Beth Kolko’s superpower may not seem that out of the ordinary. She can’t see through walls, but she can see what’s wrong with the things we use in everyday life — problems that never occurred to the experts who built them.
As the CEO of medical device maker Shift Labs, Kolko has focused that superpower on health care. Specifically, she wants to solve the problems that arise when an industry makes medical devices for patients in hospitals in rich countries and ignores almost everyone else.
“Because they’re not in your sphere of influence, it’s easy to not see them. That’s just human nature,” she said.
Kolko added, “I continue to believe that non-expert innovation is crucial, especially for really wicked problems, because we have to learn how to see things differently if we’re going to solve things differently.”
Seattle-based Shift Labs’ flagship product, the DripAssist infusion rate monitor, is a low-cost way to measure medication and fluids given through infusions, designed for use outside of hospitals and in poor countries.
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Kolko’s path to medical device entrepreneur was far from a straight line. Trained as an anthropologist, she holds a PhD in English and is a professor of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. She’s a big proponent of the power of insights from people coming in from outside an industry or field of expertise, and looking at problems with fresh eyes.
Since the early 2000s, Kolko has been thinking of ways to improve life in communities around the world. One of the early projects she worked on was a simplified ultrasound machine for midwives in Uganda.
Her team made a working prototype, but nobody wanted to produce it. An executive at an ultrasound company took Kolko aside at one point and said, “We could make cheaper technology, but it wouldn’t support the cost of our sales force, so we have no motivation to do that.” (Years later, the mobile ultrasound revolution would finally take off.)
“That was the day that I decided I was going to start a company, and eventually, that resulted in Shift Labs,” said Kolko. The idea was to make medical devices that would let more people access quality health care.
Kolko formed a team and started interviewing people on the front lines of health care in search of a common problem. They settled on infusions.
Most modern American hospitals use pumps, which often cost around $5,000, to deliver medicine and fluids through infusions such as IVs. But outside of hospitals — from in-home care to military outposts and rural clinic — the majority of infusions just use gravity to move the liquids.
That’s a problem because infusions done by gravity are inaccurate and rely on people to physically count drips to determine how much medicine is being administered.
Shift Labs began developing the DripAssist. It’s a handheld device, a little larger and thicker than a smartphone, that attaches to the IV drips that are commonplace in hospitals, and measures the flow rate so that nurses don’t have to. The benefit is greater accuracy and more time for caregivers to perform other tasks.
Kolko and co-founder Koji Intlekofer discovered that making a functioning prototype was just the beginning.
The first major pushback came from the healthcare providers, who balked when they saw just how variable gravity infusions are in real time.
“It’s so disturbing for people to see that variability, so we had to find a way to process that data that would allow us to maintain the accuracy levels that we needed, but also have data that people trusted,” Kolko said.
They also had to deal, once again, with executives who didn’t see a market for a device that nurses were clamoring for.
And then there was the fundraising. “Everybody hates fundraising. I’m really skeptical of anyone who says, ‘I love fundraising,'” Kolko said. Shift Labs would end up raising $1.7 million, a relatively small amount for a medical device with FDA approval.
It took years of grinding away, but now thousands of DripAssists are quietly measuring medication in both American homes and World Health Organization clinics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We built one very simple device, just costs a few hundred dollars, and it works flawlessly in both those environments. That’s amazing,” said Kolko.
Kolko recently won an award for “Perseverance” from Seattle Health Innovators in recognition of her scrappy pursuit of more equitable health care.
“There’s no way that I could have persevered without my co-founder and without our team,” she said. “There’s no way one could weather those dark days alone.”
Listen to Beth Kolko’s story on this episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast, reported and hosted by James Thorne, edited by Todd Bishop and produced by Jennie Cecil Moore.