InTouch Health Looks to Hire Michigan Engineers to Develop RoboDocs (of Sorts)

5/6/10

A man is brought into a hospital emergency room in Port Huron, MI, after collapsing while riding his bike. The patient had a stroke, so the first problem facing the ER docs is that there is not a moment to lose, as there is a narrow window of time available to treat a stroke before irreparable harm can come to the patient. The second problem is that the nearest stroke specialist is at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, MI, more than 50 miles away.

Turns out, it’s not a problem. Within minutes, here comes a 5-foot-tall robot, with a flat video screen as its “head.” Yes, a robot.

robot_RP7iLowResWell, not a robot that can physically treat a patient, but one that is primarily a carrier for the video screen and camera. On screen is a neurologist who specializes in strokes, controlling the robot from St. Joseph Mercy, talking to the patient and medical personnel, doing a thorough visual exam of the stroke victim’s symptoms and prescribing appropriate medication.

Everything, of course, turns out just fine for the patient, since what is being described comes from a promotional video on the Website for InTouch Health, a Santa Barbara, CA-based company that not only has a number of customers at major medical centers in Michigan, but also has some bigger plans for conducting research and development in the state.

Helping them along toward that goal is Beringea, a Farmington Hills, MI, venture capital firm that announced on April 26 that it had invested $6 million in InTouch Health, which plans to use the Series D financing round to open an R&D center in Michigan and hire a team of advanced robotics engineers. The investment was made through Beringea’s InvestMichigan! Growth Capital Fund. Also contributing to the $10 million total round were return investors  Galen Partners, InvestCare Partners, and Twenty One East Victoria Investments, among others.

In an e-mail to Xconomy, Charles Rothstein, senior managing director of Beringea, praises InTouch Health as “the all star in the rapidly expanding field of telemedicine.” Rothstein says InTouch CEO Yulun Wang is respected as an industry thought leader.

“The company’s decision to further expand its Michigan footprint proves once again that world class engineering and R&D talent is an abundant resource in our state and one that will help propel our economy forward,” Rothstein says.

Tim Wright, vice president of marketing at InTouch Health, says there is a small field support staff in Michigan already serving existing customers in the state. “Through those people, we’ve gotten to know there’s really a large body of highly skilled engineers,” Wright says. “So, we think it’s going to be a great match for us.”

Right now, there’s no office in Michigan, but there are four technicians and sales representatives to service existing clients here. Wright says the company will look to hire “a handful” of mechanical, electrical, and software engineers for the Michigan R&D office, although he says he cannot speculate yet on how many or on where the office will be located.

“We’re looking right now across the spectrum from Ann Arbor to greater Detroit,” he says.

“Part of the proceeds of this fund-raise are really aimed at accelerating some of the development efforts that we have underway,” he says. “And that very well may expand from that initial launch into other things. But the primary focus out of the gate is to build some R&D resources outside of California.”

The company’s primary product is the RP-7 Robot, the one shown in the promotional video involving the stroke victim. Michigan customers include St. Joseph Mercy Health System, which is InTouch Health’s largest Michigan customer, along with the Detroit Medical Center, and St. John Providence Health System located throughout Metro Detroit.

The company is marketing the product for stroke treatment because that is where it sees the greatest need, since only a small fraction of hospitals in the United States have on-site access to a stroke neurologist.

A drug called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) can dramatically change the outcome of a stroke victim if it is delivered within the first 3 to 4 hours of the onset of the stroke, and other procedures can be performed if they’re done within a fairly early window.

intouchrobotnurse_WebRes“But you have to have the right diagnosis and you have to have someone competent in making those diagnoses, and typically an emergency room doctor will look to a stroke neurologist to make that assessment,” Wright says.

“A neurological exam is actually a very visual exam,” he says. The doctor is interested not only in the vital signs of the patient, but also facial droop, and ability to lift arm and legs.

“The reason why our technology is uniquely positioned for this kind of a scenario is not only that we can enable that kind of visualization and access to the images, access to the patient data all simultaneously, but you can have that access literally from anywhere that you have access to the Internet,” Wright says.

And, of course, the final component to InTouch Health’s product is the robot that allows the remote clinician to actually move around and interact with the emergency department as though he or she were there.

“It fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction from being a passive response to the people and the stimulusi? that are around you, which would be a typical video conferencing kind of scenario, to one where that remote clinician can really take charge, be proactive, create urgency,” Wright says.

Indeed, the promotional videos on InTouch Health’s site show hospital personnel walking side-by-side in the corridors with the robot, conversing with the specialist appearing on the flat-screen TV head. The specialist can be in any far-flung part of the world and control the robot using a joystick.

Right now, it’s all Internet-based, but next on InTouch Health’s list of things to develop is controlling its robots using cell phones and PDAs.

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