Twelve teams participated in the first cohort of the accelerator. Four, including a team focused on providing early diagnosis of neurological disease and another revolutionizing the blood pressure cuff, received awards to help further their innovations.
Karen Fortuna, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Geisel School of Medicine, thinks of her dad when she considers the impact of her innovations in digital therapeutics.
Her father, Dave Fortuna, had a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, but he didn’t let it hold him back. Even as his health began to falter, he pursued his degree. He wanted to show Karen that he had no limitations and she shouldn’t either. Unfortunately, Dave died from complications of MS when he was only 52.
“That’s where the passion and the impetus for this work really came from,” Fortuna says. “Maybe the science wasn’t available then, but in his legacy I want to help and support other individuals with neurological disease so we can increase their lifespan and their quality of life as they age.”
Fortuna, along with undergraduate student Julia Hill D’24, aim to do just that through their venture, RealVision. RealVision is a mobile application that uses artificial intelligence to detect neuropsychiatric disorders including Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia up to six years before patients begin having overt symptoms.
“We’re really trying to push the limits about what we know about the early identification of disease,” Fortuna says.
Last month, RealVision was awarded the top prize—$30,000 in funding—as part of the inaugural cohort of the Dartmouth Innovation Accelerator for Digital Health (DIADH). The Accelerator, a partnership between the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health and The Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship supports promising innovations in digital health – the use of digital technology to better understand, prevent, treat or manage health conditions or diseases.
Fortuna and Hill are striving for a future where digital therapeutics like RealVision can change healthcare. Since being 65 or older is a major risk factor for developing neuropsychiatric disorders, RealVision could be used in health clinics as a non-invasive screening for older patients.
From her own experience with neurological disease, Fortuna knows first-hand just how important that early detection can be. Being diagnosed with such a serious illness is frightening, so it’s important for patients to realize there is hope, she says. Up to 40% of cases of neuropsychiatric disorders can be modified through behavioral and pharmacological intervention, giving patients and their families a much brighter future.
“That is one of the motivators for this work,” Fortuna says. “It’s almost hard to go through this world and not have a loved one who has been impacted by this.”
Mentorship and guidance on the path of a startup
The first cohort of DIADH brought together 12 teams and over 40 participants from across the Dartmouth community—ranging from undergraduates to doctors and faculty. The programming included a two-day intensive workshop at the end of January and a 12-week curriculum delivered by Henrik Scheel, founder and CEO of Startup Experience, an entrepreneurial training organization, and Simbex, a medical device and consumer health product design company.
The accelerator ended with a start-up competition at the kick-off dinner of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum on May 4th, where Hill delivered the winning pitch for RealVision in front of about one hundred Dartmouth alumni, faculty, students and staff, and other guests.
For the undergrad in her junior year, standing among investors, doctors and scholars was surreal.
“It was just so exciting, especially as a first-generation college student, to have this opportunity that culminated in this validation of our work,” Hill says.
DIADH gave Fortuna the chance to merge her scientific training with business and entrepreneurial acumen.
“It increased my confidence in taking this product and bringing it into the real world,” she says. “We don’t want the research to just sit on the shelf. Scientists can engage in business ethically and get this science out there.”
That potential excites Lisa A. Marsch, PhD Director of the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health (CTBH) and co-leader of DIADH with Barry Schweitzer, Associate Director of the Magnuson Center. She was struck by the diversity, breadth and creativity of the projects—and by how much progress innovators made during the program.
“The amount of progress that these teams made in three months was remarkable,” Marsch says.
Andrew B. Closson, a PhD student in the Thayer School of Engineering, is developing a new generation of easy-to-use blood pressure monitors. His project, PulseFlex, placed second in the cohort and received $10,000 in funding. But the most valuable part of the accelerator was the connections he made with other biotech innovators.
“The accelerator gave me access to a network of professionals and mentors who had deep expertise in many of the challenges we are currently facing,” Closson says. “Discussions with them led to many insights about how to best approach product development and strategy.”
That feedback will guide development a go-to-market strategy for PulseFlex.
Dr. Aravindhan Sriharan, MD, Assistant Professor of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine, says the accelerator gave him a peek into the minds of potential investors.
“The accelerator helped us understand the culture of venture capital-based investing,” he says. “It highlighted what VCs are used to seeing, what they find useful versus what they don’t, and how they evaluate startups.”
Sriharan’s project, PixCell, creates custom-designed hardware and software to enable AI-aided diagnostics for cancer and other diseases. PixCell received $5,000 in funding, which will be used to develop prototypes and pay for legal fees.
Connecting patients with chronic fatigue—including many with long COVID
Christopher Doyle, MD, who received his Masters of Public Health from The Dartmouth Institute at the Geisel School of Medicine and is a resident in the Neurology Department at Dartmouth Health, joined DIADH to help develop a solution to a problem he first saw in the clinic. There was no reliable way to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS), a condition that often leaves patients confined to their beds. Since about 50% of people with long COVID meet the criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome, the issue is now more pressing than ever.
Doyle’s platform, Granum Health, connects patients to more accurate testing, and to each other.
DIADH helped Doyle and his team decide where to focus, which was important while facing the daunting task of improving care for patients with ME/CFS.
“It did a good job of really narrowing our focus to the things that were going to be most important for our pitch,” Doyle says. Through the accelerator, he learned about the typical track of a digital health startup, and therefore what he could expect for the future of Granum Health.
“It gave us a big picture view, and an awareness of what is coming next,” he said.
Granum Health received $5,000 in funding, which Doyle plans to use to incorporate the business and to reach more patients. He hopes to test a minimum viable product later this summer with those users. The award also shows a proof of concept, which Doyle hopes to leverage to attract more funding.
As much as he learned from the first cohort of the accelerator, Doyle knows he could gain more from another cohort of DIADH.
“I hope to do it again this fall,” he says.
Hill, the first generation undergraduate, says the accelerator assured her that she too has access to professional networks that she didn’t realize she’d be able to tap into.
“Having this network of people will be such a tool for me going forward, not only in RealVision,” she says. “DIADH was a really unique and amazing opportunity.”