- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - In 2006, Curtis Lowery, chairman of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences department of obstetrics and gynecology, wanted to find a way to help parents connect with their babies being treated at UAMS’ neonatal intensive care unit.

Critically ill infants from all over the state are treated at the UAMS unit. Some stay for months and their parents are forced to return to work in cities as far away as Rogers or Jonesboro.

To help keep parents connected to their children, Lowery, who is interested in telemedicine, developed Angel Eye, a secure webcam technology that allows parents with an Internet connection to watch their babies from anywhere in the world.

“It’s really a bonding issue with how you get the baby to link to the mother and father,” Lowery told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1mfYTrV).

The earliest version of Angel Eye was a simple webcam and secure log-in website, but the technology quickly expanded. It became part of the UAMS BioVentures business incubator, and UAMS developed second- and third-generation bed-mounted camera units.

BioVentures made its first sale to a hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2012. Lehigh Valley Hospital started with nine cameras and now has 44, one for every bed in its neonatal unit.

Eight years after those first five cameras at UAMS, Angel Eye Camera Systems LLC is set to introduce a fourth-generation hardware update next month. It’s also seen the technology gain traction at hospitals nationwide.

BioVentures licensed the technology in January 2013. Little Rock business consultant Steve Bethel became Angel Eye’s chief executive officer and president.

“It has such an emotional connection,” Bethel said. “It was ready to come out of the university. The commercialization aspect of the business really had been validated.”

The company received an investment from TriStar Technology Ventures, a Nashville, Tennessee, venture capital firm.

Bethel said he was always confident in his company’s product, but was surprised at how quickly it was able to secure venture capital funding. Although TriStar specializes in early-stage medical technology companies, Bethel said its investments usually come later in a startup company’s life.

Chris Rand, a co-founder and partner at TriStar, said Angel Eye was a natural fit for TriStar’s investment portfolio. TriStar received $500,000 from the Arkansas Development Finance Authority in 2012 as part of a program to help promote entrepreneurship in Arkansas.

Angel Eye is TriStar’s first Arkansas investment. Rand, who grew up in Searcy, had experience licensing technology and contacts at a number of children’s hospitals. He said he now gets to do a little bit of everything to help the company grow.

“The biggest single issue for us is probably our ability to be a strategic partner for the company,” Rand said. “It’s always important to us if we can be more than just money in the deal.”

Rand said that although Angel Eye is a very young startup, it has growth potential. The company has three full-time staff members and a handful of part-time workers. A second information technology specialist will soon join the team, and it’s likely that the sales and marketing team will expand next.

“I consider it to be in the complete infant stage, with a lot of exciting growth possibilities in the next couple years,” Rand said.

Angel Eye is still in use at UAMS and is in three hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but the company’s biggest growth area has been New England. In fall 2013, Angel Eye developed a partnership with the EvvGirl Foundation, a family charity that wants to put a camera on every neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit bed in the region.

Evan Bard was a 20-year-old nursing student from Agawam, Massachusetts, who hoped to become a neonatal intensive care nurse. When she was killed in a car crash in May 2013, her family set up the EvvGirl Foundation to honor her life. Todd Bard, her father, heard about the neonatal unit cameras from a friend and knew the project was a fit for the foundation. Through donations and partnerships with Rotary Clubs, the foundation is working to install 800 to 1,000 Angel Eye cameras in New England’s 26 children’s hospitals.

Bard said the foundation supplied a few hospitals with a different camera technology but later worked with Angel Eye as camera costs fell. The foundation hopes to raise $1 million to supply all the cameras.

“They’ve been amazing to work with,” Bard said. “We’ve asked for changes in the way the (technology and platform are) set up and they’ve bent over backwards to try to make it the best service possible.”

The EvvGirl Foundation is in talks to install cameras elsewhere in the region and Bard said he hopes the donations will be approved as soon as possible.

“Every family is losing a bonding opportunity with their child without a webcam,” Bard said.

For all its success so far in hospitals around the country, the Angel Eye team hopes to eventually give the technology broader telemedicine applications.

It’s already considering the technology’s uses in other medical settings. It will soon beta-test hardware that will allow parents to hear the babies’ heartbeat and breathing — right now, microphones only allow parents to talk to the babies — and also expects the cameras will become a tool that will allow doctors and nurses treating the infants to communicate with parents over secure video chat.

Lowery said the future of medicine lies in population-based health care that puts the needs of individual patients and families above all else. Telemedicine, he said, is a way of working toward that future.

“This linkage (of patients, families and health care providers) is very, very important and has been overlooked in health care,” Lowery said. “It’s difficult to accomplish in the real world. There’s a big place for tech to fill this void.”

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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