Medical tech startups find fertile ground in Electric City (Scranton)
New companies can find easy access to funding, space, talent pool and experts.
· By JON O’CONNELL STAFF WRITER The Times-tribune July 5, 2020
When Dr. Robert Karpman needed a fertile place to germinate a potential cure for billions of dollars wasted on health care, Scranton checked a lot of boxes.
The orthopedic surgeon, entrepreneur and Cornell professor from Ithaca, New York, needed somewhere to grow Medi-Trust, a robotic assistant that all but guarantees people who struggle to manage medicine regimens can stay on track.
“We considered other places, but we’re really very happy,” he said.
His company Geri-Safe, founded in 2014, landed in the Scranton Enterprise Center’s business incubator, where his landlord, an affiliate of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, helped line up the steps to bring his device to market.
Karpman found funding through the state Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which also has a regional office in the Enterprise Center.
The chamber helped him seek out medical institutions where it could test Medi-Trust. Karpman asked the Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education to help recruit 30 candidates for a clinical effectiveness study.
His application is pending before the Wright Center’s institutional review board.
Karpman offers only the latest example of medical technology companies choosing to grow in Northeast Pennsylvania, forgoing such medicine and innovation destinations as Boston, Philadelphia or New York City.
The inventor, whose resume includes teaching positions at the University of Arizona, Mayo Medical School and executive posts in health systems around the country, found what he was looking for in Scranton.
At least two other startups in the medical technology invention sector are in area incubators.
At the Tek Ridge Center incubator in Jessup, the company SnapSlide, founded by the Moscow entrepreneur Zachery “Rocky” Batzel, invented a better pill bottle that requires only one hand to open, but still keeps kids out.
The square-shaped bottle has sweeping implications for people who have had limbs amputated or those with arthritis who struggle to maneuver the pushing/twisting motion of a typical pill bottle.
Also in the Scranton incubator, Unison Workforce Technologies LLC is building a platform that helps home health companies automatically log their workers’ movements in the field using global positioning systems and bluetooth. The technology would help workers manage schedules and stay on top of tasks.
“It takes more than just real estate,” Bob Durkin, Scranton chamber president, said of inventing new tech and getting it to market.
Entrepreneurs synergize momentum in an incubator, where they also get access to capital, education and connections. “No individual in an entrepreneurial environment, generally, can succeed just in their own space,” he said.
The concept behind the Medi-Trust device isn’t exactly new. Plenty of other companies are trying to fix medication nonadherence with technology. Durkin said at the local level, health professionals have been enthusiastic about it. “I think that’s got legs,” he said.
Medication nonadherence, which is just a lofty way to describe anybody not taking medicine as prescribed, costs the U.S. health care system between $100 billion and $300 billion every year, according to a 2014 research paper in the journal Risk Management and Healthcare Policy.
Experts say the coronavirus pandemic, with many people foregoing regular care and either stretching their prescriptions or not taking them at all, will magnify the effect.
A research brief out this month by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, or PHC4, counted nearly 8,000 “potentially preventable hospitalizations” in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton metro last year, and at least some of them can be tied to poor medication management.
“They occur for many reasons but are essentially a breakdown in the primary care process,” said PHC4 Executive Director Joe Martin. “That breakdown can occur due to poor management of patients across practices and venues, poor patient adherence to directions, etc.”
Nationwide, nonadherence leads to an estimated 125,000 preventable deaths each year, Karpman said.
A practicing orthopedic surgeon for 25 years, he started Geri-Safe to create technology that helps older people maintain independence and spend their twilight years at home. Medi-Trust is his first initiative.
His project, though heading toward a national market, seems appropriate to grow in Northeast Pennsylvania where the population skews older than the rest of the country.
In fact, in 2017 the Pennsylvania population ranked fifth in the nation for its high percentage of seniors, according to the Wright Center.
Unrelated to the Medi-Trust review, last week the Wright Center rolled out a new service line for seniors that syncs with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s Age-Friendly Health System standards. Medication management is one of the standards’ four pillars.
Here’s how Medi-Trust works It looks like a bread machine crossed with a Keurig and takes about the same amount of countertop space.
It holds a 30-day supply of up to 15 different capsules or pills. It also has compartments for eye drops, inhalers and injectables.
Karpman estimates a sticker price around $1,200, which seems jarring at first, but it could pay for itself if a patient stays on track with medication and avoids costly emergency room trips.
Caregivers and doctors will get a notification if a patient misses a dose, and can track adherence over time. To dispense medicine, it needs a passcode or a fingerprint, and alerts caregivers when someone tries to tamper with it. Patients wear a smart watch that alerts them 15 minutes before it’s time to dose, then captures a video of them actually taking the medicine. All of a patient’s doctors will have access to the data, and can use it to see whether a medicine is working, or needs tweaking.
“We’re looking at both adherence and potential improved medical outcomes,” Karpman said.
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