When Dr. Vanaja Ragavan began building a mobile device to quickly diagnose infectious diseases and other acute illnesses using sound waves, she didn’t expect to move to a different city.
The trained endocrinologist and former Food and Drug Administration medical officer with a long career in the pharmaceutical industry had recently started her medical diagnostics company, Aviana Molecular Technologies, in Philadelphia and knew all the components she’d need to build it: cutting-edge microfluidics that would manipulate patient body fluids, a device that could bombard target molecules with acoustic waves and a computer outfitted with powerful analytics to tell if the patient was infected with a pathogen or had other ailments. It was all coming together, except she couldn’t find the advanced radio-frequency-based acoustic technology she needed to fold into her instrument.
Searching for a solution, Ragavan heard about a project the University of Central Florida in Orlando had completed for NASA. After 10 years of work, UCF had developed a small wireless unit the space agency could deploy on spacecraft that used this acoustic approach to evaluate the stress and strain they experience during launch and flight. The technology was now available to license for other uses.
The state offered Aviana startup funding if Ragavan would relocate the business to Orlando. Seeing a big opportunity to acquire the tech and bring together some of the brightest specialized engineering minds in the world at the same time, she packed up her life and headed south.
“We found our way to Florida because that’s where the most advanced technology of this kind was being developed,” Ragavan said. “And the talent is great here. In fact, some of our success has been because of local talent.”
UCF also offered Ragavan space in a new, state-of-the-art healthcare and life sciences incubator at its Lake Nona Medical City campus to provide the company with the resources to mature. The technology has progressed to a working lab prototype, and Ragavan hopes it will one day help doctors, in-home nurses and worried parents rapidly diagnose anything from the flu or Lyme disease to other acute medical illnesses at the point of care. That’s where such a diagnosis could make a life-saving difference.
Healthcare Community Grows
Aviana joined a rapidly growing healthcare innovation scene centered on Orlando.
Medical and wellness startups are relocating to the area, and they’re getting support to navigate through the complexities of moving from good ideas to working prototypes to market. Along with UCF’s incubators and other organizations working to foster economic development and innovation, a venture called IQ Florida has entered the space to drastically expand Orlando’s efforts to be a global healthcare and life sciences innovation hub. The partnership brings together experts from healthcare and academic institutions, real estate and private investment. IQ Florida’s goal is to recruit, fund and accelerate healthcare and life sciences companies in the region.
Meanwhile, multihospital health systems and advanced university research programs are pushing themselves to invent new healthcare technologies. And healthcare providers are all vying for part of a massive patient population that grows daily thanks to breakneck migration into the area.
Altogether, these organizations are employing and training a labor force offering expertise in fields from modeling and simulation to surgical robots. Stepping back reveals a bigger picture of a robust and fertile ecosystem aiming to be among the top healthcare innovation destinations in the country.
Because of all this activity, the area is growing more attractive to researchers, entrepreneurs and established companies. The ingredient that ties all this diverse activity together: data.
Bytes Feed The Revolution
The digital revolution has been made possible by a torrent of data, which has created an opportunity for once impossible healthcare breakthroughs. Orlando’s innovators are doing their utmost to leverage this valuable resource. Like Aviana, they’re using data and computing power to create a whole new paradigm for getting and keeping people healthy.
David Metcalf is one such researcher inhabiting the new healthcare frontier. As the director of UCF’s Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab (METIL), Metcalf spends his days figuring out how to bring together different technologies to improve healthcare.
Recently, he’s been thinking about how blockchain, the digital system of decentralized, secure record keeping, could improve patient medical record handling, scientific research verification and doctor credentialing.
“We’re in a different age now with surgical robotics. The Nicholson Center is in a sweet spot because we’re already known around the world as the premier place to come to get training on robots.”
- Roger Smith, chief technology officer of the Nicholson Center at AdventHealth
Among other projects Metcalf and his team are working on, they are using video game concepts to improve health — harnessing incentives, goals and rewards to keep people on their exercise regimen or to help diabetics stay on their medication schedule. They’ve also made a working prototype of augmented reality goggles, the Microsoft HoloLens, that doctors will one day be able to control with their thoughts. Their work regularly moves from lab to market.
“We’re looking at many emerging technologies to improve health outcomes, healthcare administration and the system in general,” Metcalf said. “It’s not just us — people are convening over tough problems, and the scene is thriving. There’s so much happening in this space in Orlando.”
Collaborations are popping up to show off futuristic solutions. METIL worked with several partners to develop a health-centered model house of the future called WHIT (short for Wellness, Home, Innovation and Technology). The building is actually a lab that tests advanced products like microbe-killing ultraviolet lights, toilets that will conduct regular urinalysis to support senior citizens who want to remain in their homes and lighting that syncs with occupants’ natural circadian rhythms.
Another member of the WHIT partnership is AdventHealth, which runs hospitals, clinics and research facilities throughout the region. The organization has made a large innovation and research investment, including building one of the world’s most advanced operating rooms at AdventHealth Orlando, a global robotics institute in nearby Celebration and a surgical prototyping lab.
Surgeon using DaVinci surgical robot at the AdventHealth Nicholson Center
And because the area is becoming a locus of activity for making new technologies, it’s also a place where specialists come to learn how to use them. Roger Smith, chief technology officer of AdventHealth’s Nicholson Center, which trains surgical staff on the newest technologies, said that for over a decade the facility has instructed more than 50,000 clinical learners from around the world.
“We’re in a different age now with surgical robotics,” Smith said. “The Nicholson Center is in a sweet spot because we’re already known around the world as the premier place to come to get training on robots. We’ll be at the front end of this revolution.”
Many Factors Fueling Growth
Smith said several factors are helping Orlando become an innovation hub. Among the most attractive to those in the medical research community is a huge pool of retirees.
“Orlando is a great place to access patients with every malady known to man,” Smith said. “It has been known for decades as a nexus for treating retirees for the maladies that come with age.”
He said the retirees — and all the hospitals and clinicians who treat them — have drawn the attention of medical device and pharmaceutical companies working on better treatments.
“We haven’t been known as a place where this cutting-edge technology gets invented, but that’s changing,” he said. “Dozens of companies are now being incubated in places like Lake Nona Medical City.”
Aerial view of Lake Nona, Fla.
From Metcalf’s perspective, at least three big advantages make Orlando a very attractive place for healthcare innovators on top of a lifestyle that allows him to go surfing whenever he likes. Long-standing local industries such as defense and aerospace offer a chance to incorporate technologies like computer simulation as well as robotics and imaging into new healthcare systems. Economic development authorities are full partners to accelerating innovation. With Orlando serving as the top destination for healthcare and medical conferences, visiting global experts in every medical and wellness field offer a constant source of new ideas.
“It’s a pretty exciting place to be because the world comes to us,” Metcalf said. “Everyone is working together to grow our footprint. It’s been really interesting to watch our evolution into a healthcare innovation center unfold.”