Eric Stone was on the fast track at global healthcare company Abbott Laboratories as an international marketing expert when he decided it was time for his next challenge: Disrupt the patient experience and build a mission-driven company from the ground up.
During what he described as an intense “dating period” with numerous inventors in the healthcare space, Eric connected with Dr. Pitou Devgon, a physician with an inspirational idea for performing more humane blood draws on patients — sans needles. Eric, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was a child, understood all too well the problems that relentless blood draws pose for hospitalized patients. He and Devgon teamed up to form Velano Vascular in 2012 (originally called Creative Vascular), and the San Francisco-based company now has over 25 employees (and counting). Its flagship product PIVO™ touched the lives of more than 100,000 patients and caregivers in 2017, and that number is on track to increase well over tenfold in 2018.
We spoke with Eric, Velano’s CEO and First Republic client, about his circuitous path to entrepreneurship, the challenge of improving a seemingly simple procedure and the importance of aligning with people who share his vision.
What motivated you to leave your stable career and launch a new company?
I've been entrepreneurial since I was little, including the car-washing business I ran with my brothers in our neighborhood each summer. There is something really gratifying about building something from scratch and, in the healthcare industry, seeing it touch lives. Those perspectives, combined with a belief that change is important to create a better existence for ourselves and our families, have been extreme motivators in my career.
Can you describe the problem that Velano Vascular solves?
One of the first things that happens when you enter a hospital is that an IV line is placed somewhere in your body, typically your arm or your hand. Those IVs are great for the infusion of fluid, but after a very brief period of time, they lose their ability to pull blood out of the body. Medical providers then need to resort to sticking patients repeatedly with needles when they need to draw blood for tests. If the patient is very sick and needs significant infusion of critical fluids, the medical team will place something called a “central line,” which has its own complications when used as an alternative mechanism for blood drawing, including a risk for infection.
About 70 percent of clinical decisions are informed by the results of a blood draw, so even some of the healthiest patients are getting blood drawn daily. For about 18 percent of patients, it can easily be more than three times a day. At the same time, practitioners face increasing risk and challenges – think about the nurse or phlebotomist wielding a needle to draw blood from an HIV patient. Getting stuck with a needle that has been used in a patient poses occupational hazard risks during the course of their daily activities.
What inspired the idea behind PIVO, your needle-free blood draw technology, and how does it work?
The original idea came to Velano’s initial inventor, Dr. Devgon, when he was in the hospital and a patient pointed to the IV in her arm and asked: "Why are you sticking me repeatedly with needles? Why don't you draw blood out of this?"
He asked himself that same question and started looking at different concepts to use the IV line to draw blood effectively. When we met, the idea immediately resonated with me as a chronic patient and someone who has a clinical fear of needles — trypanophobia.
As for how the technology works, it’s a much different procedure than drawing blood with a needle; it aims to be both painless and noninvasive. You're not actually drawing blood through the IV — PIVO is a single-use disposable device that temporarily attaches to an IV line and uses the IV as an access point into the vein. Practitioners engage PIVO by advancing a slider, which pushes a small, soft, flexible tube through the IV, into the vessel. The process is simple and the case studies reveal practitioners drawing blood from some patients while they sleep.
How did you take the concept to reality?
We started up a business and raised a small amount of seed funding from about 10 different individuals, most of whom possessed deep industry expertise and who I knew from earlier in my career. We also kept our day jobs for about two years while we worked on improving the prototype and building out our body of feedback as to why this should, or should not, work in real world practice. As we continued to move forward, the company embraced a non-traditional approach to fundraising. Two of our early customers — hospitals in different parts of the country — were also early investors.
In 2015, the company received our first FDA clearance, which we've since updated, and have subsequently gained approval in Europe. Now we're in the early stages of commercialization. In 2017, Velano brought PIVO to 10 hospitals, and I expect that number to be much higher next year.
How much emphasis did you put on patents and securing intellectual property?
Intellectual property is paramount to the success of any medical device or technology company. Since our inventor's very first idea was written on the back of a napkin, this has been a significant area of investment for the company. We have and continue to grow a truly unique and differentiated portfolio of intellectual property in the blood draw domain and beyond.
What advice would you give would-be entrepreneurs focused on the healthcare space?
The key is to work with great people, and I don’t just mean your employees. At Velano, all the individuals involved with the company — from investors to advisors to our early customers — want this technology to win, and that’s so important. They want the company to succeed at changing the standard of care, not because it's a mechanism to make money, but because it's the right thing to do.
Since day one, I've looked for folks with the “How can we do this?” frame of mind. This is very important in an industry that, understandably, isn't always receptive to change.
It’s also important to stay focused on what you are trying to achieve. Everything that we're doing at Velano is, first and foremost, about improving the experience for patients and making the job of practitioners easier and safer. If you come to our office or visit our website, all of the photos you see displayed are of real customers and real patients. This reminder of the people we serve speaks to the integrity of what we are aiming to do — increase the standard of care in the healthcare industry and respectfully challenge the status quo.