This year’s Ferolyn Fellow, Amy Degenkolb, is no stranger to breaking new ground. As the lead engineer for Alydia Health, one of the first companies to join Fogarty Innovation when it was known as InPress Technologies, she helped create the Jada System, which is designed to stop postpartum hemorrhage (PPH), the leading global cause of maternal death. The experience and insight she gained in maternal health led her to co-found and lead Novocuff, which is developing a medical device to prevent preterm labor and improve patient outcomes for women and their families.
A Berkeley, California, native and avid water polo player, Amy was born into a family of engineers. She was always drawn to building things from found objects. Like many innovators, she delighted in taking things apart to understand an object’s origins and how it worked. Much to her parents’ chagrin, she spent more time taking things apart than she did putting them back together. She eventually went to University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on a water polo scholarship and then transferred to UC Berkeley where she continued to play Division 1 water polo while studying engineering.
While she exceled in the technical elements of engineering, what really inspired her was a class she took on engineering and innovation ethics. Learning about the innovator’s responsibility to society completely transformed her view of engineering. She began to understand the scope of the innovator’s responsibility as they bring technology to the world.
“I realized that innovation wasn’t just about the novelty of invention, it was about assessing the potential impact of those innovations,” said Amy. “I realized that I wanted to work in a space not just where there could be innovation, but where there should be innovation!” she explained.
The Road Less Traveled
After completing her undergraduate work in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in ethics in engineering, Amy wanted to experience life outside the lab. A “maker” at heart, she took some time to travel the world, playing water polo wherever she went, but also exploring artisanal arts like furniture building and cheesemaking, which took her to the South of France where she learned to make organic chevre, one of the world’s most coveted cheeses. One day on the farm, she discovered that one of the pregnant goats had escaped into the snowy mountains. At first perplexed as to why the goat would disappear, Amy went off after her and found her in active labor and needing assistance. It was Amy’s first experience with labor and delivery.
“The delivery was so impactful—it was intense and beautiful at the same time,” she recalled. “There were so many different aspects to it and it spurred me to start researching the entire process of labor. Ultimately, that’s what propelled me back into pursuing a career in engineering,” she said.
Finding her niche
With a background in athletics and a passion for innovation, Amelia went back to graduate school with an interest in developing more intuitive and physiologic medical devices. During her time at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, she pursued an opportunity to create a device to treat inguinal hemorrhaging, or excessive bleeding around the groin area, common in battle-field injuries. Her new knowledge of pelvic vasculature and standing passion for innovating in areas of unmet need, made her introduction to Nathan Bair and Jessie Becker nothing short of serendipitous. Nathan and Jessie were working on a device to stop postpartum hemorrhaging – the initial precursor to InPress Technologies which eventually became Alydia Health. She teamed up with Jessie and Nathan to develop the device.
“We didn’t have any funding, so we all moonlighted at flexible jobs in order to be able to have time to work on the design. I became really good at pulling espresso!” she shared.
Amy’s experience and mindset as a maker help her think resourcefully. “We were so passionate about finding a way to protect women from postpartum hemorrhaging that nothing was going to stop us. We worked on one of those folding card tables that we could move around and a giant roll of duct tape…It was hard, but I think stepping up to that challenge was what kept us going,” she said.
Finding Where Innovation Can and Should Happen
The result was the Jada system, which is now owned by Organon and is changing the standard of care for PPH by reducing blood loss and all of the morbidities associated with it. “After that I knew I had found a calling in maternal health. This is a condition that impacts so many, yet has been neglected when it comes to innovation. I felt a drive and responsibility to offer better, more physiologic solutions to clinicians and their patients.”
Before long, Donald Lee, a former colleague who worked on the Jada System at the silicone manufacturing facility and fellow Cal Poly alumni, approached her with an idea for a device to help prevent preterm birth caused by a short cervix, a condition that had affected his wife who ended up delivering their twins at 24 weeks. When she learned of the lack of treatment options available to prevent prematurity, she realized that this was an area where innovation both could and should happen.
She and Donald co-founded Novocuff and today they are building their clinical units and shortly will have their device in human studies for two different indications. After gathering that data, they will move into their pivotal study for FDA clearance. “The experience and insight I gained at Alydia Health taught me so much,” she said. “I understand the road ahead for our device and have developed a great resource network. So now I can accelerate the path forward, while navigating the twists and turns that come with developing a device. I’ve also developed many incredible relationships with maternal health clinicians and researchers whose devotion to their patients I deeply admire.”
Exploring new leadership goals with the Ferolyn Fellowship
Amy first learned about the Ferolyn Fellowship several years ago and knew it was something she wanted to pursue. Early in her career, she had the privilege of meeting Ferolyn Powell when InPress was a company-in-residence at Fogarty Innovation. “Every time I talked to her, it was like a shot in the arm of inspiration,” she said. “Ferolyn understood the challenges of the innovator. She inspired me to be true to myself and leverage my strengths.”
“I love that I am encouraged in this fellowship to be true to myself and find my voice as a leader,” she continued. “Everyone in the fellowship is very accomplished, supportive and passionate. They ask hard questions which help you get to the next step, and no one is afraid to dig in. I always leave our calls feeling motivated and with a clearer path forward,” she says.
Amy’s host mentor is Claudia Carasso and together with Claudia, Amy is looking forward to discovering more about how her life’s journey has prepared her to be a leader today. “I want to inspire investors and partners to share this incredible mission. Claudia has reinforced the initial message I learned from Ferolyn about showing up as my authentic self. She has helped me realize that my passion and energy aren’t things that needs to be muted, but instead, used to fuel my message and mission.”