If you want a snapshot of Deborah (Deb) Kilpatrick’s storied career, you need look no further than the numerous accolades she has amassed. As just a sampling, she has been named on lists such as MM&M’s Top 40 Healthcare Transformers, FierceMedicalDevices’ Top Women in Medical Devices, Business Insider’s Most Powerful Women Engineers, QMed’s 10 Women Medtech Leaders, Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 100 Women of Influence and FierceBiotech’s Top Women in Biotech.
That reputation as a groundbreaking innovator – also reflective of Ferolyn Powell’s spirit – is why we are so delighted to welcome her as an advisory board member with the Ferolyn Fellowship.
Currently, Deb is the chief executive officer of Evidation Health, a new kind of health and measurement company that provides the world’s most innovative life sciences and healthcare companies the technology and expertise they need to understand how everyday behavior and health interact. She is a director for the Task Force for Global Health, Sleep Number (NASDAQ: SNBR), and NextGen Jane, which was co-founded by Ferolyn Fellow Ridhi Tariyal. She also serves on the Georgia Tech and Cal Poly Engineering advisory boards, is a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, and a co-founder of the MedtechVision Conference, now held annually in Silicon Valley.
Despite her busy schedule, she is always very generous in sharing her knowledge and advice. We recently had the privilege of catching up with Deb to discuss her career, current projects and tips for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
Q. How did you first get into the healthcare industry?
A. I started my career in the aerospace industry, working as a structures and aeroelasticity engineer on advanced gas turbine engines for U.S. military fighter aircraft, including the F22 Raptor. I later decided to go back to grad school because I wanted to work in bioengineering, and that’s where I got my start in healthcare — working on my Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology where I was focusing on vascular disease. I was on an NIH grant led by a leading vascular pathologist at University of Chicago, Seymour Glagov, who was the co-advisor for my research on human atherosclerosis (also known as hardening of the arteries), vascular biomechanics and bioengineering.
That’s how I got well versed in vascular disease, which was very relevant at the time to the development of different types of implants for coronary intervention, like stents and ultimately absorbable stents and drug-eluting stents.
I subsequently ended up at Guidant in the late 90s, and I’ve stayed in Silicon Valley ever since, working with everything from implants and disposables, to drug delivery devices and molecular diagnostics and now digital health.
Q. How is Evidation Health changing healthcare, and what are some of the recent successes you are most excited about?
A. We’re a software company focused on measuring health and disease by using the power of the individual and their daily life, gathering data – always with individual consent — from connected devices and wearables. More than three million people across the U.S. are connected to the Evidation ecosystem, via the app Achievement, which is available in both iOS and Android platforms. We gather and use this information daily to characterize the relationship between everyday behaviors and health outcomes in clinical research and prospective studies, completely outside of clinic walls.
In terms of some recent successes, we’ve just announced a new award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in using person-generated health data and population-based models to improve real-time infectious disease tracking at the individual and population level in the U.S. We’ve now proven that we can measure these types of symptoms and outcomes at a large scale, which has exciting implications related to health security – for example, in the event of bioterrorism attack, you’re going to need to be able to measure the latency periods between potential infection and symptom onset, so that you can efficiently move a population toward interventions such as therapies and vaccinations.
Similarly, another really important public health issue we are working on is chronic pain: We are now in the follow-up period of a prospective 10,000 patient chronic pain registry in the U.S. called Digital Signals in Chronic Pain, or DiSCover. This protocol involves tracking indicators like physical activity, sleep and heart rate, alongside genomic and quality of life data to better characterize the lived experience of individuals suffering with chronic pain in the U.S.
Finally, our research was named Best Paper Runner-Up in the Applied Data Science track at the Association for Computing Machinery’s KDD 2019 global conference based on an initial feasibility study conducted in conjunction with Eli Lilly and Company (NYSE: LLY), and Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: APPL). We were able to show that an iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad and the Beddit sleep monitoring device, in combination with digital apps, may be able to differentiate between people with mild cognitive impairment and those with mild Alzheimer’s disease dementia. We believe this work helps build the foundation for future research that may be able to identify people with neurodegenerative conditions earlier than ever before.
Q. What drew you to join the board of The Task Force for Global Health and what are some of the organizations’ major accomplishments?
A. Overlapping personal and professional reasons drew me to join the organization. First is the ability to support people doing important global work in Atlanta, where I have strong ties due to my Georgia Tech roots.
And on a professional level, I’ve spent my career working on really complex healthcare problems largely in the U.S. and parts of the world where wealth is generally concentrated. And yet, there remains a really tremendous need to control and prevent diseases that seriously affect other parts of the world where there are fewer resources and less stable delivery infrastructures. The Task Force works on eradicating debilitating diseases, from neglected tropical diseases to viral hepatitis, and increasing access to medicine in over 150 countries. This was a way for me to be involved and make contributions in a different way and to a different part of the healthcare ecosystem.
I was really taken by something the CEO said once, “The Task Force is built on the premise that we must act on our humanitarian instincts. We cannot walk away.”
Q. You co-founded the MedtechVision Conference in 2011. How has the event evolved since then and what are some of the topics/trends that will be discussed at MedtechVision 2019?
A. One of the things that we’re really proud of — aside from the fact that it sells out every year, which shows we are meeting the demand that is out there — is that the conference has stayed true to its original core mission to highlight women leaders and their expert voices in the medtech sector in regards to important market-moving trends.
This year’s theme is precision health, which promises to improve prevention, detection and treatment of disease. We’re looking at the medtech sector’s movement and progress in this area to understand how continued advances in technology will impact and evolve the historical approaches and ask some very open-ended questions about the relevance of precision health in 2020 and beyond.
Q. What have been some of the most rewarding moments of your career?
A. There are two categories – those times I was hopefully helping influence individuals in a positive way as a mentor, and those instances where I was directly involved as a team member or researcher myself.
Regarding the former, I think I learned this from my father’s example. My dad was a high school football coach and he always told me that the scoreboard was not the most important metric of his success; rather it was about his impact on the development of the young men on the field. I grew up believing that, and feel I have embodied this philosophy in how I think about my own success. It’s really important that I make a contribution, not just through my own actions, but through the contributions of my team members and others I coach or advise.
In the second category, I do think of times where I or my team contributed something really foundational; for example, when I was working in the aerospace industry in the late 80s on the F22 Raptor program, I was on a team that was charged with building some of the most complex computational fluid-solid models that anybody had ever attempted. We were doing this on one of only five Cray computers that existed at that time – we didn’t have a recipe to follow, and we were working on truly leading-edge technology. It’s not an overstatement to say that the F22 program absolutely relied on pushing the boundaries of computational mechanics to meet its objectives, and I am proud to have been a part of that.
Likewise, when I was in grad school, I applied similar approaches to build new experimental-computational models that allowed us to look at the human arterial wall as a heterogeneous material being physically changed by disease. These approaches then allowed my research team at Guidant to characterize the interaction of the vascular wall with implants during vascular disease.
I’ve always been involved in the early-stage side of things, with research or technology advancements that were being done for the first time – that’s what I gravitate towards and what excites me the most.
Q. You have been a long-time Stanford Biodesign mentor and now an advisory board member of the Ferolyn Fellowship. What are your top tips for early-stage and up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
A. First is to know your “stuff” and self-educate constantly. The world is very complex and changing so rapidly that it’s critically important to get out of your core domain so you start to understand other parts of the ecosystem where your business, product or technology might be used.
Second, you can’t optimize for everything at once, so be very intentional about what you’re going to take on and then maniacally focus on that in the early phases of a company. This is particularly important in startups where there are so many things you could do, but you can’t do them all equally. It takes intention and careful consideration to determine what these areas of focus should be, and frankly, sometimes it will surprise you – it might not be the things you initially thought.
Last and certainly not least, always check to ensure your product really will help the patient in the real world. It’s very easy to get caught up in all the other things you have to optimize for, but it’s critical to constantly go back to the North Star of whether you’re helping the patient or not. And if you truly are, you can be sure you’re going in the right direction.