March 9, 2021 SU Story By: Meredith Wallen
With help from New York State’s “innovation ecosystem,” Vita Innovations CEO Longsha Liu—along with co-founders Ray Wei, Jason Chen, Julia Isakov, Rishi Singhal, and Kristen Ong—have moved at lightspeed in startup terms toward their goal of developing a vital signs monitoring mask for COVID-19-challenged health care facilities.
The impetus for the “smart” mask came one day when a young daycare teacher from Milwaukee went to her local emergency room describing chest pain and tightness of breath, one of dozens of patients Liu had witnessed waiting for hours in the ER where he was volunteering.
However, for this patient an inconvenient ER wait turned to tragedy. Initially, she was deemed a nonsignificant health risk and triaged to the lobby. After waiting two and a half hours in the ER, the patient left without being seen and instead went to an urgent care clinic. The patient collapsed less than an hour later due to a heart attack, dying en route to the same hospital she had left earlier that day.
One objective of Vita Innovations’ new technology—the VitalMask—is to avoid such tragedies by giving medical care workers a simple and convenient way to monitor triaged patients’ vital signs, while keeping them masked against COVID-19 and other airborne infections.
The objective of VitalMask’s embedded technology is to monitor blood oxygen level (SpO2), pulse, body temperature, breath rate, and the continuous placement of mask. This data will then be sent via Bluetooth to a central monitoring station.
Vita’s multi-faceted smart mask concept won at the NYC Health Hackathon in February of 2020. Urged on by the Hackathon mentors and judges, Liu said he and his team decided to “accelerate our development and potential, and Vita Innovations was established to create the VitalMask.”
Although all four of Vita’s co-founding team had medical device design and development experiences necessary for getting VitalMask off the ground, Liu describes the Vita’s business strategy in terms of the challenge of being full-time students at Cornell University without nuanced knowledge of medical device development. Acknowledging these two facts, the team of four has expanded to eight. By recruiting external talent, Vita has compensated for its specific deficits in knowledge and perspectives while ensuring continual growth and development.
In addition to forming an effective team, Vita has been able to access several New York State innovation ecosystem resources. For instance, the company was selected as a participant in the Medical Device Innovation Challenge (MDIC) at the CNY Biotech Accelerator. MDIC offers an intensive mentorship where experts are assigned to each team based on the participant’s specific goals. In addition, MDIC provides networking opportunities and designs special events for innovators tailored to support its program.
Another benefit the MDIC offers is legal and commercialization research for each team provided by the Innovation Law Center (ILC) at Syracuse University College of Law. Vita worked with ILC to obtain research on relevant markets, information on prior art in the technological space, and regulatory requirements. ILC students—working under supervision—provided a written research report, meeting with the Vita team via Zoom to present the findings.
“It was a great help to us to get free and thorough research done into the extent our intellectual property was protectable, and it has informed our company strategy,” says Liu. “ILC also provided us with market research into the medical device industry, as well as a SWOT and Five Forces analysis.” Liu noted the students working on this project were extremely passionate, diligent, and excited to learn about the subject matter.
Liu and his team described their experience with MDIC and Executive Director Kathi Durdon as “incredibly valuable and eye-opening. Each mentor meeting was well-organized, thorough, and specifically tailored to the needs of our team at all costs.”
Liu adds, “The mentors with whom our team worked, in particular, made the experience exceptionally rewarding because they offered assistance, ingenious ideas, and exceptional feedback at every discussion, showing a genuine interest in our company’s product.”
Liu notes that although not all roadblocks brought to the attention of MDIC mentors were able to be immediately resolved, they offered an abundance of connections and resources. “Our team has been able to achieve many important milestones thanks to MDIC’s help, including the completion of our desktop software application, securing funding for short-term operations, and further securing our IP through a second provisional patent application.”
As Vita has gone through the design and prototyping process, they have worked with potential users both potential VitalMask wearers, and health care providers. Liu admits that obtaining materials to best suit the comfort and wearability of the mask has presented some challenges, but they have been assisted by yet more New York State innovation ecosystem resources, such as the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing (CAMM)/Integrated Electronics Engineering Center (IEEC) at Binghamton University. Additionally, their team has sought design assistance from Manufacturing & Technology Enterprise Center (MTEC) and has worked with Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center for 3D printing needs.
The Vita experience is typical of the relationships being forged among MDIC and ILC participants. Vita was one of five medical device-related technologies that the ILC researched in the most recent round of awards. The other technologies include a wireless fetal monitor, a device to assist developmentally delayed children self-direct early stage exploration, a means to reduce surgeries stemming from problems with prolonged catheter use, and a means for post-concussion monitoring.
Most recently, Vita Innovations has been accepted into the Blackstone & Techstars Launchpad Fellowship, which comes with $5,000 non-dilutive funding. Additionally, two members of the Vita Innovations team, Julia Isakov and Kristen Ong, have joined Liu in being accepted among individuals selected globally to be part of the 2021 Clinton Global Initiative University Social Impact cohort.
Furthermore, Vita Innovations has been accepted for Phase 2 of the Values and Ventures Competition, and the company has officially contracted the professional manufacturing expertise of the Manufacturing and Technology Enterprise Center in New York to help refine a professional version of its hardware.
Applications for MDIC mentorship program are being accepted through April 30, 2021. Selected MDIC teams will again have the opportunity to work with the ILC and receive critical legal and market research to help get important innovations from lab to market.