Avkin (previously known as SimUCare) was founded in 2015 by University of Delaware nursing faculty members Amy Cowperthwait, Heiddy DiGregorio, alumni Amy Bucha, and Robert Tilly, who developed learning tools for nurses that use technology to create more effective alternatives to medical mannequins.
Cowperthwait remembers the valuable advice and support that the SBDC team provided to help her find and apply for funding to develop various products.
“The SBDC has been an integral part of our success at Avkin. Initially, the SBDC provided education on how to start working on the financial aspects of the company and different options for forming the company,” said Cowperthwait. “Later advice centered on finding and working with an investor, marketing help and insights, as well as facilitating connections to manufacturing and export resources.” Avkin is one of a growing number of success stories to emerge from the Delaware SBDC, which shepherds viable new products developed by faculty and students to the marketplace.
The SBDC’s SBIResource program has many wins and success stories. Today, Avkin has several devices either on the market, in final testing, or in development. All have emerged from cross-campus collaborations with UD engineering students, and many have been perfected through testing with UD’s Healthcare Theatre, which Cowperthwait co-founded with a colleague in the theater department. In 2016, Avkin was named one of the best startups in the nation by the National Council for Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer, and was selected as part of the ASBDC’s national small business showcase. Avkin is one of a growing number of success stories to emerge from the SBDC, which shepherds viable new products developed by faculty and students to the marketplace.
In June 2017, the same year SimUCare was ranked second on the inaugural RealLIST Startups, the company rebranded itself as Avkin, keeping the same focus on healthcare simulation.
In late 2019, Avkin moved from its small starter location to the building that used to house the indoor bounce house Pump It Up in Newport. (“One of our rooms still has the old carpet, and there’s a random gumball machine,” Walton said.)
Twenty-five employees work at the location, where the company develops and manufactures all of its products, a line of six wearable simulators. They work like this: A medical actor known as a standardized patient wears a high-tech simulated body part that, coupled with their performance, helps create a far more realistic scenario for nursing students.
While hands-on, person-to-person simulation is Avkin’s primary method of education, COVID-19 brought obvious challenges for the company — and for nursing students.
“With some of our partners, we’ve figured out plans for socially distanced simulation,” Walton said. “A lot of nursing schools lost their residency programs, so there were a lot of up-and-coming nursing students that had no hands-on clinical experience.”
The schools quickly introduced online avatar-based simulations as an alternative. It was better than nothing, but by summer, some state boards were saying avatar-based solutions don’t count as simulations.
In response, Avkin pivoted and began offering a new educational service called the virtual SP (as in, standardized patients) program, so nursing students can still get experience with a trained actor playing a fully fleshed-out character, only it’s via a telehealth platform instead of in person. The scenarios stay relevant, including a character who is a mother who is anxious about vaccines.
For now, the telemedicine simulations are developing soft skills and training in a virtual healthcare technology that likely will remain widely used after COVID-19 is under control. The company’s leaders are looking forward to returning to in-person simulation, and expecting to see some growth after a challenging 2020, including hiring more employees.