Luke Marshall is all too familiar with inventions that improve lives and usher in a new future. He studied under John B. Goodenough, who invented the lithium-ion battery, while he was working towards his Ph.D. of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
With an interest in getting core scientific technologies off the bench and into the real world, he helped set up commercialization partnerships with an S&P 500 company to get more familiar with technology transfer (the process of transferring technology from one person or organization to another).
Attracted by research at North Carolina State University, Marshall founded VitalFlo to pull technology out of the university and bring it to market. VitalFlo is a remote patient monitoring system for asthma management, designed to prevent asthma attacks before they happen.
As VitalFlo’s technology is becoming increasingly pivotal to healthcare workers amid COVID-19, our marketing team conducted a Q&A with Marshall to learn more about his journey as a tech entrepreneur and the process of building new digital health solutions.
Oak City Labs: Tell me about your background, and what motivated you to start VitalFlo?
Luke Marshall: My background is in different technical fields, but I got really involved with technology transfer. I was looking at what patents and intellectual property universities have developed that are stuck in research land. How do you get them off the bench and out into the real world with a product that makes an impact?
VitalFlo was one that kind of popped off the shelf, so to speak. It was this great tech that had a lot of progress already done, and there was a need for it in the market. So, I came in to help pull it out from the university and spin it forward.
The idea for the technology came from our clinical advisors who are experts in asthma care. They wanted a way to connect with their patients at home to see what’s going on outside the four walls of the hospital or the clinic where most of their patients live their lives.
We started as a project at NC State University, collaborating with the University of North Carolina. In the beginning, I tried to shepherd it along with limited resources, with a technical but not software-oriented team, which we have since built.
OCL: How does VitalFlo work, and what drew you to this technology?
LM: We, Vitaflo as a company, help doctors keep their asthma patients out of the ER. We do that through a remote monitoring solution. It’s a mobile app that a patient uses in their home that connects to a few different devices that monitor their health and environment. We pull that back to the clinical team and, using advanced analytics, help forecast patient health.
In a world where there’s 25 million asthmatics, 13 million people with COPD in the U.S. alone, and 10 people die every day from asthma attacks in the U.S.; it’s very easy to wake up in the morning and work hard every day trying to find a solution. We wanted to help forecast when a patient is at risk, so their doctors can make a preventative treatment for their industry.
OCL: Tell me about building this technology. What did you learn that you could share with other startups?
LM: We had some individual contributors and contractors that we worked with right out of the commercialization process. But, it’s tricky to work with individuals because their circumstances can change. Hiring part-time, you don’t get to really control your destiny with that individual because they’re going to be looking for other projects or companies to join that can support them full-time. And, in the early days, we just weren’t in the position to support that.
After we had moved through our second part-time developer, we realized a more stable solution would be to work with a development house where we could flex that resource up and down based on where we are in the cycle. A development house also has the advantage of you getting multiple people with multiple different types of expertise for one engagement.
For example, when we were working on the patient-facing app, we needed someone who had iOS and Android experience. When we were working with developing the backend, we really needed somebody with Cloud, SQLl, and API development expertise. Usually, those are different people, and you get better quality work if you work with people who specialize.
While we still weren’t ready for an in-house development team, we did need to scale up the product. That’s when we started looking around and met Oak City Labs through our network.
We had a couple of firms in the region we were looking at. The big deciding point was some of the firms had a local presence, usually the sales folks, but they had offshore development teams. While the advantage of that is it’s less expensive, the disadvantage is you’re working on different time cycles. The communication is more challenging, just in terms of keeping everyone on the same page and moving quickly.
There can also be a difference in quality, depending on who you’re working with. And when you’re a company that does not have very many resources, where you spend those resources matters quite a bit. Spending them in the wrong place can be the difference between making it through the phase when you’re building out the product, but you’re not selling as much.
The thing that really attracted us to Oak City Labs was the high recommendations we got from trusted friends and peers in the network that we didn’t need to worry about the quality of work. And that the founders had startup experience in their back pocket.
They had an intuition and understanding of the different cycles we were going to go through as a company. Oak City Labs understood that our plan was to grow quickly and was able to work with us knowing our priorities could change rapidly from one week to the next. It was attractive to work with a team that could have that empathy with us.
OCL: What else could you share about your partnership with Oak City Labs?
LM: Everything has been pretty easy. I’ve really enjoyed working with them.
As we’ve grown, we’ve also brought in our own internal developers, and the transition from having a fully outsourced development team to a split development team has been smooth.
I could see that causing issues with other firms, potentially, because it’s either a threat to business or an opportunity to collaborate.
The experience that we have is a new collaboration and one that has continued to evolve as we go. But even as we grow our internal team, we have no plans to move away from Oak City Labs because they’ve been great to work with, and they’re such a flexible, high-quality resource.
I really like how transparent and easy it is to work with Oak City Labs. We always know where we stand week-to-week. If we’re in one of those periods where everything is smooth, and we can handle everything internally on our end, we can just kick the can a week or two, and that’s not a big deal. They aren’t overly aggressive, trying to create work where there isn’t any to be done.
It’s just been very easy to flex up and down and use the resources they offer, tactically and strategically. We’ve been very happy with the quality all along the way, which is why we continue to move forward with Oak City Labs.
OCL: How do you feel now that VitalFlo is out to market?
LM: It’s been great, and sort of ever-evolving.
There’s not really an end date for development. We keep coming up with new features that make sense to add based on what we’re getting back from our customers. We keep that process moving, so it’s very much an agile process where we’re coming up with the next features and next iterations as we go. And it’s easy to keep adding those along the way.
Right now, we’re doing a full redesign. Before working with Oak City Labs, the app was doing way too much heavy lifting. Most of the functionality that should live in a good system architecture on the cloud, we had a lot of it on the app, so it was bulky and inelegant.
Oak City Labs helped us incorporate it into the cloud infrastructure to make the system more scalable as we started to add more customers and go live with our clinical studies.
Now that the cloud base is where we want it, we’re doing the next evolution of the patient-facing side.
OCL: How does it feel knowing you’re making an impact through your technology?
LM: It’s just a very cool space to be in. There are a lot of challenges with it: in terms of making sure things are doing well on a regulatory side and keeping all your boxes checked. You also have to make sure everything is high-quality, and you’re taking care of your patients and making sure your data is safe and secure. But, it’s very rewarding to be making a difference, hopefully.
As we grow, we hope to be able to make more and more of a difference over time as well. It’s been a lot of fun.