Entrepreneur Mark Darrah and his wife, Lyn, left Iowa 35 years ago because they were unable to use their degrees in advanced biomedical technology from Iowa State University within the state. In 2007, they returned from Southern California to Des Moines to launch Athena GTX to produce leading-edge medical monitoring devices they initially developed for the U.S. military. Athena GTX’s flagship product — a mobile wireless vital signs monitoring unit — was developed for military use and is now also being sold to fire departments and emergency medical services groups across the country. Over the past decade, Athena GTX has won several additional defense contracts for innovative devices used by first responders in combat zones. The company’s 25 employees build the devices at its Johnston office. Although Athena GTX has broadened into devices for the civilian emergency responder market in recent years, the bulk of its research and development projects are still in the military market.
How do you personally define innovation?
True innovation is the creation of and application of significantly improved solutions that meet or resolve customer requirements, unarticulated needs or anticipated market evolutions.
What’s the most challenging aspect of getting an innovative product to market?
This is a dead tie: cost and time. Cost of developing, testing, retesting and evolving through a sometimes very complex regulatory strategy. Time is money. For a small business, both are in low supply to remain competitive.
What was your first significant innovation, invention or process?
1996. Hands-on, or touch, medical triage. We called it MIDDAS. The ability to put medical sensors in a glove that a first responder would then lay upon a wounded patient to acquire vital signs and transmit to their PDA (before the age of smartphones).
What’s the best thing that happened to Athena GTX in 2017?
We were thrilled to hear that both of our large U.S. Navy research and development projects were picked up by the government for transition to production and tri-service deployment.
Professionally, what’s your top goal for 2018?
Reduce the amount of time I now spend running a business and focus more of my time creating concepts and on innovation of new products for first responders worldwide. As we see increased worldwide disasters and global and domestic terrorism, I have a lot to do.
What are some of the ways that your company cultivates a culture of innovation?
A culture of innovation begins with the work environment a company creates to attract and retain top people with their own passion for innovation and discovery, the team you construct and then the type of work that your team engages upon. We need all three and continuously work to improve these.
A lifelong dream of ours was to create a company of true innovators and have the courage to encourage and enable them to go beyond what they know to be attainable and reach well beyond their comfort zone as an individual and as a team. It is not so much an age issue as it is an inner drive in our team members that we identify early in any interview process and then our conclusion as to overall fit of the candidate to our culture. We balance that with social time, encouraging this both in and outside of work, in-house and outsourced continuous improvement training, team barbecuing, a pool table in our offices and rich encouragement to explore “outside of their comfort zone” in everything they pursue.
What are two or three of the most exciting areas of innovation that Athena GTX is working on?
We are working on smart medical sensors right now across our product line. These sensors are coupled to futuristic decision support algorithms that are anticipative and predictive. Knowing what a patient’s vital signs are “now” is a world apart from prediction of where they will be with the treatments enabled. It is like hurricane predictors: We know precisely where the hurricane will hit land and when it does, but modeling the projected path also saves lives. The better the prediction models, the more reliable the forecast and the better prepared are those in the hurricane’s path. In medicine, the true innovation is knowing where our patient will be at some point in the future depending on what we are doing to them at any moment in time. The other area of innovation is in the arena of smart-sensing wearables. Sensing platforms that not only monitor you in near real time but also predict your workload, fatigue, dehydration and cognitive sense, or the user’s decision-making ability as they proceed in high-stress environments.
What technology advances will make it easier for bioscience companies to innovate new products?
The miniaturization of electronic components is the most exciting area of design and development we have seen in the last decade. Processing power and battery consumption reduction in this technology have been staggering. The path we are on will enable products to be developed very soon that we could only imagine just a few years ago. In addition, significantly upgrading our in-house 3-D printing capability allows us to innovate through concepts faster and put working prototypes in the hands of our customers earlier than ever before at a greatly decreased cost.
What areas of education or expertise are in the shortest supply for companies like yours?
First, the areas of computer engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, and biomedical engineering are quickly being overcome by a lack of information technology and wireless communications graduates. Athena needs all of these. However, school expertise, when coupled to what we see as the “millennial mindset,” often hamper the creativity and innovative spirit we need in our candidates. Truly being able to apply what the student has learned in school, or in their career before applying to Athena and their ability to continue to learn within a team is critical to employment success as much as what school, experience, what degree and what GPA were obtained. A degree and experience to date for us are not the end goal — it is only the beginning.
What do you see as the most pressing global innovation challenge?
We believe the major challenge here is the cost of doing business as we go more global. We are a small, customer-focused business. There are three examples. For our team to maintain a robust ongoing connection to our customers in the markets we want to serve globally will take an enormous amount of time and money. The cost increases dramatically as we go from domestic to global. Secondly, in the last five years we have seen an increase in the time it takes to move from a selection decision through the global procurement process to purchase or funding. This is often a limiting factor in the speed of innovation and solving global customers’ problems. Thirdly, at the risk of playing the politics card, a culture of global innovation has to be backed up with solid political policy support, possible supplemental funding sources and potential tax breaks to fuel the ideas that already exist in small business. We are observing that the current Washington culture is more talk and intentions than substance.