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The COVID Effect: When a Public Health Crisis Spurs an I-Corps Pivot

The COVID pandemic has made a lasting impact on many facets of the public health arena. For Adam Ryason, founder of Intelligent Medicine, the demands of the battle against COVID led to a crucial pivot in the evolution of his business concept towards creating a product that can help to identify and mitigate the risks of airborne pathogens.

While pursuing his Mechanical Engineering PhD at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Ryason was exploring opportunities for medical training simulators, with applications for surgical procedures and operating room (OR) environments. Ryason started looking more closely at how such technology could impact training for endotracheal intubation, which is used to administer general anesthesia, along with numerous other medical needs.

“I did regional I-Corps with RPI for the first time to see if the types of simulations and training that I was working on could potentially have a commercial application,” Ryason said. Ryason said his team started to create a virtual airway simulator that would help with training for the tracheotomy procedure. He continued to evolve the device throughout 2019.

And then, COVID hit.

“COVID obviously had a very big impact on anesthesia and medical services involving airways, said Ryason. “With that growing need, we pivoted into understanding the spread of aerosols—when particles are dispersed into the air—from procedures such as the tracheotomy. Suddenly there was a hyper-focus on what is the spread, what is the risk to people in the operating room? We wanted to pivot to help slow or stop the spread of COVID.”

Ryason took the tack of exploring whether, if there were not protections in place, how far the spread of an aerosolized particle would be, in the OR, or any room in a hospital environment.

“Initially we focused on the surgical environment,” said Ryason. “We found early interest in that from the anesthesiologists and nurses, but we got far more interest from the rest of the hospital. They said the OR is a very contained and controlled environment, but there’s much more interaction and risk in the rest of the healthcare setting. We wanted to explore whether we could identify where in a hospital presents the highest chance of transmission, and how does that affect the most vulnerable populations, whether cancer patients, children, or the elderly.”

“That’s when we proposed Circulate,” added Ryason. “That’s our beachhead product; we take in a given building model, including mechanical and HVAC, take occupancy data, and simulate how spread may occur in those situations.”

From further customer discovery of another 112 interviews during the summer of 2022, Ryason learned that what was desired was an early detection tool, which sparked an exploration of a real-time simulation embedded into the building. With that concept, he participated in the national I-Corps in 2022, focusing his further customer discovery on clinical stakeholders and building management.

With feedback from their first, unsuccessful SBIR application, the Intelligent Medicine team created a design and building management tool to that would enable hospital staff to both better understand their environment and make more informed protocol and design changes. He resubmitted the tool—what became Circulate—for SBIR consideration in November 2021 and received the SBIR award in 2022.

Intelligent Medicine’s team currently comprises Ryason and three engineers—two research scientists and one developer focused on the application. He is also utilizing several New York State resources, including the incubator at SUNY Albany.

Ryason described several important lessons from his I-Corps experiences. “One big takeaway was the value of casting a wide net before really focusing,” Ryason added. “Finding the right people can be very difficult. Our first 40-50 interviews were just speaking to different groups, then the next 50 to 100 were more targeted. And that helped us to gain some great learnings. For example, I had thought that the facility management team would be decision-makers, but those folks won’t change anything if they are not instructed to do so by the clinical side.”

“Also, don’t be discouraged,” he added. “We reached out to 300 people, and most never responded. Be persistent or find someone else to speak with. You’ll likely have a lot of no’s before you get to yes. Out the 110 we spoke to, probably five or so gave us groundbreaking insights.”

The biggest challenge Circulate currently faces is that its software is frequently too advanced for the current infrastructure of healthcare environments. For Circulate to work effectively, it requires that a given environment already have sensors installed, including building (HVAC sensors that monitor airflow), environment (including humidity, temperature, particulate count, and pressure), and occupancy sensors.

Right now, those are only in place in the world’s leading healthcare facilities. “It’s very expensive to fully ‘sensorize’ a building,” said Ryason. “Most healthcare facilities don’t have what our software needs to be fully effective.”

As COVID has started to wane, opportunities for Circulate have grown. “Contamination is a major issue in healthcare, but it’s also present in pharma, semiconductor, food manufacturing, beer distilleries, and other industries where they have to predict air quality and particulates during production,” said Ryason. “Our technology can be applied to other areas, and those sectors might already have the tech and sensors in place. We can really track any kind of biological burden—like mold or dust, not just COVID.”


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