Using Robotics to Supercharge Health Care MIT News

Since its founding in 1998, Vecna ​​Technologies has developed a number of methods to help hospitals improve patient care. The company has produced intake systems to respond to the surge in COVID-19 patients, predictive systems to manage health complications in labor wards, and telepresence robots that allow sick people to stay connected with friends and loved ones. allows for.

The differences between those products have also led to a number of transformations and spinoffs, including materials management company Wecna Robotics and health care nonprofit WecnaCare. Deborah Noel Theobald ’95 and Daniel Theobald ’95, SM ’98, co-founders of Vecna ​​Technologies, say that each of them Pivots is driven by a desire to build a robotics company that makes a positive impact on the world.

“We knew we wanted to do robotics and do some good in the world,” Deborah says of the team’s mindset. “We founded Vecna ​​thinking, ‘How can these new web technologies impact and improve health care?’ It is Arch MIT that has got me excited to move forward.

“a fun ride”

As a child, Deborah Theobald wanted to be an astronaut. Desire led him to MIT, one of the few aerospace engineering programs open to undergraduates. She became interested in the health care industry while studying the health effects of long-duration space exploration with Professor Dava Newman, Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics at MIT, who is also now the Director of the Media Lab.

Deborah also met Daniel Theobald at MIT. Daniel was making robots since childhood and was studying mechanical engineering.

The two began thinking about starting a company, and Daniel even applied to the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (then $10K) with a rough idea for a robotics company.

For her master’s degree, Deborah went to the University of Maryland to continue studying health effects in space, while Daniel remained at MIT, working on several robotics projects. When Daniel graduated in 1998, Vekna was born.

From day one, the company had a policy of paying employees to do community service for 10 percent of their work week.

“We found that our focus on giving back benefits the business in so many ways that it was absolutely, clearly the right thing to do,” says Daniel. “For one, it was a self-filtering mechanism. People joined Vecna ​​who believed in giving back and wanted to be a part of something socially responsible. And we found that those are also the people who make amazing employees. “

The founders got their first big break with a government contract to build a health care portal that allowed patients, managers and providers to communicate and share documents. The contract also provided the founders with the flexibility to explore other avenues for business.

The pair earned several government grants for one-off projects, some of which developed into successful commercial products. Another grant tasked him with building models to help hospitals predict and manage hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), which kill thousands of people in the US each year. The resulting tool has been deployed in approximately 100 hospitals.

“At the time, people were using spreadsheets to pull data from different systems … and trying to understand what type of infection it was,” says Deborah, noting that doctors usually used Let’s start infected patients on general antibiotics before classifying them. “Our tool allowed them to pull together that information rapidly, reducing their stays in hospitals — and all the trauma and pain that ensued — by weeks.”

The company’s next product was a patient registration system that used kiosks to streamline the number of patients in hospitals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vecna ​​transitioned the platform to a text-based check-in service for clinics. This service is being used by thousands of hospitals today.

Later mobile versions of that system have been used to deliver medication, allow doctors to conduct virtual consultations, and even help immunocompromised students attend school virtually and avoid isolation .

Vecna’s emphasis on community service inspired the team to explore ways to apply the company’s technologies in low-resource settings, leading to the creation of VecnaCares, the non-profit arm of the company.

In 2014, VecnaCares brought its VGo mobile robot to help with the Ebola response in Liberia and Sierra Leone, allowing doctors to see patients without the time-consuming decontamination process. The company’s patient intake software was also used to register and manage patients with Ebola and other diseases.

VecnaCares has since partnered with groups including the International Rescue Committee, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Medical Corp and Special Olympics for various projects. It also honed its algorithms to help low-resource hospitals manage staff shortages in maternity wards, allowing nurses to focus their attention on babies and mothers at risk of complications.

“One of the places we’re stationed has 10,000 births a year, so at any given time there can be 40 women working in that hospital, which has an operating room for all C-sections,” explains Deborah. “Our tool can engage women, assess them, and notify physicians if anyone is at high risk and needs a check-in. This leads to better outcomes and helps manage some complications. This has led to an increase in infant and maternal mortality rates in these areas.

After years of developing and commercializing robots, the founders decided that their robots might be better suited for warehouses than healthcare. In 2017, Daniels spun off Vecna ​​Robotics to focus exclusively on robotics for industrial settings such as manufacturing, logistics, and order fulfillment.

“We’ve had four different developments and exits,” explains Deborah. “It’s been a fun ride.”

continues to innovate

As it nears the 25th anniversary of its inception, Vecna ​​Technologies is far from finished. Its leaders believe the firm’s products and expertise can play an important role in the growing home health care and extended care industries, helping patients stay out of hospitals while staying safe.

“As we look at an aging population, the burden of care is really going to fall on family members as well. [health care organizations]Deborah says. “I would love to be able to provide better tools for the care of our loved ones, who often go unpaid and unrecognized.”

Later this year, the company will release an inexpensive home care robot that can operate autonomously or by remote control to help care for people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The robots will be part of Vecna’s “Be There Network,” which health care providers can use to care for large numbers of patients despite staff shortages.

“You can now see and hear and feel like you’re actually there to interact with the environment more intuitively,” says Deborah. “We see that now people have started embracing telepresence as the wave of the future. There are many uses for this robot. People keep coming up with more ideas as they capture the vision.

No matter what the future holds for Vecna ​​– whose motto is “Better technology, better world” — the founders say the company will continue to search for new applications where its technologies can make a real difference in people’s lives.


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