SPOKANE, Wash. – The Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is best known for its students in white medical coats, but the white coated scientists experimenting in labs, collecting data in clinics and hospitals, and analyzing data on computers may be the college’s biggest economic output until its students begin practicing medicine.

Led by world-class scientists studying and developing solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing health concerns including autism and addiction, the College of Medicine has hauled in more than $62 million in grants and contracts since its inception in 2015.

Recently, scientists have been venturing beyond the lab to become entrepreneurs for their ideas, partnering with private enterprise to generate new products and companies that solve some of health care’s most challenging issues.

“From the very beginning, the College of Medicine was touted as having a strong potential for economic benefit due to its attractiveness to scientists and spin-off companies,” said John Tomkowiak, founding dean of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “Today, our scientists are not only producing ground-breaking studies, they are developing innovative ideas and launching and partnering with businesses that will benefit communities here and around the world.”

Ringful Health and Managed Health Connections

In 2014, Dr. Sterling McPherson, associate professor and assistant dean for research, partnered with Austin, Texas-based Ringful Health, a digital health startup, to develop tools designed to assess and combat the impacts of substance use in patients.

To date, the partnership has resulted in the development of shared medical decision platforms that connect patients and clinicians for substance abuse early intervention and smoking cessation, and an ongoing project in partnership with the Community Health Association of Spokane to streamline the screening and referral process to improve access to substance use disorder treatment.

Currently, work is focused on developing a digital tool and competency training to help health providers assess symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome – a condition affecting babies exposed to drugs while in the womb. The tool, which is slated to be made available nationwide by 2020, will provide support for nursing staff and caregivers for decision making and treatment of babies affected by maternal opioid use prenatally. This project also led to the establishment of a Spokane office and a new Spokane-based company called Managed Health Connections (MHC).

Under the MHC banner, work has also begun on a solution for reducing alcohol use in problematic drinkers. The company is developing an end-to-end contingency management platform that will enable patients and their clinicians to monitor drinking, reduce alcohol consumption, and better understand factors related to the patient’s alcohol use.

Appiture Biotechnologies

In 2019, Dr. Georgina Lynch, assistant professor, and former WSU bioengineering and entrepreneurial studies student, Lars Neuenschwander, launched Appiture Biotechnologies, which develops handheld technology to quickly, noninvasively and objectively screen for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children.

Born out of research conducted by Dr. Lynch on the atypical pupillary light reflex in children with autism, Neuenschwander, along with fellow entrepreneurial studies student TJ Goble, created the handheld camera-integrated device and partnered with Dr. Lynch to develop preliminary software and hardware and an alpha prototype.

This technology will offer medical providers an objective tool for assessing ASD risk in young children as part of routine developmental exams. Provisional patents have been filed and the technology will now move into small pilot trials and collection of provider feedback in the next two years before going to market.

Pillsy

The college’s latest partnership is with Pillsy, a Seattle-based medication adherence technology that tracks and reminds patients to take their prescriptions.

Dr. Sterling McPherson has partnered with Pillsy to research and develop the technology specifically for buprenorphine adherence in patients who are being treated for addiction to opioids. The three-year study will begin with a 30-patient pilot and expand to a larger clinical trial to analyze optimization and technology usefulness among patients.

If all trials are successful, the technology could be used nationwide in the fight against opioid abuse and addiction.

With several of the technologies in early and trial stages, the entrepreneurial spirit of the college’s researchers may not yield significant economic impact for a few years. Still, the excitement and anticipated impact of solutions being born out of a new medical school is enough to keep the momentum going.

“Our entrepreneurial spirit has been alive since the College of Medicine was formed in 2015, and we anticipate these promising new products and spinoff companies to continue to mature as the college matures,” said John Roll, vice president of research. “This is really just the beginning of what we anticipate will be many national success stories for how our research translates into economic benefit.”

For more information, visit medicine.wsu.edu.

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