Using robotics to supercharge health care
Vecna Technologies, founded by a pair of MIT alumni, has followed a long and winding path to help people in health care settings.Zach Winn | MIT News Office
Since its founding in 1998, Vecna Technologies has developed a number of ways to help hospitals care for patients. The company has produced intake systems to respond to Covid-19 patient surges, prediction systems to manage health complications in maternity wards, and telepresence robots that have allowed sick people to stay connected with friends and loved ones.
The differences among those products have also led to a number of transformations and spinoffs, including material handling company Vecna Robotics and the health care nonprofit VecnaCares. Vecna Technologies co-founders Deborah Noel Theobald ’95 and Daniel Theobald ’95, SM ’98 say each of those pivots has been driven by a desire to build a robotics company that makes a positive impact on the world.
“We knew we wanted to do robotics and do something good in the world,” Deborah says of the team’s mindset. “We founded Vecna thinking, ‘How can these new web technologies influence and improve health care?’ That’s the arc MIT set me on and something I’ve been excited to pursue ever since.”
“A fun ride”
As a child, Deborah Theobald wanted to be an astronaut. The desire led her to MIT, which had one of the few aerospace engineering programs for undergraduates. She got interested in the health care industry while studying the health effects of long-term space exploration with Professor Dava Newman, the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics at MIT who is now also the director of the Media Lab.
Deborah also met Daniel Theobald at MIT. Daniel had been building robots since he was a child and was majoring in mechanical engineering.
The two began thinking about starting a company, and Daniel even applied to the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (then the $10K) with a rough idea for a robotics company.
For their master’s degrees, Deborah went to the University of Maryland to continue studying health effects in space, while Daniel stayed at MIT, working on several robotics projects. When Daniel graduated in 1998, Vecna was born.
From day one, the company had a policy of paying employees to spend 10 percent of their work week doing community service.
“We found that our focus on giving back benefited the business in so many ways that it was absolutely, unambiguously the right thing to do,” Daniel says. “For one, it was a self-filtering mechanism. People joined Vecna who believed in giving back and wanted to be part of something that was socially responsible. And we found those are also the people that make amazing employees.”
The founders got their first big break with a government contract to build a health care portal that allowed patients, managers, and providers to communicate and share documents. The contract also provided flexibility for the founders to explore other avenues for the business.
The pair went on to earn a number of government grants for one-off projects, some of which blossomed into successful commercial products. Another grant tasked them with building models to help hospitals predict and manage hospital acquired infections (HAIs), which kill tens of thousands of people in the U.S. each year. The resulting tool ended up being deployed in about 100 hospitals.
“At the time, people were using spreadsheets to pull in data from different systems … and trying to comprehend what kind of infection it was,” Deborah says, noting that doctors usually start infected patients on general antibiotics before they can classify the disease. “Our tool allowed them to pull that information together faster, reducing their stay in hospitals — and all the trauma and pain that goes with that — by weeks.”
The company’s next product was a patient registration system that used kiosks to streamline patient intake at hospitals. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Vecna turned the platform into a text-based check-in service for clinics. The service is being used by thousands of hospitals today.
Subsequent mobile versions of that system have been used to deliver medication, allow doctors to hold virtual consultations, and even help immunocompromised students to attend school virtually and avoid isolation.
Vecna’s emphasis on community service led the team to explore ways to apply the company’s technologies in low-resource settings, leading to the creation of the company’s nonprofit arm, VecnaCares.
In 2014, VecnaCares brought their VGo mobile robot to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help with the Ebola response, allowing doctors to see patients without going through a time-consuming decontamination process. The company’s patient intake software was also used to register and manage patients with Ebola and other diseases.
VecnaCares has since partnered with groups including the International Rescue Committee, the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Medical Corp, and the Special Olympics for a variety of projects. It’s also honed its algorithms to help low-resource hospitals manage staff shortages in maternity wards, helping nurses focus their attention on the babies and mothers most at risk of complications.
“One of the places we’re deployed has 10,000 births a year, so at any one time there may be 40 women laboring in that hospital, which has one operating room for all C-sections,” Deborah explains. “Our tool can intake women, do an assessment, and notify clinicians if someone’s high risk and needs checking-in on. It leads to better outcomes and helps manage some of the complications that have led to a high rate of infant and maternal mortality in these areas.”
After years of robot development and commercialization, the founders decided their robots may be better suited for warehouses than health care. In 2017, Daniel spun out Vecna Robotics to focus exclusively on robotics for industrial settings like manufacturing, logistics, and order fulfillment.
“We’ve sort of done four different growths and exits,” Deborah explains. “It’s been a fun ride.”
Continuing to innovate
As it nears the 25th anniversary of its founding, Vecna Technologies is far from finished. Its leaders believe the firm’s products and expertise can play a significant role in the burgeoning home health care and extended care industries, helping patients stay out of hospitals while remaining safe.
“As we look at the aging population, that burden of care is really going to fall on family members as well as [health care organizations],” Deborah says. “I’d love to be able to provide better tools for them to care for loved ones, which is often unpaid and unrecognized.”
Later this year, the company will release an inexpensive home care robot that can move autonomously or by remote control to help care for people struggling with diseases like Alzheimer’s. The robots will be part of Vecna’s “Be There Network” that health care providers can use to provide care for large numbers of patients despite staff shortages.
“Now you can see and hear and feel like you’re actually there to more seamlessly interact with the environment,” Deborah says. “We see that as the wave of the future now that people have begun to embrace telepresence. There are so many uses for this robot. People keep coming up with more ideas as they catch the vision.”
No matter what the future holds for Vecna — whose motto is “Better technology, better world” — the founders say the company will continue exploring new applications where its technologies could make a real difference in people’s lives.
This article originally appeared in MIT News on January 23, 2023.