SPOKANE, Wash. — Dr. Don Baker admits he isn’t a businessman.
The Spokane physician is developing the first portable fetal heart rate monitor using aerospace technology developed by NASA. Baker’s monitor will be portable and more affordable than the model used in hospitals. And unlike most monitors, which require a trained technician to operate them, this monitor can be operated by the expectant mother.
But, Baker says, getting that innovation from his mind to the mothers who need it wouldn’t be possible without the help of Washington State University’s Small Business Development Center in Spokane, U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt Jr. and NASA.
Baker secured a patent license from NASA, which shares space-age technology with the business world, and the doctor is now developing an affordable, practical way to manufacture the monitor. He says the SBDC helped him do both and more.
“Doctors are not good businessmen,” says Baker, who works at Empire Health Services in Spokane. “I didn’t go to school to learn accounting or tax issues – I went into medicine because I like people and want to help.”
“The (SBDC) helped me orchestrate a sound business plan and negotiate interaction between political offices that surround NASA,” he adds. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Rick Thorpe, a business development specialist for the SBDC, went so far as to travel to Virginia to NASA’s Langley Research Center with Baker and helped negotiate the license agreement.
Baker says that Nethercutt, a staunch supporter of medical research and a member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, served as an advocate too, when the license agreement ran into a roadblock.
NASA played a key role in the innovation as well, not only providing the initial technology that is the key to the monitor but also suggesting practical ways to make the monitor affordable to manufacture.
“I think a lot of entrepreneurs have good ideas but need help getting them to the market,” Thorpe says. “It is easy for entrepreneurs, myself included, to think how successful it’s going to be in the future but not prepare for the problems along the way. But that’s where the Small Business Development Center fits in best: we know our clients are going to run into potholes and we help prepare a Plan B and a Plan C. Every success is a rocky road.”
For Baker, that rocky road began more than 25 years ago when the need for a portable heart rate monitor first occurred to him during obstetrics rounds in medical school.
Baker watched as an unborn baby’s heart rate, monitored by a fetal heart monitor strapped to the mother’s belly, suddenly became dangerously irregular. A nurse hurried over and turned the pregnant woman on her side.
The baby was inadvertently sitting on its own umbilical cord, choking itself, the nurse explained.
Baker was concerned and decided to create a monitor that mothers could take home with them to identify abnormal heart rate patterns that posed a risk to the fetus.
Today, Baker envisions mothers with high-risk pregnancies and those who have trouble traveling to a doctor’s office as the primary users of the monitor. He understands the need for an affordable, portable monitor after working as a family doctor in the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana early in his career. Baker said pregnant mothers living in remote areas may be hours from a doctor’s office and may not have the financial resources to get there. But inner city mothers who have difficulty making it to a clinic could use it too, he says. Women with high-risk pregnancies could rent the monitor as well.
“Whether they are rich or poor, mothers love their babies,” he says. “They want to take care of their baby but when they are hours away from health care it’s very hard. This helps dignify health care and puts control in the parents’ hands.”
The monitor, dubbed Angel Guardian, utilizes the same tiny microphones and ultra thin, flexible material used to detect changes in airflow over airplane wings tested in NASA wind tunnels. The circular, battery-powered monitor will be able to be plugged into a portable computer that can store data or send it to a doctor’s office electronically.
The large monitors used in hospitals cost thousands of dollars and require a nurse or technician to operate them. Baker estimates the Angel Guardian will be sold for about $1,500 – a fraction of the current monitor’s cost. Since the monitor uses microphones, it gathers fetal heart rate data without introducing energy into the womb like an ultrasound machine, making the Angel Guardian completely non-invasive. And, he says, it is as easy to use as tuning a radio.
Baker’s newly formed company, Baby Beats Inc., based in Spokane, plans to begin manufacturing and marketing the monitor in the next several months. The monitor will be used first by the patients of a leader in fetal heart rate testing, Dr. Barry Schifrin, director of the OB-GYN residency at Glendale Adventist Hospital in Los Angeles. Baker described Schifrin as a 20-year ally during the development of the monitor.
The SBDCs serve Washington business owners from 29 locations statewide. Owners and managers of businesses can obtain one-on-one, confidential and free counseling assistance from qualified business development specialists. Over the past five years, the centers have served 14,000 business owners, helping them secure $185 million in funding and creating or saving 7,000 jobs.
The centers’ network of counseling and training centers is operated through a partnership between institutions of higher education and economic development organizations in Washington and the U.S. Small Business Administration. WSU sponsors six of the counseling centers and administers the network.