For Penn State student Jonathan Westlake entrepreneurship is in his DNA – his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were all entrepreneurs. Naturally, Westlake expected to take the same path, and was looking for the right inspiration and problem to solve in order to continue the family tradition.
Then, in 2018, Westlake's grandmother encountered heart problems: atrial fibrillation (AFib) – an irregular heart rhythm. According to the Centers for Disease Control, AFib contributes to 166,000 deaths and is the primary diagnosis for 454,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States.
Westlake, then a junior at the University with a dual major in chemistry and biology at the time, finally knew what problem he wanted to solve. Setting out to put his entrepreneurial heritage to the test, he worked to develop a software to improve antiquated 1960s medical tests used to assess stroke and heart risks. This test, commonly referred to as CHA2DS2VASc, generates a “score” based on already known risk factors.
Westlake’s wearable technology would allow users to monitor their heart via an electrocardiogram (EKG) reading on an Apple Watch. This EKG data, combined with his software, would alert users in real time about their perceived stroke risk.
“I set out with the sole intent of helping my grandmother,” said Westlake. “It was awful seeing her sick.”
In January 2019, Westlake completed to get into the Idea Test Lab program at Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank. where he met Lee Erickson, LaunchBox’s chief amplifier.
Erickson encouraged him to do customer discovery to test his idea with real people who would be able to provide their feedback on his product, and he did. Users revealed gaps in his technology, specifically that the watch was failing to “communicate.” The lukewarm testing results effectively killed the product.
However, Westlake’s journey in health technology development did not end there.
Through the Schreyer Honors College, Westlake connected with Leslie Oley Wilberforce, chief operating officer at San Francisco-based Evidation Health and a 2004 mechanical engineering alumnus from Penn State’s College of Engineering. Evidation Health is a health and measurement company which provides biopharma and health care companies with the technology and guidance they need to understand how everyday behavior and health interact.
When Oley came to campus to accept her Alumni Achievement award and speak at a Launchbox roundtable event, Westlake took the opportunity to share his passion for heart health technologies with her.
In May 2019, Oley offered Westlake an internship with Evidation Health. He is now doing the same internship remotely while he completes his MBA (2021) from Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. He splits his days between school and Evidation Health – working on a product team developing digital technologies, for example, to understand how wearable technology can help people participate in healthier outcomes.
“The failure of my technology made me more curious,” he said. “And, through the Happy Valley LaunchBox, meeting Leslie and learning about the important work Evidation is doing, my curiosity was piqued even more, and it made me want to be a part of it.”
According to Westlake, entrepreneurship is not the path for him yet, but Evidation has provided him a way to participate in creating solutions for real problems. “I’m able to participate in building something I’m passionate about, and that’s all I really care about,” he said.
In 2020, Evidation Health announced they helped develop the technology behind a new effort called The Heartline Study – a research study from Johnson & Johnson in collaboration with Apple which aims to explore how everyday technology like the iPhone and Apple Watch can enable earlier detection of AFib.
Since August 2019, Heartline development has been Westlake’s primary role with Evidation. The study launched in late February of 2020, and enrollment is now open for anyone who meets the criteria to join – including Westlake’s grandmother, who is currently in the process of joining the study.
Perhaps Westlake’s initial dream of helping his grandmother will come true after all. Maybe not the way he expected but true, nonetheless.