Virginia Tech alum follows entrepreneurial spirit to address pandemic challenges in hospitals
By Laura Weatherford
The altruistic force that dwells within us all, or Ren, is what drives Virginia Tech biomedical engineering and mechanics alumnus Jeffrey Morelli.
Morelli co-founded Inspiren (Inspire + Ren), a nurse-led technology company, after working for nearly 10 years developing technology to improve health care. He and his colleagues started Inspiren to create innovative technology that could improve overall quality of life for both health care workers and hospital patients.
When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit the greater New York City area, where Inspiren is located, Morelli saw an opportunity to rise to the challenge, by harnessing the company’s novel technology, its “iN” device, to support hospitals as they combated the virus.
In starting Inspiren, Morelli and his colleagues initially saw challenges in health care settings with safety protocol compliance, like the challenge of relaying all necessary information from one staff group to the next at shift change or staff failing to do patient rounds every hour. They also saw challenges related to identifying adverse events. During shift rounds, for instance, the staff may see a patient has fallen, and they need to help them back up and ensure they receive any necessary care from the fall. If that kind of task is not done, that is how mistakes are made, Morelli said.
The Inspiren team set out to find a solution for these challenges. “I was lucky enough to team up with colleagues, one of whom was a nurse,” said Morelli, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science and mechanics in 2010. “He had the clinical knowledge as a practicing bedside clinician, and I had the technology development experience. So, we put our heads together to find a solution to the rampant problems in health care right now. Our team exists for patients, for frontline caregivers, and for healers – those who inspire us to put forth our best selves every day.”
The team wanted to create a single device that could capture data in the health care environment and use that data to inform health care workers. They wanted to create something that supported health care workers in their jobs and that simultaneously provided safety and care for patients. Thus, the idea for iN was born. The team developed the iN device to enforce safety protocol in hospitals, mitigate infection control, and proactively eliminate adverse events through real-time alerts.
Inspiren’s iN is made of a fusion of technologies, such as Bluetooth, temperature sensors, sound sensors, and ambient light sensors. The device is installed in a hospital room with no infrastructure changes and collects data on the patient environment to inform clinical insights. The company is releasing new product capabilities to identify certain clinical adverse events, such as patient falls and pressure ulcer risks, using de-identified RGB camera imaging. The platform’s real-time alerts and predictive analytics aid in preventing these adverse events from ever occurring.
Once the pandemic arose, the Inspiren team shifted product development to expand the capabilities of the novel technology for use in efforts related to COVID-19. Their device has been deployed at a hospital in Queens, New York, for use in the midst of the pandemic. It is currently being used by front-line staff to lead point-of-care contact tracing efforts using advanced analytics.
The solution addresses a key failure point in hospitals that has been emphasized during the pandemic, Morelli said. He noted a lack of real-time technology to protect the front-line staff working hands-on with patients. Inspiren’s device helps staff with COVID-19 prevention and monitoring at the point of care. With the iN system in place, as soon as a patient tests positive, iN traces bedside staff interaction data with the patient, including frequency and duration of interactions, so the hospital can notify the staff of their exposure risk to prevent further spread of the virus.
At the height of the outbreak in New York, patient rooms and units were established as COVID-19 infectious rooms, housing only patients testing positive for the virus. To narrow the exposure risk, iN monitored bedside interactions in these rooms to ensure only the assigned staff were attending to these patients. If an unauthorized visit occurred, iN traced the interactions from that staff member, informing quarantine protocols to prevent virus spread.
“I have been deeply humbled witnessing the courage of front-line staff selflessly caring for patients and fighting tirelessly every day to save lives,” Morelli said. “It is our collective obligation to protect our health care workers and empower their efforts with technology innovation. Our iN contact tracing and infectious disease platform does just that.”
The team is currently developing the ability to detect PPE compliance, such as staff wearing face masks, through computer vision, and is also working on classifying degrees of physical contact with patients to further refine exposure risk.
“It has been a really unique ride,” Morelli said. “As an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, I was very passionate about biomedical research and was fortunate enough to work with Raffaella De Vita in her lab for a few years. This was a tremendous experience and was an integral part of shaping my professional path.”
During his time as a researcher in De Vita’s STRETCH Lab, Morelli collaborated with her and other students on a number of research projects. One of the projects — a study on equine tendons — was published in Veterinary Surgery journal. The hands-on learning, coupled with a publication, had an immense impact on Morelli. He credits his time in the lab — getting to work on identifying problems, finding solutions, and then having a tangible outcome (such as a publication) — as encouraging his entrepreneurial mindset. He takes this same approach in his career, applying scientific thinking to an identified problem to find innovative solutions.
“Jeffrey has been an invaluable member of my lab,” De Vita said. “I so enjoyed working with him. Advising students like Jeffrey is, without a doubt, the most fulfilling and rewarding aspect of my job. I like to excite students to tackle unsolved problems, guide them to the solution of these problems, and help them become independent and critical thinkers. I strive to make sure that my students become confident and perform to the best of their abilities.”
“My experiences at Virginia Tech, particularly working with Raffaella De Vita, were instrumental to my success,” Morelli said. “She inspired me, provided great mentorship, and instilled confidence. That confidence is what enables me to find innovative solutions to large-scale, real-world problems. I believe it’s essential for students to understand the impact they can make through innovation.”