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Updated: September 19, 2022

Finger on the pulse: Five innovative startups set out to ‘disrupt’ health care

Photo / Tim Greenway Sangeeth Kumar, originally from India, is the Portland-based co-founder and CEO of JotLogs, a startup that aims to streamline data entry for surgeons.

From surgical data entry to early breast-cancer detection, innovation in health care is sparking a flurry of new business activity in Maine. Early-stage startups include Group B Labs, the Seattle-based creator of an advanced baby bottle called “Bubbe” to keep formula and breast milk cold until feeding time, then heat it to the perfect temperature. Potential uses of the patented technology go well beyond a consumer product for parents, like nourishing newborns in neonatal intensive care units and for use with blood on battlefields.

The Bubbe is a tech-enabled baby bottle developed by Group B Labs, a Seattle startup with strong Maine ties, to keep breast milk and formula cold until it’s needed, then heat it to the perfect temperature.

Formed in 2018 by Illi and Olivia Eisner, the now four-person company has strong ties to Maine stemming from its participation last year in a business accelerator program at Northeastern University’s Roux Institute — and they might even be back one day for good.

“If the conditions are right,” Olivia says, “it certainly is a possibility for us.” Saying more products are in the works, Illi jokes about a Bubbe/coffee maker combo, saying, “Everybody’s happy then.”

Four other early-stage health-related startups, all based in Maine, are also worth watching.

JotLogs: Solving surgeons’ ‘pain points’

How can surgeons keep track of medical procedures and then use that data for research? Enter JotLogs, a digital case-log platform developed by two orthopedists and two graduates of the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, including CEO Sangeeth Kumar.

Kumar, 34, was born in India and worked as an engineer in motorsports early in his career and later for Silicon Valley startups. He says the idea for Jotlogs began in a conversation with one of JotLog’s co-founders, an orthopedic surgeon.

“He was telling me about his frustration about using the health records system to capture case notes, and how much time it took away from helping patients,” says Kumar, who moved with his family from San Francisco to Portland two years ago. “It was a sentiment I often heard from doctors.”

Working in the medical-device sector at the time, Kumar did further research and set up a team to launch JotLogs in January 2022.

“There’s a lot of data within health care that’s not really tapped into,” he says. “We’re at a good time where technology can be utilized in meaningful ways to minimize some of the burden on doctors and other medical providers.”

While orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons at hospitals in New York State and the Boston area are currently testing the platform, cardiologists, urologists and doctors in other specialties along with medical students have also expressed an interest, Kumar says. The web-based app, powered by artificial intelligence, is available in Apple’s ioS mobile operating system, with an Android version also planned.

The technology is updated every few weeks based on user feedback. While the team has not filed any patent applications, Kumar says they’re still figuring out the right path and aim to start raising external capital next year.

Startup costs so far have been minimal for JotLogs, which received a $25,000 grant from from Northeastern University’s Roux Institute via its Founder Residency that started in July. The company used the money for legal costs related to business incorporation, to hire project contractors and infrastructure costs related to operations and security compliance.

The Roux program supports underrepresented, early-stage founders, and Kumar is the only health care-focused entrepreneur in the five-member cohort. Ben Chesler, the institute’s director of value creation and acceleration, is impressed with JotLogs’ progress so far.

“It has been amazing to watch Sang and the JotLogs team develop their product to create the data operating systems for surgeons,” he says. “They are relentless in their obsessions to understand surgeons’ pain points and solve them.”

Glad to be in Maine, Kumar says: “Had I started this business on the West Coast, it would have been a little harder and pretty fast-paced. The ecosystem in Maine is more grounded in terms of community and support, with more of a focus on sustainable growth.”

He also says that while the long-term goal is to take JotLogs nationwide, “we want to make sure we scale up to the right capacity.”

Kendra Batchelder, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine, teamed up with Professor Andre Khalil to develop a patented computer algorithm for early breast cancer detection. They founded a company called WAVED Medical.

WAVED Medical: Early breast-cancer detection

Kendra Batchelder is on a mission to improve early detection of breast cancer, which afflicts one in eight women.

Originally minded to follow in her aunt’s footsteps and become a mammographer, she shied away from the medical field upon discovering a dislike of hospital settings and blood.

During her undergraduate studies in secondary education and math at the University of Maine, Batchelder took a class taught by bioengineering professor Andre Khalil, and learned that he does breast cancer research. The two have been research partners ever since, developing a patented computer algorithm to help detect breast cancer at an earlier stage—and launched a business this year called WAVED Medical.

Instead of using self-taught computer algorithms to analyze mammograms, WAVED’s patented algorithm looks at the spatial properties of the tissue to identify how much of it is becoming unorganized and could potentially develop into cancer later on.

Batchelder, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine who expects to graduate in 2023, and Khalil have done two studies so far using relatively small data sets. This fall, they aim to start a study using a larger data set, from 9,000 patients in the United Kingdom. They also aim to eventually raise venture capital funding.

“We hope to really validate the science behind everything we found,” Batchelder says.

Batchelder and Khalil launched WAVED Medical weeks after finishing second in the latest season of the “Green Light Maine Collegiate Edition” business-pitch TV series, using their $7,500 prize money to cover legal fees related to forming a company. Batchelder says she learned a lot from the experience.

“Being able to take such high-level research and science and explain it in two to three minute was probably the biggest take-away,” she says.

Adds Khalil: “As a scientist, it’s been a humbling and fulfilling experience to discover the path from fundamental academic research to commercialization.”

Photo / COURTESY of hey freya
The team at women’s wellness startup hey freya includes (from left) Cecilia Tse, COO and CFO, in Berkeley, Calif.; Thara Vayali, chief medical officer, in Vancouver, Canada; and CEO Helkin Berg, in Cumberland, Maine. They recently met in person for the first time.

hey freya: Reshaping women’s health

A disappointing doctor’s office visit prompted Helkin Berg to find another doctor—and to start a company. She had gone to see her primary doc after months of poor sleep and fatigue, only to be told: “You’re a mom of three kids, and you work. Of course you’re tired.”

Sad and angry to hear that, Berg told the front desk she’d never see that doctor again, then searched for another practitioner willing to listen and offer simple solutions.

The experience got her thinking about what other women without the same resources go through, and an idea for a business she launched with two other women, Cecilia Tse in San Francisco and Thara Vayali in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Their enterprise, hey freya, aims to offer innovative health solutions for women in their mid-20s through their 40s between pregnancy and menopause. Helkin calls them women’s “forgotten cohort,” juggling busy careers and family responsibilities.

The company’s name is both a nod to the fundamental question “How are you doing?” and an eponymous Nordic goddess of love, family, beauty, visionary magic, battle and war.

“To start,” Berg explains, “we’ll offer an app that allows women to confidently track their health for the things that really matter to them and find peer support, labs that allow women to understand what’s happening inside of their bodies, and a supplement line that is curated exactly to the needs of women in this age range and doesn’t exist in the market today.”

Currently, she says, neither the consumer goods nor the app market provide accessible, inclusive and trustworthy solutions for women’s health, as hey freya is setting out to do.

“For example, the health apps and supplements available today cater to women trying to conceive or who are menopausal, leaving out vast numbers of women,” she says. “We look at women from a much broader perspective: We are complex, require community and time-saving solutions, and deal with more conditions than just our period.”

Plans for the business include launching a crowdfunding campaign in October to match a portion of grant funding received, and to get a first run of lab testing and supplements ready for sale. There are also plans to build a first version of an app that tracks more than menstruation and provides anonymous peer support, with a full launch foreseen for 2023.

Berg’s take on Maine’s climate for fostering innovation and startups in health care: “I hope it becomes an amazing place to found any company, especially those that help people and the planet.”

Bethany Sweet, a certified child life specialist at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, invented the Play Portal to familiarize young patients with medical procedures.

Play Portal: ‘MacGyvering’ medical play for youngsters

Bethany Sweet is a former teacher employed as a certified child life specialist at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

She’s also a budding entrepreneur and inventor of the Play Portal, a replica of a medical device used to draw blood and give intravenous treatments to oncology patients. Known as a port-a-catheter, the device is placed under the skin and attached to a catheter.

To make the procedure less scary to pediatric patients, Sweet came up with the Play Portal to show how it works with a stuffed animal or doll before going through it themselves.

“Sometimes medical play is just open-ended play with regular toys and with medical equipment thrown in there, so that kids can explore medical equipment in a non-threatening way,” she says. While she often improvises on the job using equipment on hand, that’s more difficult with expensive devices like the port-a-cath, sparking the idea for a replica.

To bring her idea to life, Sweet received guidance and support via her participation in the MaineHealth Innovation Cohort. The eight-week program aims to advance early-stage ideas from employees across all disciplines to address unmet care needs they observe in their daily work, like the pediatric education gap that Sweet aims to fill with her Play Portal.

Sweet received support from MaineHealth Innovation, an internal ideas incubator created in 2020, to secure a provisional patent and was introduced to the University of Maine Maker Innovation Studio laboratory to help produce several 3D printed prototypes of the Play Portal. She also received funding to conduct a pilot study at MaineHealth.

Without support from her employer and connections she made through the cohort, Sweet says she probably “wouldn’t have had the stamina” to push her idea forward.

“A lot of us in the health care field do what I call ‘MacGyvering’ whatever we need,” she says, referring to the 1980s-era television series. “Without the MaineHealth Innovation Center, I wouldn’t have known where to start.”

Susan Ahern, MaineHealth’s vice president of innovation, notes that MaineHealth Innovation is “so much more than the cohort program,” which was launched in 2018 and has become a tool for employee attraction and retention. “It’s a huge value proposition.”

Eventually, Sweet envisions a Play Portal product she can license out to makers of dolls and stuffed animals. Still undecided about setting up as a business entity, Sweet says she “absolutely” thinks of herself as an entrepreneur.

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