How clinicians on the front lines of patient care are developing life-saving digital healthcare solutions

Working in the pediatric ER at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Therese L. Canares found herself treating too many kids who weren’t very sick.

“They present with coughs, colds and sore throats that could easily be treated less expensively at urgent care or their pediatrician’s office,” said Canares, whose titles include “director of pediatric emergency medicine digital health innovation” and “assistant professor of pediatrics.”

According to Canares, the pandemic posed overwhelming new challenges for parents with sick children, from uncertainty about the severity of their condition to lost time and wages sitting in waiting rooms. Witnessing the struggle firsthand, Canares had an idea. She ultimately created CurieDx, a mobile, AI-driven medical diagnostics app that detects common childhood illnesses like strep throat from the comfort of a family’s own home.

“Most parents don’t have the clinical expertise to understand how sick their child is or the ability to take them to the doctor during work hours — I believe telehealth has the power to overcome these barriers,” she said.

The app, which is still in development, enables families to take a cell phone picture of their child’s throat and upload it to the CurieDx platform. The platform’s proprietary AI algorithm prototype currently makes an instant diagnosis for strep throat with 80% accuracy, vs. 60% accuracy during an in-person visit with a clinician sans throat swab.

“We know there is feasibility here,” Canares said.

Canares’ foray into entrepreneurship has been supported by Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV), the commercialization hub within Johns Hopkins University that empowers its faculty to turn clinical research into commercial products. Johns Hopkins is part of a growing startup pipeline in Maryland alongside UM Ventures and academia-adjacent organizations such as UpSurge Baltimore and TEDCO. The collective goal is to provide a support system of mentorship, lab space and access to funding, legal advice and corporate research partnerships so that local founders, like Canares, can build high-growth digital health startups that remain in the region.

“As a clinician, the business side of things is a new world,” associate professor of ophthalmology Dr. Shameema Sikder said. “The expertise and resources we have access to at Johns Hopkins are helping us understand that process so that we can bring much-needed clinical innovation to the world.”

Sikder has been working with JHTV to develop medical training technology — designed to assess surgeons’ operating performances — with the ultimate goal of improving patient care. A surgeon with a passion for teaching, Sikder realized how difficult it was to assess a doctor’s surgical skills after they completed their education. Her platform, EyeLearn, uses deep-learning algorithms to analyze surgical videos before providing individual skill assessments and personalized feedback.

“You assume your surgeon is skilled and capable,” she said. “The reality is that within a career spectrum, there’s variability. Complications are higher at the beginning of your career. Surgical techniques change and evolve. There are no best practices for evolving or improving your skills throughout your career.”

Sikder’s goal is for the technology to be embraced by training institutions and independent practitioners across the globe.

“With the right resources, we’ve been able to see what needs to be done and how, and which professional connections can help bring our idea to life,” Sikder said. “It’s all very practical.”

JHTV’s technology development team is staffed by industry experts Christina DeMur, previously from GE Medical Systems, and Mark Komisky, a two-time startup founder and digital health expert. Together, they bring decades of industry experience to a traditionally university-based process.

“What makes us unique is that we look at everything through the lens of the market,” Komisky said. “One of the things I try to bring to the table is that sense of: What does this look like in the real world, from an investor and customer perspective? Is it licensable? Who will buy the product? Can it be applied more broadly?”

Before his role at JHTV, Komisky was the project lead at the Chesapeake Digital Health Exchange, a U.S. Department of Commerce EDA grant-funded program that focuses on economic development in the mid-Atlantic region by leaning into the area’s strength in digital health innovation. There, he helped local startups build connections with the potential partners, customers and investors needed to validate their product and get it into the market more quickly. Today, he does the same at JHTV, with a focus on clinician-led healthcare technology.

“The real difference [between] working with clinicians in the field vs. a scientist or technologist in the lab is that they are solving real-world problems they see every single day,” said Komisky. “At JHTV, we build a multidisciplinary team around them — a business lead, engineering lead and design lead — to explore the broader market applicability of the product or service.”

From there, he said, it’s a matchmaking effort: connecting clinicians with corporate partners and investors that have the technology or funding to build out the product and identify where it fits in the market. In some cases, as with Microsoft, partnerships open up opportunities for JHTV startups to try out advanced technologies they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, such as cloud-based AI services, augmented reality headsets and emerging software.

Internally, JHTV is doing its own market research through its Commercialization Academy. In the academy, Johns Hopkins University students can work in the tech transfer department part-time to learn the commercialization process and support JHTV’s startup companies by researching market trends, opportunities, leading players and venture capital funds.

Being on the front lines of healthcare, many of JHTV’s inventors are deeply connected to the problems they work to solve. So is the case for the director of pediatric cardiac research and assistant professor of surgery, Dr. Danielle Gottlieb Sen, who is developing a non-invasive infant heart monitor to detect a potentially deadly disease in infants and premature babies before symptoms appear.

“Operating on little kids’ and babies’ hearts is a high-stakes environment,” she said. “To provide outpatient monitoring for our most fragile, vulnerable patients is of tremendous value to the families we treat.”

Gottlieb Sen, who said she has no expertise required to build a device, has benefited from the local startup ecosystem’s network of collaborators. Through this group, she and her partner were able to assemble a multidisciplinary team — including a software development company that built the algorithm and monitors and analyzes the data.

“We’re working towards a common goal of making something useful for very vulnerable kids,” she said. “It’s a mission people can really relate to and want to help with. Together we can build things that none of us could make on our own.”

Learn more about JHTV

Chesapeake Digital Health Exchange / Johns Hopkins
Universities Month 2023


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