Local entrepreneurs win One Spark competition, look for investors
By DARWIN WEIGEL firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @somd_bizeditor
Ma y 6, 2016
trio of local inventors are trying to change the way nurses and other medical staff learn their craft and develop the hands-on skills needed for patient care.
B & G Educational Innovations, a recent winner of $120,000 in Microsoft support and services at the One Spark competition in Jacksonville, Fla., is developing a set of wearable simulators that will allow students to learn and practice skills such as drawing blood, inserting catheters and testing blood sugar with realistic feedback and a way to log performance for later review.
Registered nurse and educator Linda C. Goodman of La Plata teamed up with fellow educators Elizabeth and Jim Benson of Indian Head a year ago after an “inter-professional” medical simulation Goodman hosted at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata Campus where all three teach.
“Liz and Jim were kind enough to be volunteer patients,” Goodman said. “At some point we had to do IVs. All we had were plastic arms and we sat one up next to Jim. As a student was sticking an arm, Jim yells ‘Ouch!’”
“You should have seen the expression on that person’s face,” Elizabeth Benson added.
“The expression and the lack of realism with the fake arm was just so apparent. Even Jim, who’s not a nurse, recognized it,” Goodman said.
That weekend the Bensons and Goodman were spending time together as friends when talk turned to what had happened at the simulation event.
“We said, ‘We need something better,’ and that’s literally how it started,” Elizabeth said. “So, while we were talking, I got on Amazon and ordered a tattoo sleeve [meant for covering tattoos]. We ordered some other things that we could play with and came up with a few designs very quickly. We realized, talking about it and researching it, that there really aren’t any [devices] like this anywhere else. If we need them this desperately as end users, other people just like us need them, too.”
The wearable sleeves, gloves and bibs contain veins and arteries — including fake blood — that will have sensors that can produce responses as well as log information about how the procedure was done, Goodman said. The person wearing it plays the role of a patient, possibly a reluctant one, that the student has to deal with while performing the procedure.
Currently, mannequins and other devices are used for training — but usually with minimal or no patient feedback. Goodman, who was a nurse for 35 years before turning to teaching, said that feedback is an important missing link that can lead to better interpersonal communication skills, which results in better patient care.
“That’s what this is all about — better skilled and trained nurses when they graduate and better communication to the patient,” Jim Benson added.
“It’s to enhance simulation training. You can’t really replace [mannequins] completely, but this fills the gap,” Elizabeth said.
The start-up business is currently headquartered at the Bensons’ home in Indian Head, where decisions are made and ideas are discussed around the dining room table. Advisors currently include Goodman’s son, Nicholas Goodman, an accountant in Northern Virginia, as well as a patent attorney headquartered in New York.
Since presenting at the One Spark competition in early April, where they convinced five venture capitalist judges that their innovation was worthy of investment interest, they’ve been setting up meetings with potential investors and honing their sales pitch.
“We did trademark the product line. It’s called ReaLifeSim,” Goodman said. “That way if anybody decides they want to buy the business at some point, they can buy the product line and we’ll still maintain the Educational Innovations.”
“We have provisional patents on these items and it was our patent attorney, who has an office in New York and in Jacksonville, that made us aware of this One Spark competition down there, which we didn’t even know those things existed,” Jim said.
With their alpha testing completed they’re currently looking for a round of funding to carry them through prototyping and beta testing, then into manufacturing and distribution.
“We’re looking for $500,000 to get through beta testing, product development and to the Series A [preferred stock] to go up to commercial,” Elizabeth said. “That’s about an eight-month burn rate. And 79 percent of that is in product development, manufacturing and distribution.” She said they’ve been interviewing product engineers and hope to have prototypes sometime this summer.
The $120,000 One Spark prize is expected to cover development of a website and cloud computing that will be part of the student performance review aspect. Students using the devices will type in a code to show them everything that happened during the simulation.
“And the cost we’re looking at for the universal set . . . the cost is less, after manufacturing, of a textbook,” Elizabeth said. “Your average textbook is $250 to $350. This is going to be $250 or less for those devices. That’s the price point. We really need to keep it inexpensive so they get the value of it.”
The relatively fast-paced move from a friendly conversation a year ago to pitching for large cash infusions from venture capitalists has immersed the educators in the language of business. Goodman’s background is in nursing, Jim spent a career as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Air Force and has taught communication classes at CSM for the last ten years, and Elizabeth spent most of her career in the classroom as a health sciences instructor.
“To prepare for this, I took an online class in entrepreneurship and business modeling,” Elizabeth said, talking about the pitch she made at One Spark. “As a nurse educator I knew nothing about this.”
Since the success at One Spark, the three have gained more confidence that the business is coming together. Products may be available sometime in 2017. Health educators and hospital organizations have already expressed interest in the wearable simulators, Elizabeth said.
“If we know we need them, somebody else has recognized they need them, too,” Elizabeth said. “First on the market is going to make a difference.”
“I’m kind of the pessimist of the group sometimes,” Goodman said, “but every time we go in front of these groups [of investors], no one’s ever told us it’s not going to work. Everybody says yes. No one has said no.”
“We’re optimistic that it’s just a matter of making the right connection,” Jim added.
“We’ve had people say ‘I can’t right now’ or ‘Not yet,’” Elizabeth said. “It’s not a ‘no,’ it’s get it to the next step and come talk to us. So that’s what we’re going to do. It’s going to happen.”