Beth Kolko, Shift Labs

Beth Kolko
Persevering with a unique vision

Company: Shift Labs
Title: Chief Executive Officer

Sometimes a nontraditional approach to technology can make all the difference. In Beth Kolko's case, thinking outside the box didn't just result in new devices--it also helped launch a startup.

Back in the '90s, Kolko was a tenured English literature university professor. Then Kolko started looking at the early stages of the Internet and decided that she wanted to build better technology. "Since engineers build things, I thought it would be great to go into the field," Kolko told FierceMedicalDevices. She changed universities and departments, starting a career as an academic at the College of Engineering at the University of Washington in fall 2000.

Even though Kolko "worked on really incredible projects with students" during her time at the University of Washington, she "got frustrated with the limitations of traditional commercialization pathways," she said. She wanted to build medical devices that were more affordable and simpler, but didn't want to follow traditional business models. So Kolko co-founded Shift Labs, a company that builds low-cost medical devices geared toward emerging markets.

"I think one of the company's strengths is that we're really committed to nonexpert innovation. People who don't have deep experience can help generate innovative, valuable ideas," Kolko said.

Shift's first product is DripAssist, an IV monitor and alarm that helps speed up infusions and costs less than a pump. An infusion pump typically runs at about $50,000 to $15,000, and Shift's product retails at $395. The device is already approved for veterinary use and sold in some international markets. In October, Shift got an FDA OK for DripAssist.

Kolko credits her diverse background, as well as her co-founder's experience as a mechanical engineer and cancer patient, with helping to develop the device. "If we had both spent two years building medical devices, the product wouldn't look the way it does," Kolko said.

Shift has faced some bumps along the way--and Kolko is not shy about discussing them. "We tried to raise money for the company for about three years and got lots of 'nos.' People were inappropriately mean and gave personal attacks," she said.

But at least for now, it seems like Shift has found the calm after the storm. Under Kolko's stewardship, the startup managed to lock down funding and secure a spot in the renowned Silicon Valley tech accelerator, Y Combinator. And despite pushback from people who encouraged the company to make its device more complex, Shift Labs has remained committed to making a simplified product. "When you put the device in clinicians' hands, their eyes light up," Kolko said.

Kolko defines success as "finding the stamina to get through the hard things." A nontraditional background, along with the perseverance to follow a vision, would serve anyone well following a similar path, she said.

"Don't give up," Kolko said. "I've been amazed at how many people have tried to convince us that it's almost impossible to succeed. It's really important not to use fear of regulation as an excuse not to innovate. I also think that just because something's hard, that doesn't mean you don't do it."

-- Emily Wasserman (email | Twitter)

For more:
ShiftLab's first device is nearing commercialization. Will it start a low-cost revolution?
'Nest for medical devices' launches out of Y Combinator

Beth Kolko, Shift Labs