DR SANNA GASPARD: Disrupting the World of Medical Technology with Ingenuity and Grit

Dr Gaspard with her bedsore detection, prevention, and management solution, the Rubitect Assessment System at Rubitection (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Dr. Sanna Gaspard reminisces over memories of the enriched community and cultivated curiosity she experienced while living in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia as a young girl. During her formative years, the overall culture was focused on sending kids out to explore in between meals, creating a freeform playground to discover the environment around her. With a mindset of wonder and a landscape of limited working resources, St. Lucia’s inhabitants have been known to be creative innovators. “If something broke or malfunctioned, you were forced to create a solution on your own, with the resources naturally available to you”, states Dr. Gaspard.

While Sanna has created multiple inventions in her career, it wasn’t until her final PHD project that she realized where she could create real change and disrupt an industry with the resources available. Little did she know the challenges that would face her.

Dr. Gaspard’s final PHD project ended up turning into a business of “BED SORES”. She discovered the challenges with early bedsore detection and found that the epidemic causes 60,000 deaths a year. Her vision would be to create a low cost, reliable, and easy to use tool that could empower caregivers and health care providers with confidence in their early bedsore assessment to support bedsore prevention and a patient’s quality of life. As Dr. Gaspard continued her research into the major challenges of bedsores, she developed an experimental prototype of the Rubitect Assessment System (RAS), filed for a patent, and collected initial data to determine that the RAS can measure skin health indicators associated with bedsore development. With the goal of making the technology accessible to everyone, Sanna was able to improve care for those suffering from limited mobility such as elderly with dementia and Alzheimer’s, cancer patients and the disabled. With a drive to assist anyone with limited mobility, she founded Rubitection in 2011.

A demonstration of how the Rubitect Assessment System (RAS) could easily be used by a caregiver and professional care provider to evaluate the health of the skin.

Since the launch of Rubitection and developing initial proof of concept prototypes , she has been raising money to grow and scale the business. Major challenges during the launch have been tied to lack of access to capital and bedsores being an under represented healthcare condition. Though bedsores are common they are not often publicized, or supported like well known health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or dementia. Furthermore, being taken seriously as a woman minority inventor, founder, and CEO in early 2011, became a major challenge as investors were not used to seeing a woman of color running a medical device tech company or as an inventor of medical devices.

To illustrate, when Dr. Gaspard patiently waited in a reception area to discuss her product with a professional, the person she was meeting with came out of his office prior to the meeting time, looked around the reception waiting room where Dr. Gaspard was sitting alone and looked back at his assistant to ask, “Where is my 3:00pm appointment?”. His assistant awkwardly nudged her head towards Dr. Gaspard, and the tension was felt throughout the room. Dr. Gaspard realized that not only would she be challenged with trying to convince people of the importance of early bedsore detection, but she would have to educate and disrupt stereotypes throughout the process.

She also encountered being put through ever increasing “performance hoops” by investment firms who set unreasonable investment matching and development requirements to receive or qualify for investment seed funding. Upon completion of the pre-set requirements, new higher requirements would be set without explanation to get access to the originally agreed upon small investment. “The biggest learning lesson for me was the amount of sexism and racism in the tech community, partly conscious and partly unconscious. I just didn’t expect it”, states Dr. Gaspard.

While her progress became stunted at times, Dr. Gaspard leveraged her undeniable grit, drive, focus, and business management skills to fuel the continual growth of Rubitection despite many hurdles. She has been able to successfully keep Rubitection growing at a time when only 4% of companies founded in 2011 made it to the second year and 50% of those are expected to fail by their 5th year. Rubitection is in its 7th year gaining traction, and growing with a recent expansion to New York where she is looking to identify clinical partners and investors.

Since its launch, Rubitection has won several awards and accolades validating the business opportunity and technology’s potential to have a positive impact on healthcare including:

  • Acceptance into Y-Combinator School with an YC alumn moderator (’18)
  • Merck KGaA Displaying Futures Award finalist (‘18)
  • 1st place at the NACD Rising Star Startup Competition (’17)
  • 2nd place at the UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge (‘17)
  • 2nd place Medical Capital Competition (’17)
  • 2nd place at the Hitlab World Health Summit (’15), finalist for the WomenWho Tech NY (’16)
  • Finalist for the international Cartier Women’s Initiative Award (’14)
  • Award recipient of a Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (‘13, ‘15).

As the visionary and technical mind behind the company, Dr. Gaspard was listed in 2017 as one of “40 Badass Women in Emerging Tech to Follow on Twitter” by the organization Women Who Tech, was selected as AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador in 2017, and was featured on Pittsburgh WQED Horizon show in 2014 to highlight her efforts to bring awareness to the problem of bedsores.

Dr. Gaspard at UpPrize Social Innovation competition in 2017 where she took 2nd place winner for the potential social impact of her technology to save lives, improve care, and reduce cost for families and caregivers.

Looking for resources as a woman minority founder, she met EnrichHER CEO, Dr. Roshawnna Novellus through Visible Figures, a support group for black women in tech. From there she joined the EnrichHER community and applied for the SPARK program to connect with other women founders and investors interested in supporting women entrepreneurs. “I realized in my role as a founder and CEO, it was important for me to mentor other minorities and women on how to get established in the entrepreneurial field and its hidden pitfalls”.

“I am looking forward to the opportunity to help other woman understand how to translate their technology out of the university and grow it into a successful company once launched”, states Dr. Gaspard. I am so grateful to see that there are so many more resources today for woman entrepreneurs and hope that the ecosystem keeps getting more inclusive.”

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