UC Berkeley alumni receive FDA approval of Eko Core stethoscope attachment

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Three UC Berkeley alumni are now among the youngest recipients of Food and Drug Administration approval of a medical device after creating a stethoscope attachment that allows doctors to record and share the sound of a patient’s heart.

According to Connor Landgraf, a class of 2013 alumnus with a degree in bioengineering, using a stethoscope to diagnose heart conditions “takes a lifetime to master.” Landgraf developed the device, called Eko Core, in collaboration with former classmates Jason Bellet and Tyler Crouch.

The device allows physicians to share recordings of patients’ heartbeats with specialists who may be better able to recognize and diagnose abnormalities.

Although there have been other devices that digitize heartbeats, Eko is different in that it is small, is able to connect directly to a stethoscope and uses a doctor’s smartphone, according to Byron Lee, a professor of medicine in UCSF’s division of cardiology.

“(The device) would be extraordinarily useful in third-world countries,” said Melvin Scheinman, a cardiologist at the UCSF Medical Center.

Scheinman said recordings of heartbeats taken in communities that typically lack strong medical care could be sent via the Eko application to specialists elsewhere, saving patients time and travel expenses.

“There’s a huge number of physicians who can benefit from it, so we’ll focus on every market we can,” Landgraf said.

Landgraf, Crouch and Bellet came up with the idea for the device when a physician asked their campus bioengineering class why the technology of the stethoscope has been fundamentally unchanged since its invention 200 years ago.

At the end of the course, the project began to pick up steam after the team received praise from venture capitalists during a campus event to connect student entrepreneurs with potential investors.

The team continued to pitch the device to investors and, in 2013, received its first investment of $100,000 from Founder.org, a firm that works with universities to fund young entrepreneurs.

For Crouch, a big hurdle in bringing the team’s idea to the market was gaining FDA approval, a yearlong process that required multiple advisers and “tens of thousands of dollars.”

“It’s horrible,” Crouch said. “You have to validate everything about your product. … We had to quantify the chance that you drop the product on the ground and it breaks and you cut yourself picking it up.”

Landgraf called the realization of Eko an “emotional roller coaster.”

“Anything that’s worth doing will have naysayers,” he said. “One of the really important things is to just stay focused on your vision and ignore those roller coasters.”

To Crouch, the human aspect of the project was motivation to see it through. During a visit to the Recreational Sports Facility his senior year at UC Berkeley, he witnessed a man have a heart attack while running on the treadmill.

“I came out of this thinking … ‘I’m building a product that could help,’ ” Crouch said.

Contact Sally Littlefield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @slittlefield3.