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Idea draws on engineering and business to help diabetics

Leaders for Global Operations student David Linders, left, and MBA student Jon Bloom are working on a device to head off foot problems in diabetics.
Leaders for Global Operations student David Linders, left, and MBA student Jon Bloom are working on a device to head off foot problems in diabetics.

Foot ulcers and amputations are among many possible complications of diabetes — and also among the most preventable. A five-person team, including two MIT students, is working on an invention that could stop foot ulcers before they get started.

Remarkably, the Podimetrics team members had never met until the Hacking Medicine conference in October. But by the second day of the conference, they had sketched out a proposal for a data-transmitting shoe insole and wound up as one of six winning teams. They immediately turned their attention to the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition’s Elevator Pitch contest on Nov. 2 — and Podimetrics was one of two runners-up as well as the audience-choice award winner.

The idea started with team member David Linders, who’s working toward both an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and an SM in mechanical engineering from the MIT Leaders for Global Operations program (LGO). Linders, who has a long-standing interest in medical devices, had been pondering ways to reduce the prevalence of foot amputations in diabetic patients (there were almost 66,000 such amputations not related to accidents in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

The Podimetrics insole gathers and transmits continuous information about the patient’s feet, which are vulnerable to serious infections for several reasons. Diabetes can slow healing and cause neuropathy, or loss of sensation in the feet, explains Linders and teammate Jonathan Bloom, M.D., an MBA candidate at Sloan. Bloom completed his residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2009 and then worked in the respiratory and monitoring solutions unit of Covidien in Boulder, Colo.

The disease can also damage blood vessels in the foot and elsewhere in the body, as well as cause shortening and stiffening of tendons in the foot, which alters the mechanics of the patient’s footfall, Bloom says. Even standing still for a period of time can cause pressure sores, because unlike patients with diabetic neuropathy, “you and I have the sensory wherewithal to shift our weight from time to time,” Linders says.

All this means that a seemingly minor problem such as a bruised toe or an ill-fitting shoe can lead to an infected wound that won’t heal and can endanger the patient’s life unless the foot is amputated. To prevent such problems, diabetic patients are told to take care of their feet and check them daily, but they sometimes forget, since they may not feel any pain in their feet even when there’s a problem. To get around this issue, sensors in the Podimetrics insole would wirelessly alert the patient and caregivers about possible trouble spots even before they’re apparent to the patient or caregiver.

One of the key sales channels will be podiatrists, who treat diabetic patients with foot problems but need more data between visits to track and prevent those problems. “It’s extending the doctor’s office into the everyday world,” Bloom says.

Also on the Podimetrics team were Jeff Engler, an MBA student at Harvard Business School; Adam Geboff, a senior electrical engineer at iWalk, a prosthetic robotics company in Bedford, Mass.; and David Kale, a machine learning engineer at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.

“What was nice about Hacking Medicine was kick-starting our relationship as a team,” says Linders, who worked for two years on an implantable device to aid in the treatment of lung cancer at Calypso Medical Technologies in Seattle before enrolling in MIT LGO. While he was studying bioengineering at the University of Washington, he helped found a company that created fiber-optic sensors to measure the force being applied to a patient’s limb by a physical therapist.

“I’m really fascinated with the transfer of products from R&D to production,” Linders says, and earning master’s degrees in both mechanical engineering and management through MIT LGO “is killing two birds with one very large stone.”

Next up for Podimetrics: the MIT $100K Business Plan Contest in March, the third and final event in the three-tiered competition started in 1989 by the MIT Entrepreneurs Club and the Sloan New Ventures Association

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