Contributed by Mike Rust, Western New England University. This article originally appeared in KEEN Annual Report, 2019-2020. Reprinted with permission.
What do KEEN, entrepreneurial mindset (EM), and the 3C’s (Curiosity, Connections, and Creating Value) have to do with dramatically changing home diabetes tests for the better? Dr. Mike Rust, associate professor at Western New England University (WNE), can tell you.
One of the reasons for diabetic complications is that up to half of all diabetics do not strictly follow the daily procedures. Pain and inconvenience are likely reasons for this: people with diabetes have to test the glucose levels in their blood using an invasive, moderately painful procedure requiring a blood sample from one of their fingers using a lancet.
This procedure has to be repeated four to twelve times a day, every day, for the rest of the person’s life.
Knowing of these negative issues and reading reports suggesting a correlation between acetone in a person’s breath and the person’s level of blood glucose, Rust conceived of a noninvasive, painless, easy to perform breath test to measure blood glucose levels.
This idea started Rust on his own entrepreneurial journey. Rust co-founded a company (Breath Health) to help move his idea into the hands of patients.
The business wouldn’t have happened without Rust’s experience as a KEEN Leader on the WNE campus.
“Because of KEEN, I had the confidence and comfort level from my teaching to understand how to identify an opportunity, think about market impact, and find a path forward. It lowered the entropy barrier for me.”
Coming from engineering backgrounds, many faculty engaged with KEEN are entrepreneurial around their teaching and research, trying new approaches that meet student needs. When creating course-related experiences for students to develop EM and encouraging them to understand opportunity and impact, Rust found these were good lessons for himself as well.
“I learned to be curious and to make fifty calls to potential customers to discuss our technology. We’d made assumptions that we knew what we were doing, but there’s no substitute for talking to a customer and hearing what they liked and didn’t like. We were thinking of all folks with diabetes as one market, and it wasn’t until we spoke to customers that we realized there were distinct groups within the market.”
Rust’s experience has improved his ability to teach EM concepts to his students. “Before this experience, I thought I understood product development, but now I have a much better understanding of the steps and financing behind products. I understand that world a whole lot better. Now when I do a class project, I frame it in a real-world context for my students, modeling it after my experience. It is much more authentic; and the students feel this is more than a class.
“EM and KEEN are not about starting a venture. But this learning experience has made me more confident about anything else I’ve ever wanted to do. I think that’s what we all, as faculty, want for our students.”
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