Health Tech: Dr Blake Gurfein On How Tivic Health’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
An Interview With Dave Philistin
The population you are helping and the variety of needs they have that are not being met. Developing a deep understanding of the user, their challenges, and needs must be a priority early and often. This information needs to be the foundation and guide for any technology development.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Blake Gurfein.
Dr. Gurfein is the Chief Scientific Officer at Tivic Health Systems, a company that develops non-drug, bioelectronic devices focused on treating chronic medical conditions. He is also a faculty member in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of California San Francisco.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up with my sister, Lauren, and my parents, Ronnie and Susan, in Upstate New York. We lived in the Catskill Mountains about an hour north of New York City, where I enjoyed a pretty typical Northeast suburban upbringing — school, friends, skiing in the winter, riding bikes and swimming in the summer. I was a curious kid and had a penchant for inventing from a young age. For example, I built a pulley system, so I was able to open/close my bedroom door and control the lights in my room all from the comfort of my bed. My father’s profession was anything but typical, he trained standardbred racehorses and was eventually inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport. I believe that observing him run his own business had a meaningful hand in my decision to pursue an entrepreneurial career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Early in my career, while I was an Assistant Professor at the University of California San Francisco, I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Kevin Tracey, who was visiting from The Feinstein Institute in New York to give a grand rounds talk on his seminal discovery of the inflammatory reflex. This discovery demonstrated that electrically stimulating the vagus nerve could meaningfully reduce inflammation in the body and had great potential for helping patients with a variety of diseases. This work created a substantial foundation for the growing industry of bioelectronic medicine. While I didn’t realize it at the time, learning about the inflammatory reflex and observing Dr. Tracey’s humility about his contribution to science would have a lasting impact on my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The importance of mentors in both academia and industry cannot be overstated. I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful mentors in my career, including Ross Jaffe, who is a trained physician and noted venture capitalist focused on medical device technologies. Ross has supported me and shared his wisdom during my transition out of academia as well as through the ups and downs of operating companies in the bioelectronic medicine industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote of late is “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Integrating this perspective into my personal and professional life has been really useful in preventing hasty judgements, helping me slow down and intentionally connect with people, and embody more patience.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Persistence. The ability to keep going especially when weary and dejected has been a skill I have cultivated over years. I think this has served me and will continue to serve me for the rest of my career.
- Altruism. I believe that I have a responsibility to use my skills to bring about positive change, which for me, is focused on reducing patient suffering and developing new therapies. This service mindset naturally shifts the focus from you and your accomplishments to something much greater and full of purpose.
- Self-Awareness. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important. For me, a good example is knowing what I don’t know and having the ability to seek help and collaboration when I need it.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
Tivic Health currently has a commercial product called ClearUP Sinus Pain Relief, which delivers weak electrical stimulation to the face and rapidly reduces sinus pain and congestion. With this product we are providing a non-drug treatment option for the millions of people that experience sinus headaches and congestion from allergies, viruses, or sinusitis. Importantly, this group of patients is very interested in reducing their dependence on pharmaceutical treatments because of the many side effects that they can cause. At Tivic Health, we are developing additional bioelectronic products to address other chronic conditions as well.
How do you think your technology can address this?
ClearUP delivers microcurrent stimulation to the nerves that pass through the sinus passages. By gently stimulating the nerves that are connected to the sinus and nasal passages, ClearUP reduces pain and congestion without the need for drugs. Additionally, with regular use of ClearUP we have seen that patients with chronic sinus symptoms have week-over-week improvements in symptom severity. This suggests that ClearUP can be used to treat symptoms acutely, but that it is also helpful at managing sinus pain and congestion over longer periods of time.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When I was a neuroscience undergraduate at Brown University, I had a summer internship at a company that developed bone growth stimulators — FDA-cleared medical devices that use electromagnetic energy to promote healing of bone fractures. Since learning about those devices, I have been fascinated by ways that depositing energy into the body can treat disease and promote healing.
How do you think this might change the world?
ClearUP is a bioelectronic device that has been developed to address unmet needs of the large patient population that experiences symptoms of sinus and nasal inflammation. I expect ClearUP will reach and provide benefit to millions of users and, along the way, raise awareness about the promise of bioelectronic medicine as a safe and innovative new class of therapy.
ClearUP has been studied extensively and has been found to be very safe and well-tolerated. That said, it is a device that emits electrical current and needs to be used as indicated in the instructions. In some cases, drugs and devices can be applied for “off-label” purposes and that should always be done with caution and oversight of a physician.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
Most of my time is focused on health technology, so my list is specific to that category. To create a technology that is successful AND has a positive social impact you need to understand hundreds of things, but I will choose a few that are particularly notable.
1. The population you are helping and the variety of needs they have that are not being met. Developing a deep understanding of the user, their challenges, and needs must be a priority early and often. This information needs to be the foundation and guide for any technology development.
2. Existing technologies and where they have succeeded or fallen short. Understanding the adjacent and distant competition and what has or hasn’t worked for the population in need can be very instructive, especially for stimulating creativity and novel solutions.
3. Several potential strategies for addressing the unmet needs. A great deal of learning occurs in the process of creating, testing, and iterating several concepts for how to address the unmet needs.
4. Ways to maximize equitable access to the new technology. This is often an afterthought but should not be. Analyze the commercialization strategy for the technology and identify the segments of the population that will not have access due to age, economic, geographic, or other constraints. Then solve for how to increase access.
5. How to minimize environmental and human costs in the production and delivery of your technology. Technology development often moves quickly. Cost and speed can sometimes be prioritized over environmental consequences (e.g., carbon emissions) and human impacts (e.g., exploitative labor practices). Considering these aspects of producing and delivering technology early on is the best way to create a sustainable technology that can have true positive social impact.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
There is a great deal of research demonstrating that service, whether through professional work, volunteering, or random acts of kindness, can improve our psychological and physical wellbeing. Importantly, working on projects that have tangible positive impact can significantly improve our sense of purpose and enhance our ability to persevere through challenges and succeed in achieving our impact goals.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I have always admired Bill Gates because of his intellect, leadership, and contributions to humanity through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I would enjoy having a meal with Bill mostly to listen, but also challenge him on how he sees bioelectronic medicine fitting into global health efforts in the next ten years.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Learn more about Tivic Health:
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.