Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Speech therapist Ilze Zaharāne is also the co-founder and CEO of CheeksUP, a startup that offers a computer-based tool to assist facial-movement therapy. Zaharāne brought the company from Latvia to participate in the Relevant Health startup accelerator in Rockville. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record) DANIEL LEADERMAN

Accelerating health technology at Rockville incubator

ROCKVILLE — Doctors and nurses caring for newborns in the developing world can find themselves stretched to the limit: Sometimes, there are just too many babies for a small staff to care for.

As a result, signs of an infant in distress – a dropping heart rate, slower breathing – may go undetected until it’s too late.

But the health startup Neopenda is trying to change that.

The company, part of the inaugural cohort of the Relevant Health startup accelerator in Rockville, is developing a small, inexpensive sensor that attaches to the caps worn by newborns and monitors their vital signs; that information is then sent to a tablet, allowing nurses to easily keep track of numerous babies at once, said Chief Design Officer Teresa Cauvel

“[They’ll] be alerted when things go wrong, so they can catch problems sooner,” Cauvel said at a demonstration event Wednesday.

The company was launched by a pair of Columbia University students pursuing their graduate degrees in biomedical engineering. They were one of seven emerging companies that began Relevant Health’s five-month program back in October.

“In October we were still students. We weren’t working on this full time,” Cauvel said. But Relevant Health allowed them to commit full time, advancing their technology, business plan, and pitch, she said.

Neopenda consulted with a hospital in Uganda to develop the idea and is preparing to launch pilot studies with that hospital later this year, Cauvel said.

Cohort members received coaching and mentoring, office space in the Rockville Innovation Center and a $50,000 stipend. They were also partnered with engineers to make sure they had working prototypes of their devices by the time they finished the program, said Richard Bendis, president and CEO of BioHealth Innovation Inc., the public-private partnership that launched and co-sponsors the accelerator.

The five months may be up, but most of the companies will stay for another three months in their current office space and will hopefully remain in the area after that, Bendis said.

“In health technology, you need a quality workforce to draw from,” Bendis said. The Baltimore-Washington corridor has a strong pool for the companies to recruit from, he said.

Neopenda wasn’t the only member of the cohort from outside the area. Speech therapist Ilze Zaharāne, CEO of CheeksUp, brought her company all the way from Latvia.

CheeksUp is developing a computer game to help both children with speech or facial disabilities as well as patients recovering from facial paralysis, Zaharāne said. The game uses animated faces to prompt users to mimic certain movements – puffing out their cheeks or making a wide smile, for example – and uses facial-recognition software to detect their progress.

Traditionally, these exercises would be done with the children looking into a mirror, which not only becomes boring very quickly, but can be discouraging if a child is constantly reminded of their disabilities. The game, which therapists would tailor to each patient’s needs, solves both of these problems, Zaharāne said.

The time in the health-focused accelerator helped Zaharāne and the other two members of her team understand the complexities of the industry, such as regulations relating to insurance and testing, she said.

“Understanding the health space … [was] the biggest benefit of being here,” Zaharāne said. “In Silicon Valley, that would not be possible.”

The other companies in this year’s cohort include:

  • Agewell Biometrics of Baltimore, which uses wearable devices such as smartphones to help track the risk of falls and other injuries to older adults;
  • Lazy of Washington, D.C., which offers a computer platform to help hospitals and other organizations in the medical field track healthcare quality measures;
  • Werbie of Bethesda, which offers a system to help women with gestation diabetes track and maintain their glucose levels;
  • Ergonometrix of Rockville, which uses a wearable device to help companies avoid workers’ compensation claims by reducing the risk of lower-back injuries; and
  • Gastro Girl of Falls Church, which offers personalized advice for patients with gastrointestinal conditions.

Relevant Health will likely launch its second cohort in the final quarter of 2016 or early 2017, Bendis said.