From an early age, Zeb Kimmel, ’04 MD, MBA, marched to the beat of his own drum. For instance, he dropped out of high school in Oregon after only one year because his algebra teacher wrote an incorrect equation on the board while insisting it was right. “I told my parents that I thought the school was teaching me fake math,” Kimmel, 43, recalls. “Then my dad (a radiologist) suggested the possibility of me teaching myself―which I did.”
Instead of being home-schooled, the young teen took courses through the mail from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where both his parents had graduated. Although he never received a high school diploma or a GED, he was able to accumulate college credits through the university, which paved the way for him to apply to traditional college and, ultimately, become a healthcare start-up entrepreneur.
Hunger for Learning
Through the years, Dr. Kimmel has earned four degrees, including an undergraduate diploma in physics from Brown University, a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Doctor of Medicine degree from Northwestern, and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
At Northwestern, he initially enrolled as part of the MD/PhD program, working on a PhD in computer science. While in school, he digitized hardcopy medical documentation, which also automatically generated patient notes. He also created a miniature endoscope for endotracheal intubation. “I liked to tinker and was looking at a lot of different pathways, both hardware and software, for commercialization,” he says.
Instead of completing a PhD degree, however, he started a dot.com company called Zebware in the late ’90s that allowed any web page to be transformed into a document that could be shared in real time on the Internet. “The company eventually became part of the movie studio New Line Cinema,” he notes.
Kimmel applied to medical school to advance the state-of-the-art in medtech. “Medical school has helped me to be an entrepreneur in two ways: first, to identify and prioritize the unmet needs which make the biggest difference in people’s lives; and second, to communicate with and understand the objectives of healthcare professionals,” he confides.
While at Northwestern, Kimmel was also fortunate to have some great mentors and role models. “These stellar individuals showed me how to work well on a team, behave professionally and embrace innovation,” he explains. “They gave me a lot of support and I continue to be in touch with some of them even today.
He remembers anesthesiologist Ray Glassenberg, MD, “whose perceptive vision and sage advice made a big difference in my career”; and neurologist Jesse Taber, MD, “who was my role model for the ethical, caring physician―always placing his patients above personal comfort or interest.”
Upon graduation from medical school in 2004, the undaunted Kimmel joined a medical informatics research group at Harvard Medical School. While there he was loaned to the federal government, where he was one of the earliest members of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). “It was at ONC that I was given broad exposure to the entire healthcare information technology (IT) industry,” he explains.
He also enrolled in the MBA program at MIT. Following graduation in 2007, he worked about five years for the healthcare technology division of the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, leaving at the end of 2011 to pursue a new start-up endeavor, Atlas5D.
Dare to be an Entrepreneur
Atlas5D is a touchless, phone-sized sensor that detects changes in how people move, including falling down, which is a leading hazard for older adults. The device is placed on a shelf or next to the TV at home. Either visual light or infrared light is used to measure movement; data are then shared with family and friends over the Web in real time. “Privacy is paramount,” Kimmel emphasizes. “We do not store or share photos or video.”
The Atlas5D name reflects the four dimensions of space and time, along with the fifth dimension (5D)―level of activity―a strong health indicator. The product allows for text alerts whenever there are changes in a person’s movement. “I believe our device will help preserve their dignity and independence,” he says.
Beta testing began last fall. To date, about 10 people have tested the device, which is expected to be offered commercially on the company’s Website (www.atlas5d.com) within the year for $100-$200, plus an affordable monthly subscription.
“Although I have been entrepreneurial my whole life, it is very, very difficult to be entrepreneurial in health care, as I have learned over the years, despite impressive technological advances,” Kimmel observes. “Creating a new business in healthcare often requires gigantic scale for success because of the way our insurance reimbursement system works.”
He continues, “The patience required to develop new technology is unbelievable. It has been two years since the inception of Atlas5D. A lot of this time has been spent building the technology, which is hard. Testing in real-world situations is also challenging. You often have to go back and approach the problem in a different way. This happened over and over again with the device.”
Despite the setbacks, Kimmel keeps his end goal in mind. And he advises medical students who may choose not to pursue the traditional path of clinician and/or researcher, a trend he says is growing, to be aware of the commitment that is needed.
“There is both a psychological and practical component to being an entrepreneur. You need to be mentally prepared to give up the safety and security of a career as a practicing physician. Entrepreneurship is crazy time-consuming. To practice medicine while you are trying to start a company is virtually impossible.”
Dr. Kimmel became an entrepreneur because he sought to make an impact through innovation. “The importance of entrepreneurship is experimentation: aiming for difficult, risky, high-impact goals, not knowing for sure which ones will work out and which will not, and being willing to change all your hypotheses on the turn of a dime,” he says. “I believe that entrepreneurs are especially important in health care because of their willingness and freedom to experiment; they refuse to limit themselves to the status quo.”