Kevin Patel, BS’06, MBA’10, did not start his COVID-19 quarantine dreaming of being a U.S. Veterans Health Administration invention award-winner or occupying manufacturing space at the Venture Development Center on The University of Texas at Dallas campus. In his student years at UT Dallas, it might have been assumed, despite his bachelor’s degree in computer science, that he would end up in politics. He was heavily involved in student government.
But life, or more specifically COVID-19, happened, and now Patel is CEO of HermTac, his rapid-response startup that creates price-conscious solutions to healthcare-related emergencies. In the quirky one-thing-leads-to-another world of inventors, Patel and his HermTac team won last year’s Veteran’s Health Administration Innovation Experience that was specifically looking for COVID-19 adapted innovations. HermTac submitted its 432-watt, 28-cubic-inch UVC sanitation station, configurable to ever-expanding dimensions using a tessellated panel design.
“Being noticed by the VA is a huge win for HermTac,” said Steve Guengerich, associate vice president for innovation and commercialization in the UTD Office of Research. “It takes years for major manufacturers to get a nod from the VA healthcare system. This is really a classic story of unfettered creativity, plus entrepreneurial hustle. And at its heart, like every other great American startup, was an innovative product.”
VHA is the single largest purchaser in the healthcare marketplace.
“I’m a little more colorful … I’m a little more wonky than most VA contractors,” Patel said. He credits the VA for reaching out to small inventors like himself. “They’re trying to find individuals in their garages … they are investing in people.”
Dr. Marilyn Kaplan, Jindal School’s associate dean for undergraduate academic operations, first met Patel when he was in Student Government as an undergraduate student and she was faculty advisor. “If he saw there was a problem to fix, he would fix it,” said Kaplan, who stays in touch with Patel on a regular basis.
That willingness to not pass up an opportunity, as Kaplan observed, has led, in a way, to the HermTac sanitation station being tested in several VA sites. Its award-winning features include ability to sterilize equipment in one minute, rather than the typical five minutes, and it can be expanded, with additional panels, to hold, for instance, gurneys.
This win came by way of Patel’s altruistic desire to help the medical community in March 2020, when healthcare providers were short of so many supplies. He, like many others, started using his 3D printer to make face shields but immediately realized that producing shields at two per hour was not fast enough. Soon, more than 50 volunteers were helping him run machines that he and team members designed to produce 5,000 face shields daily.
One of the volunteers was a nurse with the VA’s North Texas Veterans Health Care System. She tipped Patel off to the VHA competition and, separately, the VHA’s need to administer COVID-19 tests in veterans’ homes. Thus was born a second creation — the in-home testing case. That design won the best overall design in a Challenge America competition. CA, a nonprofit that primarily connects service members, veterans and their families to resources, runs competitions to discover new care solutions. HermTac’s submission, a case designed for nurses and in-home caregivers to administer COVID-19 tests, is being tweaked to be used as a one-stop telehealth clinic.
“He’s done lots of different things because he’s willing to give it a shot,” Kaplan noted. But mostly, she said, he’s not afraid to fail. “He doesn’t worry about things like that.” The telehealth suitcase is full of medical equipment used by patients in their homes for routine telehealth visits and is being tested in a VA system in Pittsburgh. Other users, if the tryouts are successful, could include rural doctors, Indian Health Service and developing countries.
“Kevin is an example of someone who earned a tech degree and a business degree and then kept his innovative spirit alive,” said Guengerich, of the Office of Research, said. “College isn’t the only time for innovative minds. Being aware of what’s happening, as Kevin was with the COVID-19 pandemic, and then responding in an authentic way, like helping produce face shields that were in critical need, can lead to truly innovative products.”
Patel grew up in North Texas and spent his younger years first hanging out and then helping out in his parents’ Subway sandwich shops. After graduating from the Jindal School with his MBA, he went back to manage the shops.
“I didn’t see (starting HermTac) in the first quarter of 2020,” he said, wryly. “I didn’t think I’d become some COVID telehealth expert.”
Kaplan hasn’t been surprised by this latest turn in Patel’s career. “There are two kinds of people,” she said, “those who see opportunities and those who walk by them. Kevin sees the opportunities and grabs them.”