How a San Antonio Physician Went From a Spy Plane to Olifant Medical

Xconomy Texas — 

San Antonio — Entrepreneurship wasn’t something that Steven Venticinque expected to pursue in his life. Like many tinkerers and inventors, Venticinque took to entrepreneurship in order to fix a problem.

Intubation—the process of quickly inserting a breathing tube into someone, such as an emergency room patient who needs help breathing—isn’t as easy as you might think. The stress of emergency circumstances and a patient’s physical features can mean it’s quite difficult to push a breathing tube past a (usually unconscious) patient’s vocal cords, says Venticinque, an anesthesiologist in San Antonio, TX. That difficulty is exacerbated in more extreme situations, like caring for wounded soldiers during war—something Venticinque has experience with. Jabbing a tube into the larynx can also cause damage.

Venticinque wondered why no one had built a better solution even as he heard ongoing complaints about inserting the breathing tubes, which requires a doctor to use a probe-like tool called a stylet and a laryngoscope, a flexible, lighted tube that helps a physician examine the larynx, to guide the breathing tube past the cords to keep the airway clear. Video laryngoscopes exist, but they’re expensive and not always accessible. Then, a colleague at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio proposed something Venticinque hadn’t considered before—that Venticinque himself build the solution.

Now, four years later, Venticinque has created a business, Olifant Medical, around a medical device he developed in his garage. The business is quite young: Venticinque has developed prototypes using a 3D printer in his house, and is working with the UT Health commercialization office on securing patent protection for the invention. The university will license the device to Olifant, which hopes to eventually sell it.

“There’s a lot of things that make the good part of the world go around, and entrepreneurism is one of them,” Venticinque says. “To go home and solve some challenge—to [3D] print some stuff and put it together—it’s a blast.”

Venticinque has self-funded the business with about $15,000 of his own money and two $25,000 grants from a program that UT Health operates to encourage innovation. Like many budding startups with an unproven product, he’s looking for more funding to bring it to market. Because his device is an adaption of existing products, Venticinque says he believes he could get to market within two years of getting funding.

The innovation behind Venticinque’s device is largely in its design. He built a stylet with an ergonomic shape that he believes will make guiding the tool easier, as well as a handle that a physician can squeeze in order to insert the endotracheal breathing tube. Venticinque says it’s faster, too, which can make a difference in emergency care situations for EMTs or military physicians.

“The goal is to guide it down rather than have a collision” with the vocal cords, he says. “The whole concept of a handle, and the way to push the endotrachial tube, is pretty novel.”

The inspiration for the device comes in part from his daily work in the department of anesthesiology at UT Health, where he has worked since 2007 (he is now the interim chair). But it also comes from his 20 years of experience in the military. During 12 years in the U.S. Air Force, Venticinque served in Iraq and Afghanistan—two missions in 2003 and 2005—during which he worked as a critical care doctor on evacuation missions. Intubating a severely wounded soldier in the dark of night is no easy task. [Corrected references to service in the Air Force, not Army, throughout.]

“Imagine having to do airway management on the back of a C-130 [aircraft] at 3 a.m. when the lights are out,” he says. “You have these young medics, young physicians, these young providers in the field having to save their comrades—it’s very stressful.”

Before his time in the Air Force, and before he went to college or medical school, Venticinque served eight years in the Navy, enlisting when he was 18 in 1980. Joining the Navy may not be that surprising, but what Venticinque did there is.

Venticinque was an electronic intelligence operator on a spy plane that would take flight for 12 to 14 hours at a time near the borders of “unfriendly countries,” he says, in hopes of picking up electronic signals those nations might be sending out. He’d gather electronic intelligence data and signals, interpret them in real time, and relay the results to the Navy.

The plane didn’t always go unnoticed, and was frequently intercepted by Russian jet fighters, Venticinque says. “For being in my early 20s, it was so much fun,” he says.

Eventually, Venticinque’s time overseas ended and, then in his mid-20s, he decided in the late 1980s to use his military benefits to get a college education. He figured he’d become a pilot, given his experience on the spy plane and the fact that he’d always liked tinkering with technical, scientific problems.

While living in Florida, he had a chance meeting with his neighbor, another veteran who was also going back to school as an older, nontraditional student. The neighbor planned to become a doctor—a fact that surprised Venticinque. (Didn’t you have to start planning for that much earlier? You didn’t.) Venticinque took the idea of medical school and ran with it. He joined the Air Force to help pay for his school bills, graduated with his MD from the University of Florida in 1994, and took his internship and residency at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He worked at various military medical institutions in San Antonio before retiring from the Air Force in 2007 and joining the staff at UT Health, a decision that led to his latest venture as a businessman and inventor.

“You go into a field, you’re young, and you look at things and say ‘Why do people do it that way? That looks hard.’ … Then you become inured to it, you stop asking, and you just do it that way,” Venticinque says. “At some point, I said, I’m going to stop that. If something doesn’t look efficient, safe, or it can be better, I’m going to do it.”