Many companies in the medical technology field were slow to react in the wake of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, including the one where Mark Darrah worked. Darrah, however, saw the potential for new types of lifesaving devices and created his own research and development company. Before long, his clients were looking for products, not just ideas, and that was the beginning of Athena GTX. Today the company is moving to market, testing a whole new generation of high-tech bioengineering technology.
“After those two tragedies, I could see the market was emerging quickly, and the facts indicated to me the market would be worth pursuing,” explains Darrah, president and CEO of Athena GTX. “Then 9-11 happened and the market really took off.
“Initially, I worked with other companies as a consultant or as a part-time engineer and business development person. Eventually, my customers started wanting to provide contracts directly. My first contract was only $10,000 from the U.S. Navy, but it launched the Athena idea. That was in 2001.” Athena GTX was started in California, and specialized in far-forward medicine for the military. It’s a concept built around the idea that medical assessment can be made at the injury site, allowing better and quicker treatment.
Athena produces wireless medical monitoring equipment that has been developed for war zones, and is now being commercialized.
“There are other products that do what ours does, but they are three times the size so medics can’t take them far forward,” explains Greg France, director of integrated marketing for Athena. “Medics don’t run around with red crosses on their helmets anymore. They fight, so they pack ammo instead of monitors. Their packs weigh 185 pounds, and current monitors weigh as much as three laptop computers. They needed a mobile lightweight solution to the problem and Darrah stepped in.
“Ours weigh less than a pound, and are the size of a stack of three Blackberry devices. Our new one is the size of a pager,” he adds. “That’s a benefit that is directly applicable to civilian medical use in the field.”
“As a high-tech bioengineering firm in L.A., we tried to get support from California for years. There were a lot of firms asking, but not many getting,” says Darrah, who earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Iowa State University in 1982. ”We realized that there weren’t a lot of high-tech bioengineering firms in Iowa, so we asked Iowa politicians for support, and have had phenomenal support three years in a row.”
Darrah was recruited back to Iowa after a meeting with Mike Gould of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, representatives of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, U.S. Senators Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley, and Congressmen Leonard Boswell and Tom Latham.
“Almost immediately, we had a huge Department of Defense R&D contract with the U.S. Army,” Darrah says.
As the company moved from R&D to manufacturing, it worked with state of Iowa officials about relocating and building up in Des Moines. They hired more engineering, marketing, production, FDA and other expertise to make that happen. The company grew from three employees in 2001 to nearly 25 employees today. Many of those are high-tech grads who might otherwise have left the state.
France; Brian Farrell, director of operations; and Lyn Darrah, vice president of business development, began working with Mike Colwell of the Business Innovation Zone to apply for a grant to commercialize the innovative military technology. “Mike was critical to us understanding the grant process to a successful end,” Darrah says.
Military Market Point of Entry
The company currently has eight wireless medicine programs underway. Most are different variations of lightweight, military-based technology that has been tested during trials with students in a simulated mass casualty drill in Nevada, Los Angeles County Hospitals, and a series of tests and evaluations throughout the country. This led to a full-blown FDA certification test program in Germany and upcoming patient trials in trauma centers in Texas and Florida this summer.
“The military is the point of entry in the world today for our technology because the deeper you can get into a country, the more difficult it is to get the medical support needed,” Darrah says.
Once the company received clearance to proceed from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the commercialization grant will help it adapt the product to civilian use.
“The military has a different kind of patient…they don’t have to deal with obesity, diabetes, age and diseases. And there aren’t a lot of females in the paramilitary units deep into a war zone, either,“ Darrah says. “So the smart monitoring products have to adapt to a different user, need and market. That requires the commercialization process.”
Production to Start in 2010
By the fall of 2010, the company expects to begin production of its first FDA-approved wireless medical monitoring product, the WVSM™, that wirelessly collects the patient’s vital signs data from a blood pressure cuff, pulse oximetry clip and displays a lead II electrocardiogram (ECG). The unit is worn by the patient, stays with the patient and begins to record data as close as possible to the point of injury.
- The mini-Medic™, a two-component wireless vital signs monitoring system that measures pulse rate, heart rate, skin temperature and other data off a patient’s forehead and sends the information to the medic’s Wristwatch. The data input by the medic resides in the patient system and stays with the patient through triage and treatment.
- The Dogbone℠, a wireless stick-on sensor system that monitors a patient’s physiological status for remote military training purposes.
- The WiSync™, a small, ultra portable and lightweight hand-held medical computer that represents the future of highly linked wireless medicine in the size and weight of a Blackberry® or iPhone®.