As we have discussed on many occasions on the Healing Innovation blog, most clinicians have a drive to improve medicine. Many clinicians come up with great ideas in the course of their work. They see a problem that needs to be solved, and a better way to do something that can improve the implementation method, outcomes for patients, or both. Unfortunately, many of these medical professionals that have great ideas, do not know where to begin to put these ideas into action and ultimately into a product. Of course anyone can look online for information on how to start a business, however it always seems easier “read” than done.
The hardest part is starting… For me, examples of peers that have been able to move from idea to action can be both motivational and educational.
The case of Ronda Collier and her company, SweetWater Health LLC, recently came to my attention. After years of wanting to start a medical technology company, Ronda finally conceived and implemented a 3-step formula to get things moving
Step 1: Clinical Need
Step 2: Research
Step 3: Create a Team/Build a Product
Step 1: Clinical Need – This is where Ronda described the problem that needed to be solved and proposed a solution.
The clinical need Ronda has been aiming to solve is lack of awareness of acute or chronic stress, anxiety or depression. According to Ronda, “Awareness is the first step in changing anything in our lives – relationships, health, happiness – ‘we can’t fix it if we don’t know it is broken’. Our brains are giant filters receiving input information from our five senses, as well as our emotions and programmed reactions. If sensory information becomes too familiar, the brain filters it out. This filter serves its purpose by keeping our minds from becoming too overwhelmed by all the sensory information around us (i.e. the fabric on our skin, glasses on your nose, the hum of the hard drive, etc.). But for this reason, we lose sight of our inner condition. In order to assist one in becoming healthier, an objective tool is needed to monitor the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and thus bring awareness to something the brain was otherwise filtering.”
Ronda adds, “Also, repetition of thoughts, actions and feelings cause the neurons in the brain to ‘wire’ in a way that strengthens these ways of being and feeling. Neurons that fire together wire together. When we become aware of condition, be it stress, anxiety or depression, we can begin to make choices to change our behavior and thus change the wiring of these neurons to support a healthier, happier life.”
Ronda’s solution is to have a device that monitors an individual and generates alerts when stress or anxiety increase. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a well researched, non-invasive method for assessing the ANS. This same device could measure chronic stress and anxiety as well as depressive states. It could upload the information to a database for the individual or doctor to review and, in the case of a treatment regime, track progress.
Step 2: Research – Once her problem and solution were defined, Ronda focused on heavily researching her topic of interest.
For three years prior to the founding of SweetWater, Ronda worked as an independent scholar researching non-invasive health monitoring techniques to improve overall personal well being. Most of her research came from The National Institute of Health and The American Heart Association, both of which have plenty of free research articles available online.
Ronda focused her attention on what she perceived to be the weakest link in health: stress. According to some of the top medical research facilities in the world, stress is responsible for more than 90% of all disease. It turns out that stress can be easily measured non-invasively using HRV, which is used to assess the state of the ANS. The nervous system dynamically controls the responses of the body to a range of external and internal stimuli, providing physiological stability; the state of the nervous system will reflect perturbations to the body. Therefore, measuring the nervous system (via HRV) and providing easy to understand feedback is a good way to objectively measure and understand your nervous system. Because stress and anxiety are associated with the “fight or flight” response, and this response goes hand in hand with the state of the ANS, HRV is an easy choice method for measuring stress. In addition, abundant clinical studies have established HRV as a method for detecting stress, anxiety and depression, as well as a plethora of other diseases, making it an excellent metric for measuring many common afflictions.
The other important piece of the product was the measuring device. It needed to be affordable, wireless and utilize sensors that could be purchased by anyone. The proliferation of mobile computing platforms such as smart phones and tablets combined with the rapid evolution of biosensors that work with these phones and tablets, allow inexpensive continuous health monitoring for individuals.
Ronda researched the nervous system and heart rate variability, mobile platforms and associated heart rate monitors and developed a novel algorithm to detect stress from HRV. She now had the major components to provide individuals and health professionals with a tool for monitoring and tracking vital signs associated with stress.
Step 3: Create a Team/Build a Product – Finally, Ronda needed to build a team, start a company and launch her product.
For most clinicians, the most daunting part of the process is actually starting a company. Where do you begin? Ronda spent several years wanting to create a stress detection product. How did she actually overcome inertia and get going? She recounts what happened:
“I had the idea for a while and was unconsciously waiting for someone to come and offer me money to do this. A series of events led me to a book by Loral Langemeier. In this book she wrote about “lazy assets”, assets that many of us have for “safety” and are not putting to use to increase our wealth or jump start our business. A light bulb went on for me. I had some technology stock that had been sitting doing nothing for 12 years. If I sold that stock then I would have the money to get my stress detection app developed. Once I decided to put my money where my mouth was, the wheels were in motion and what followed came relatively easy.”
Many of you are wondering, how do you attract a viable team with very little funds? Ronda explains how she did it: “Having worked in high tech for decades, I had a lot of connections from past jobs. In addition, many of my friends are established professionals. Once I decided to do this, people literally started showing up. I ran into one of our co-founders in the park who had just left her job. Boom, employee #2! I emailed some of my old team asking for a part time engineer who could develop an app, I now had employee #3. Next I ran into a friend from undergrad who had just left her job and suddenly I had another co-founder and employee. 9 or our 10 employees came from word of mouth or meeting people and asking if they would like to get involved in a ground level startup. As for the 10th person, we put an ad in Craig’s List for a programmer and found someone to fit our budget and technical requirements. Many people are excited about startups and small teams, not to mention the early equity. It is easier than imagined to gather a part time team.”
After assembling this team of engineers, marketers and creative geniuses, Ronda founded SweetWater Health in February 2011. “When you have the team on board, what follows is similar to working at any of your ‘regular’ jobs. If you have assembled a team of experienced professionals, each of you knows what to do. Since it is likely that you will be virtual for quite a while, it is important to setup regular weekly face to face meetings. We have a weekly marketing and a weekly engineering meeting. Also, it is very important that you pick up the phone when decisions need to be made. Email is not the best choice when working in remote locations”.
“Once you come up with a company name, do a search at the United States Patent and Trademark Office http://www.uspto.gov/ to make sure that name is not used in your line of business. Once you have a name that seems to work, you can use any online services to form an LLC or Corporation. We used Legal Zoom.”
The result of this process culminated in Sweetwater Health™, a mobile health software technology company bringing cost effective health diagnostic and management solutions to consumers and health professionals. The SweetWater Health mobile applications and secure vital signs database form the basis for their diagnostic and preventative health analysis platform.
By combining her knowledge of research, engineering and psychology, Ms. Collier and her team at SweetWater created their first product, SweetBeat, which facilitates continuous monitoring of stress levels through a patented learning algorithm.
SweetBeat is an app for the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch and uses consumer heart rate monitors such as Polar or Garmin to collect heart information needed to calculate HRV. Real-time stress-level measurements provide generative feedback for users to assess and modify behaviors to reduce stress. SweetBeat brings what is familiar and comfortable to a place that can be examined; empirical measurement using inexpensive, easily accessed and non-invasive tools bypasses the brain filter with objective data. The data is then uploaded to the secure and private MySweetBeat web-based application for reviewing, tracking and sharing.
While there are many intermediate steps along the way, Ronda followed a simple 3-step plan. Once she had a need, she started her research. The research effort that Ronda put into understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV) allowed her to more comprehensively define the clinical need and ensure her solution was the optimal approach. And with the research, vision and determination, she built a team and developed a product. I hope the SweetWater Health experience provides an impetus for other clinicians to investigate the burgeoning field of personal, mobile medicine and instills clinical innovators with the drive to make their ideas into medical solutions.
For more information on SweetWater Health or SweetBeat please visit www.beathealthy.com
Special thanks to Radostina Stoycheva for providing the content to this posting.