More than 1.5 billion blood draws take place in hospitals around the world every year. These are critical procedures as they inform more than 70% of all medical decisions. But the fear and anxiety around venipuncture (needle-based draws) is a near universal experience for patients. At the same time, nurses and practitioners hate using a needle because it’s difficult, upsets patients, and can result in accidental needle stick injuries or infections for them. All this makes it an expensive and cumbersome process for the hospital too. So while you cannot remove blood draws from medicine, we have made it possible to remove the needle from blood draws. And in the process, we make medicine better for people.
Ihad the pleasure to interview Eric M. Stone. Eric is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Velano Vascular. A patient advocate since his diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease at the age of fourteen and a serial healthcare entrepreneur, Stone is also a National Trustee of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (CCF). Prior to Velano, he served as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Molecular Health, and earlier in his career launched a series of pioneering interventional cardiology devices for Abbott while based in Brussels, Belgium and California. Stone was a founding member of Model Nʼs (NYSE: MODN) Life Sciences division, where he led marketing and business development for the global revenue management software firm. Stone began his career in Marketing with Trilogy Software and has since co-founded social sector programs at Harvard and Wharton. He served for a decade on Harvard University’s Alumni Association (HAA) Board of Directors. Stone is an investor in and has been a board member and Advisor to multiple early stage companies. He received an MBA in Health Care Management from The Wharton School, a Masters from Harvard University, and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Stone lives with his wife and two children in San Francisco, California.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ican trace the arc of my career to the 12 awful days and nights I spent hospitalized at the age of fourteen. My stomach pains, weight loss and fatigue had been misdiagnosed for two years as emotional issues tied to my parents’ divorce. It turned out to be a raging disease. For that dark stretch, I was a scared kid huddled in a hospital bed afraid and vulnerable while I heard voices in the hallway, watched blinking lights on monitors around my rooms, was fed through tubes, and was constantly woken to be poked and prodded with needles for blood draws in the middle of the night.
I left the hospital with a realization that as a Crohn’s patient I was now a lifelong chronic disease sufferer and the proud recipient of a condition called trypanophobia — a clinical fear of needles. But I also took away an inspiration from the amazing doctors and nurses that worked so hard to take care of me and give me life. I resolved that I would find a way to help others just like they did.
Not only did that lead to my role as a national patient advocate for Crohn’s and Colitis patients, but it resulted in numerous medtech positions and — ultimately — to my co-founding of Velano and our work removing the needle from hospital-based blood draws.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the worst mistakes was not funny, but instructive.
Early in our development, we urgently needed prototypes of our novel needle-free blood draw device for a study in order to demonstrate positive results and secure additional funding. At the time, we were using a single supplier from Germany for a key specialty plastic component of an early product design.
Unfortunately, just as we needed this piece the most their factory suffered a tragic fire in which two people died. The impact to us paled in comparison to the horrible consequences for those families and the supplier. But we did learn an important lesson.
You need to plan for the worst with a Plan B for just about every decision you make as an entrepreneur. Resource wisely, create optionality, and ensure redundancy for crucial needs.
It also reminded us all that it’s important to step back and appreciate your accomplishments as they happen. Success is a team effort — and entrepreneurship often hinges on a bit of luck — so savor the good moments.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Velano stands apart for two reasons — we tackle one of the most common and hated procedures in all of medicine, and we do it by re-engineering the process from the patient’s perspective.
More than 1.5 billion blood draws take place in hospitals around the world every year. These are critical procedures as they inform more than 70% of all medical decisions.
But the fear and anxiety around venipuncture (needle-based draws) is a near universal experience for patients. At the same time, nurses and practitioners hate using a needle because it’s difficult, upsets patients, and can result in accidental needle stick injuries or infections for them. All this makes it an expensive and cumbersome process for the hospital too.
So while you cannot remove blood draws from medicine, we have made it possible to remove the needle from blood draws. And in the process, we make medicine better for people. That’s why we were just named one of the world’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company.
For me, the stories that truly resonate are those of children because it reminds me of my own experience. Take for instance Malia, a young 8-year old girl with a history of requiring frequent blood draws. She and her family hated them because they were painful and made Malia so fearful. But with PIVO, Malia had multiple blood draws in a short time span with no pain or anxiety — she even slept through two of them!
That’s my objective as an entrepreneur…delivering more human-centered innovations to make the experience better for patients, practitioners and hospitals — for our healthcare system as a whole.
What advice would you give to other healthcare leaders to help their team to thrive?
First — it’s important to acknowledge that anything is possible. The combination of transparency, technology today and passion mean that entrepreneurs, advocates and leaders can achieve incredible success. So swing for the fences.
But it’s important to stop to celebrate your wins and milestones — and even your failures — along the way. By sharing the ups and downs (always in pursuit of a goal), you can humanize the endeavor and make the journey real for not only your employees, but for your partners, investors, customers and those critical to your journey. It helps recruit people to the cause and multiplies the effort underway.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this study cited by Newsweek, the US healthcare system is ranked as the worst among high income nations. This seems shocking. Can you share with us 3–5 reasons why you think the US is ranked so poorly?
Yes, it’s disheartening when you see statistics like that. In my experience there are four realities that suppress quality care in the U.S.:
- Misaligned financial incentives between who pays for care, who receives care, and who gets paid to deliver care. We need a realignment of the flow of money within the system.
- A raging disparity among the haves and have nots in terms of access to care. Everyone is worthy of life-saving or life-improving medicine and care. We must find a way to deliver those equally.
- Limited investment in preventive care. By focusing on earlier interventions and preventive care in areas like lifestyle, nutrition, and more we can make an enormous difference in quality of life and the cost of care. One pressing example is healthy food — fast food and poor eating habits are literally poisoning our children.
- A lack of understanding and mistrust by physicians in the U.S. of “Eastern” medicine. It works but is underappreciated and even stigmatized here.
You are a “healthcare insider”. If you had the power to make a change, can you share 5 changes that need to be made to improve the overall US healthcare system? Please share a story or example for each.
I realize some of these can seem like far out ideas, but I believe we need radical change to see radical improvement.
- Require our national elected leaders to receive care only within the VA health system or at the bottom quartile of ranked hospitals in our most impoverished communities. This would spur dramatic transformation quickly.
- Universal coverage for all, including underserved populations and those with pre-existing conditions. And by this, I mean good coverage…not just basic or even adequate coverage.
- Make nutrition a fundamental part of our medical training for MDs/RNs and facilitate delivery of food resources to underserved communities. I learned years ago during my training at Abbott that 70% of our immune system resides in the gut (intestinal lining). We are what we eat!
- Invest heavily in our community health infrastructure, including in health education, equal pay for providers, community centers, places of worship and more.
- At a national level, we must invest in new technologies and business/care models that bring healthcare to the home. In this way, we can heal in our safest environment.
As a mental health professional myself, im particularly interested in the interplay between the general healthcare system and the mental health system. Right now we have two parallel tracks mental/behavioral health and general health. What are your thoughts about this status quo? What would you suggest to improve this?
This is a terrific point. The relationship between mental and physical health is certainly broken. As a Crohn’s patient, I know firsthand that the physical ailments are only the tip of the iceberg for this disease. The same is true for many other diseases and afflictions. Positive mental attitude, stress over outward appearances, and coping mechanisms for managing disease while leading a complex lifestyle all contribute to how we manage the disease and improve our health.
I think we need to integrate the two in a number of ways:
- Payments/insurance coverage;
- Screenings such as annual health checkups;
- Caregiver communications (ex: providing ways for a GP to easily speak with therapists or specialists);
- Better educating our MDs and support staff that mental health IShealth and informs physiological function.
Stress is literally killing our society, and degradation due to stress leads to severe mental health issues. We must remove the stigma of mental health from healthcare in general. One way to begin that effort would be a PR campaign funded by federal government featuring famous people speaking openly about their struggles with depression, suicide, etc.
How would you define an “excellent healthcare provider”?
One that treats you like they would want to be treated. For me, that means a provider that is data rich, analytically rigorous, self-aware, open to constructive feedback, able to affect change rapidly, embraces experimentation around process and practice, and has a wide reach in terms of population health (earlier intervention, coordinated care/care teams, etc.).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I live life so that looking back, I have as few regrets as possible…including regretting those things that I did not do.”
I left Abbott’s cardiology device franchise in 2011 to find an inventor partner with an industry transforming idea, launch a company, and reinvest in my physical health. Within three months, I had met my wife (and moved together from San Francisco to Manhattan), met my co-founder and started Velano, and learned how to better listen to my body and its warning signs as a chronic disease sufferer.
That quote was a big part of that trifecta. It inspired me to take risks, to chart a course that had never before been taken (even when clinical leaders told us needle-free blood draws were impossible), and assemble a world-class group of investors and advisors.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are actively bringing our novel, life-impacting technologies to the masses. Today, Velano is positively impacting hundreds of thousands of lives a year. Soon, we’ll reach millions. And eventually, we’ll help nearly every single person on the planet as we all will spend time in a hospital at some point in our lives.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We are already deeply engaged in this process. Our goal is to bring PIVO to every hospital around the world. Those we already work with liken it to a movement — some call it the needle-free movement, others ‘one-stick hospitalization’. Regardless, all are united in seeing this as transformational change on behalf of patients and practitioners.
You can see how our hospital partners talk about it in videos like this: https://velanovascular.com/griffin-hospital-documentary-short/
I am excited and honored to continue in this movement.
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