Vecna Technologies: Robots And Healthcare IT Systems

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Daniel Theobald, CTO and co-founder of Vecna Technologies recently told us that the company believed it was a generation ahead in general purpose robots. After years of robotics research, being in “stealth mode,” according to Theobald, “we’re taking the robotics world by storm.” He ballparks the potential market for general purpose robots as “trillions of dollars of unmet needs.”

This success is all the more interesting to us because Vecna has also been a leader in healthcare patient information solutions. It provides its Patient Information Exchange, which is a heavily featured system that enables patients to expedite and simplify steps such as hospital registrations and gives patients access to medical records, while also affording extensive patient and workflow management features for providers. The company has also had success with its infection prevention system, Pathfinder.

The success of its healthcare IT solution helped lead to the company’s market entry strategy in robotics. Theobald states that they addressed healthcare robotics first because Vecna already had a customer base in that segment, and also because it is the “most demanding environment” for general purpose robots. Their robotic products can clearly address an entire range of other verticals, such as manufacturing, order fulfillment, hospitality, etc.

Theobald emphasizes this key point- they are delivering “general purpose” robots that can be programmed to a wide array of tasks and can interact with humans. This is different than, for example, an industrial robot that is designed to only interact with trained operators for a specific task or range of tasks, often in a non-mobile setting.

Vecna’s approach to robotics has transpired over a 15-year period and is quite impressive. They have identified five crucial aspects for developing general purpose robots and have had R&D efforts ongoing in each of them. These five areas are: 1) Navigation, 2) Manipulation, 3) Machine Perception, 4) Machine/Human Interaction, 5) High Level Planning.

The result is the company’s QCBot robots that can interact with humans, in a human activity centric environment, and can communicate with each other. The QCBots observe through sensors and communicate via wireless networks within hospitals and other institutions. Theobald gives the example of a QCBot that is entering a hallway that is too narrow for more than one device. It will tell the other robots that it is about to enter that area and the other QCBots will avoid it.

The company, which is a big believer in open standards, is promoting that effort today. Part of this is through an effort labeled Mass Robotics which is being sponsored by an industry trade group, Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC), as well as commercial robotics players. Mass Robotics, Theobald explains, will create collaboration efforts and space for use among these various parties. (MassTLC helps to develop “active cluster communities” addressing areas including Mobile, Cloud, Healthcare, IoT, as well as Robotics and others.)

Getting back to healthcare patient information systems, Vecna has had an interesting approach to that area as a business. Like all of the other vendors we have profiled in, the company has been wrestling with the biggest obstacle in the health information field, legacy EMR (electronic medical record) systems that are based on proprietary technology and interfaces.

Vecna is trying to promote development of industry standard interfaces in this area (as well as in robotics). This is being done, in part, through, SMArt (Substitutable Medical Apps & reusable technology). SMArt is being led by Harvard Medical School and is funded by a U.S. Government program (SHARP – Strategic Health IT Advanced Research Projects.)

The rationale as stated by SHARP sums up the underlying issue in healthcare IT system accessibility: “Today’s health IT environment is largely populated by outdated one-size-fits-most systems; customization is difficult, expensive, and only a few established EHR vendor developers can innovate.” The SMArt project aims to provide: 1) a user interface “that will allow ‘iPhone-like’ substitutability” and 2) a scalable set of services “that enable efficient data capture, storage, and effective data retrieval and analytics”

Vecna is also working with one of its prime clients, the Veterans Administration, on the issue of developing standard, open platforms for medical records.

Meanwhile Theobald states that the company has, with some difficulty, integrated its solution with all of the major EMR systems. Vecna believes that the driving factor in getting patient engagement with health IT systems is convenience for the patient, what it calls its “convenient care model.” Theobald states that studies show that most people want to do “the right thing” but wind up doing what is convenient most of the time.

Its Patient Information Exchange system provides features on the patient side for: pre-registration including insurance verification; on-site check-in to reduce wait times; access to data regarding office visit results, lab tests and the like. For the healthcare givers it provides: speeded up patient registration and ease of bill paying; intelligent patient queuing; patient survey questionnaire feedback; access to patient data and secure messaging; a data warehouse and report generation capability.

The company’s market strategy to date has been based on selling the data exchange product to large healthcare systems. Sales have been made in part directly and also through partners. Their pricing includes charges for both the implementation phase, as well as the ongoing, or sustaining, phase. Some charges are borne by patients. The company is hoping over time to extend their product into a consumer offering.

Vecna, which might be described as an innovation hive, is also supplying other patient convenience products, for example, information kiosks as well as what it calls a Vitals Chair, both of which have been installed at some VA locations. The Chair allows a patient in a waiting area to check their own vital signs, e.g., blood pressure, blood oxygen level, weight and temperature. The FDA-approved unit also has been designed with features (e.g., magnetic stripe) that could be used for patient check-in or other purposes.

Theobald points out that the company has been successful in competing with major universities for government research grants. He notes that unlike educational institutions, Vecna is interested in turning research into “economic benefit.” Part of the company is Vecna Labs, which is doing developmental work in all aspects of robotics as well as healthcare informatics.

When asked which business will be bigger for the company – healthcare information systems or robotics – Theobald responds that while the info systems are most of the business currently and have vast growth potential, the robotics area addresses multiple verticals and should ultimately be the larger.

The company plans to continue as a technology innovator with a core team of perhaps 500 or so employees (versus 350 today), which could spin-off product companies or license developments to others. Our take is that this is a fascinating company following its founders’ vision of balancing creation of important solutions to benefit society, with commercial progress and growth.

The focus on general purpose robotic solutions may very well be the development platform needed to launch a host of vertically oriented robotic service offerings.

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* Photo by Bill McChesney via Flickr
* Podcast Narration by Gene Guerrero