Researchers Learn to 'Think Like Entrepreneurs'

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 7, 2012) — A team of researchers and entrepreneurs based at the University of Kentucky is working to turn communication research into a profitable business model by developing a system of tailored messages aimed at reducing hospital readmissions.

Led by Dan O'Hair, dean of the UK College of Communication and Information, the team is part of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) I-Corps program, designed to help academic researchers think like entrepreneurs to find commercial applications for their work.

"The goal is to take an existing piece of research and take it to the marketplace," O'Hair said. "There's a lot of good work sitting on shelves or in filing cabinets, which doesn't disseminate into public life or the marketplace. NSF wanted to change that, so they put together this program called I-Corps — the 'I' stands for innovation — to help researchers commercialize their ideas."

In the I-Corps program, a principal investigator teams up with a mentor from the business community with significant entrepreneurial experience, and a student "entrepreneurial lead." O'Hair, principal investigator of the UK team, enlisted Derek Lane, professor of communication, and Jennifer Dupuis, health communication specialist, to help with the scientific part of the project. Randall Stevens, serial entrepreneur, and founder and CEO of the software company Punndit, served as the team's mentor. Wes Brooks, an engineering student and a founder of the student entrepreneur group Big Blue Starters, served as entrepreneurial lead.

The NSF selected 24 teams from around the country, each awarded a $50,000 grant. All of the teams participated in a 10-week curriculum designed by Stanford's Steve Blank, veteran entrepreneur and author of "The Four Steps to the Epiphany," with the goal of creating a viable business model. The teams gathered at Stanford for intensive entrepreneurial workshops and seminars in March at the beginning of the program, and they returned in May at the end of 10 weeks to present their business models and receive critical feedback.

The UK team developed its business model from tailored messaging research that was originally part of a project to investigate the effectiveness of hurricane warning systems.

"We discovered that the hurricane warning system market wasn’t big enough to sustain a company," O'Hair said. "So we shifted to patient education. When patients are discharged from hospitals, what kinds of messages resonate most with them and, crucially, what kinds of messages are actually actionable by them?"

The team focused on heart failure patients, who historically have a high rate of readmission to the hospital, especially when discharge instructions are not followed or are not adequately communicated. Heart-failure readmissions cost billions of dollars each year, and previous studies have shown that about half of these readmissions can be prevented.

Lane says that tailored messaging offers a way to improve heart-failure patients' compliance with post-discharge instructions, which can reduce readmission rates and potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The best way to think about tailored messaging is to think about a digital speed limit sign," Lane said "We know that the sign says the speed limit is 55 miles per hour or 70 miles per hour, but when you see a sign that tells you that you’re doing 92 — that’s tailored feedback for you. It makes you say, 'Maybe I should slow down.'"

The UK project identified three key health behaviors that it sought to affect with tailored messages: reducing sodium intake, monitoring weight daily, and following guidelines with regard to medication, diet and exercise.

"It starts with health care providers asking the right questions," Lane said. "For example, with regard to sodium intake, we might ask questions such as 'Do you enjoy potato chips?' With regard to weight monitoring, the right question is not 'Are you willing to weigh yourself every day?' but rather 'Do you own a bathroom scale?'"

Patients can then receive feedback to give them tailored messages based on their answers.

"If you have a smartphone, you could get a reminder through an app that says 'Did you weigh yourself this morning?' If you say no, that information gets sent back to the health care facility for follow-up. If you said yes, you might get a question that says 'How much did you weigh?' But that message is tailored specifically to you, not generalized for everyone with heart failure."

Dupuis says the tailored-messaging technology being developed by the UK team could ideally be integrated into the systems already in use at many hospitals.

"They use systems called electronic medical records, EMRs, and there are a lot of different pieces to those EMRs," Dupuis said. "So we’d like to be a piece of that. That way it would work within the workflow of the hospital and however they transmit messages to their patients. It might be via a patient portal that the patient logs in to; it might be via text messages, emails, even a phone call."

Brooks is enthusiastic about the commercial potential of the UK team's I-Corps project.

"We really saw an opportunity where there was a gap in the market," Brooks said. "With the different criteria required, there are a lot of challenges that come up for both the hospitals and the doctors themselves. We're looking not only at solving that problem for them, of meeting regulations and making it simple, but also making it simple for patients to be involved as well. It’s very different from what the typical health care we’re used to, but that’s what the government’s wanting, and I think that’s where we’re heading. I’m very excited for that."

"The greatest beneficiaries of our experience with I-Corps will be UK undergraduate students," said Dean O’Hair. "We have enriched our model for taking entrepreneurship education beyond traditional thinking to provide meaningful entrepreneurial experiences through UK’s new iNet program."

The Innovation Network for Entrepreneurial Thinking (iNet) is the University of Kentucky’s interdisciplinary academic initiative to develop innovative and entrepreneurial leaders who will create social and economic wealth in Kentucky. It includes a robust network of students, faculty from colleges across campus, entrepreneurs, community and state leaders, and stakeholders in Kentucky’s future. The College of Communication and Information hosts iNet.   

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