackmann can put more thought into a name that resonates with users, perhaps through A/B testing. Until then, she doesn’t feel like the first iteration is the most important thing to worry about. “Don’t over-engineer it,” Hackmann said.

Legally sound: Navigating trademarks, brand identity 

It can be difficult to understand what some company names mean. But entrepreneurs are passionate about them, as evidenced by a popular Fierce Healthcare callout on the subject on LinkedIn and a post on X

What is Health Recovery Solutions today started out as Basic Health. “When I was raising funding I was given feedback, people don’t want to invest in something with the name Basic,” founder Jarrett Bauer commented on the post.

Augmedix comes from “augmenting” and “medics.” Curally comes from "cura" in Latin, “care” and “ally.” Carna Health takes its name after a Roman goddess, protector of vital organs. Nabla comes from a mathematical symbol commonly used in machine learning. Boulder Care represents the heavy weight of addiction. BobiHealth stands for “baby on board” and (artificial) “intelligence.” 

According to one expert, there are more things to consider than just a meaning. Amy Dowell leads marketing, communications and community at startup creator Redesign Health and has overseen brand development for more than 30 brands. Redesign takes a methodological approach to naming.

“It kind of set the beacon for where we wanted to be in the market. No one knew how to pronounce Airbnb when it first launched." — Lauren Pasquale Bartlett, CMO at Ingenovis

A name is the only part of a brand that you can both see visually and hear audibly. “I really think that the name is, in some ways, the most important piece of brand development,” Dowell said.

Redesign begins by looking at a company’s research on its target audience. It is then paired with the goals and mission of a company.  “When you do that work, it really makes the naming process more objective,” Dowell said. “If you can root it in brand strategy, which is also rooted in customer research, then that makes it really just a more effective exercise.” 

Then, Redesign comes up with a list of 200 or more potential names for one company. It considers its sound, its message, whether it fosters a positive association. It then narrows it down to about 20 names, at which point the trademark risk assessment begins. Redesign uses free databases like Trademarkia before engaging a law firm to run a more formal check and make sure there are no potential conflicts. 

The list eventually gets narrowed further, to about 10 names. Redesign then also comes up with strong, available domain options before looping in the company founders. At that point, choosing a name becomes pretty subjective. But there are a few rules Dowell generally follows. 

Shorter and simpler is usually better. A name doesn’t have to be literal. A pleasing rhythm or sound also matters. “How does it roll off the tongue? That is not something that we can quantify … but you kind of know it when you see it, when you hear it,” Dowell said. 

But an unexpected name can really have an impact. 

“I think sometimes the safe approach for leaders, founders, is to maybe select a name that feels safer,” Dowell said. “I think that the brands that take a chance and take a little bit more risk and try to stand out a bit more do a better job of creating that memorability.” 


Biotech naming trends bypass 'buzzwords and business speak' to build whimsical, memorable brands

Ingenovis Health, formed in 2021 out of a merger, took just that route. Working with attorneys, it spent about six months rebranding. 

“You could be in love with the name on Monday and by Friday, you find out the trademark’s not available, the domain’s not available—it’s just not going to work,” Lauren Pasquale Bartlett, chief marketing officer at Ingenovis, told Fierce Healthcare.

Ingenovis comes from the Latin words “ingeniosus” (clever), “novis” (new) and “vis” (power). Leadership wasn’t concerned about possible mispronunciation (in-GEN-ovis), Pasquale Bartlett said. They felt confident that as their popularity grew as a business, enough people would hear it to know the correct way to say it.

“It kind of set the beacon for where we wanted to be in the market,” Pasquale Bartlett noted. “No one knew how to pronounce Airbnb when it first launched.” 

Though a business might be fine using a name without pursuing a trademark, it is more risky, Marc Bonora, general counsel and chief compliance officer at Ingenovis, says. Securing a trademark is always the safest choice. In healthcare, where things are highly regulated and investors want protection, it is also the more common route.

“It is hard to be as thorough if you’re doing it yourself,” Bonora said. “Definitely the advice is to get professional help to do it.”

Companies with the same name in completely separate industries might each be able to secure their own trademark. In general, generic names are harder to trademark. But if a name is completely arbitrary with no relation to the product being sold, like Apple, “that gives it a little more stickiness,” Bonora said.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office maintains two separate registers. The Principal Register is for distinctive trademarks that are fully protected. The Supplemental Register offers more limited benefits and protections for all other names. Trademarks also need to be maintained.

Once a trademark is granted, which can take weeks or months, it’s important to start using it. If a name is dormant, “then it’s easier to challenge,” Bonora said. “Once you get registered, you want to have it on your website.” A press release announcing the name might be prudent, he added.

“It’s not just market education, but it’s employee engagement as well that you’re going for,” Pasquale Bartlett said. “You want folks to believe in your vision.”