Dr. Ravi Rasalingam had no professional involvement with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), an issue that many Veterans battle. The Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) Entrepreneur in Residence is a cardiologist by trade, and while OSA is connected to a variety of heart issues, it wasn’t something he ever directly treated. Yet, he kept hearing about his patients’ struggles and discomfort with OSA’s traditional treatment, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.
A CPAP device pumps air through a tight-fitting mask that opens the airway to prevent the collapse that blocks breathing during sleep. They can be incredibly uncomfortable and lead many patients to refuse to use them. Dr. Rasalingam knew there had to be a better way. Despite it not being his focus, Dr. Rasalingam went to work, developing a more comfortable solution with a wide variety of partners, including support from VHA Innovator Network’s Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program and MIT Catalyst.
“One of my patients told me he refused to use the device, as it was so uncomfortable it felt like it was suffocating him rather than helping him,” explained Dr. Rasalingam.
The Novel Device for Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, as his innovation is called, leverages 3D design and print technologies to produce a custom-fit mouthguard. This results in a more comfortable fit and discrete device, with a goal to increase usage and quality of sleep for all OSA patients. Dr. Rasalingam worked directly with the Veterans he was treating pairing it with human-centered design to discover the best solutions to OSA. Now, working with MIT Catalyst, he is producing the first prototypes for the device and will soon begin testing, bringing a solution to the very Veterans that inspired him to innovate.
“Even though our project, which is focused on obstructive sleep apnea, is something that I deal with my patients, it’s not my primary area of expertise. That’s something that’s been an eye opener for me. You can really research things that you’re interested in; it doesn’t have to be your own expertise,” said Dr. Rasalingam of his work within VHA IE.
Allison Amrhein is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications lead for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.