Interview with Orestis Vardoulis, Ph.D., Ferolyn Fellow 

by | Feb 2, 2022 | Ferolyn Fellowship, Mentoring

Orestis Vardoulis, Ph.D., has a contagious passion for life and developing innovative products that benefit patients. And he’s already making his mark, as the co-founder and CEO of Zeit Medical, which is developing a smart headband that monitors brain health and provides an important warning system for strokes occurring during sleep. His work on this promising technology, combined with his thirst for continuous knowledge and self-improvement in his quest to become an even better leader, make him an ideal participant in this year’s new class of Ferolyn Fellows.

A family tradition of engineering and healthcare

Orestis, who hails from Greece, comes from a supportive family of engineers and physicians. Despite his mom’s hope that he become a physician, he was fascinated by mechanical engineering, specifically a focus on fluid mechanics and turbomachinery which he pursued at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the largest university in Greece. “I loved math and physics, and I really wanted to focus on design and manufacturing so choosing the major was an easy decision for me,” he explained.

However, a healthcare-related scare in his family led him to become more interested in how to apply what he was learning in mechanical engineering to healthcare. “I remember staying late at the university library, reading papers about how to do finite element modeling for a full spectrum of healthcare conditions, from how bones break and heal, to complex cardiovascular flow phenomena in the heart. It combined my passion for engineering and my family’s affinity for healthcare, which I was increasingly drawn to.” 

This led to attending l’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D., focusing his research on non-invasive technologies to assess cardiovascular health. In parallel, he had the opportunity to partner with inspiring academic peers and spend time working with both small and established companies, including Microsoft, which led him to spend six months in Seattle. 

An opportunity in the U.S. reveals a new field

While there, he was exposed to the field of sensors and realized how hardware can be used to collect reliable, clinically relevant information about the patient or user. 

This discovery sparked his interest in creating devices that behave like the body — flexible, soft and damage resistant. After completing his Ph.D., he received a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, which was his catalyst to return to the U.S. to Stanford University, where he studied as a postdoctoral research fellow and later became a 2017-18 Stanford Biodesign Innovation fellow. 

At Stanford Biodesign, he met his current co-founder, Urs Naber, M.D., a pediatric critical care physician who shares his passion for medical technology. “We immediately hit it off as we both share the same interests and have a similar background, as he also grew up in Europe and conducted his studies there before coming to the U.S. to further his career,” said Orestis. 

Aiming to combat a common cause of disability and death

That year, the clinical focus of the Innovation Fellowship was orthopedics, and when the duo visited patients at a rehab center, they witnessed firsthand the damaging impact of strokes on the body as they observed a patient who was being treated for stroke-related imbalance.

The team discovered that viable treatments often elude stroke victims because they arrived at the hospital too late. Therefore, although much of the technology and innovation is focused on in-hospital treatments, the biggest hurdle to adequate care is early detection. This is a particular problem if the stroke happens at nighttime or to an elderly person living alone. Under these conditions, a substantial amount of time can pass before the stroke is detected, minimizing the opportunity for effective treatment.

Orestis and Urs decided to target this large unmet need with the aim of detecting strokes reliably and immediately with a device that has sensors embedded in a comfortable, lightweight headband a person wears at night. If a stroke occurs, it alerts the patient, 911 emergency services and caregivers or family members. That was the genesis of Zeit Medical, and two-and-a-half years later, the company has already raised an oversubscribed seed round of $2 million as it prepares for a larger clinical study and expands its team. 

The device is targeted toward those at high risk of stroke or a recurrent stroke. The market is large, as approximately one million patients suffer a stroke each year in the U.S. alone, and another 10 million have a diagnosed disease or condition, such as atrial fibrillation, that renders them at risk. 

Joining the Ferolyn Fellowship

Orestis heard about the Ferolyn Fellowship while he was at Stanford Biodesign; Dan Azagury, director for education for the Stanford Biodesign Innovation Fellowship, recommended the program, and he also met Ferolyn Fellows from past classes.

“I’ve really enjoyed meeting the other fellows in my cohort, and the mentors are outstanding,” Orestis said. “I’m working with Angela Macfarlane whose advice is always laser focused and on point. She has a tremendous knack for helping bring up and address challenges straight on, then helping to break them down into manageable pieces.”

He is looking forward to continuing to develop his leadership skills and build a team, while maintaining a company culture based on passion, hard work and empathy, with the patient at the forefront of all they do.  

A former swimmer and basketball player, Orestis now prefers to bike and run in San Francisco during his spare time. He also spends as much time as he can at museums and is a frequent visitor to the symphony, where he can indulge his love of classical music. 

About the Ferolyn Fellowship

This Fellowship was founded in 2015 in tribute to Ferolyn Powell, CEO of the start-up Evalve (MitraClip, Abbott Labs) and a dynamic leader in the medtech startup world. Ferolyn’s leadership journey was defined by inclusion, precision, curiosity and learning the power of leading with a whole heart. The program supports rising leaders with a strong passion and aptitude to transform healthcare. Its mission is to provide high impact, in-context mentorship that changes lives.  

Participants undergo an immersive 10-month program of customized mentoring and personal development around values-based leadership and personal brand development. Guest mentors cover topics such as venture funding, company pitching/storytelling, and clinical/regulatory challenges. The fellowship is run with the key support of Fogarty Innovation, which provides fellows with access to educational programming and team resources.

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