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Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 10 years ago

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A Gulf Coast startup technology firm is using the iPhone as a conduit into a new marketplace. It hopes to be a pioneer in the field.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

As a group, nurses aren't gadget people. They tend to choose empathy over technology.

But a group of nurses at Sarasota Memorial Hospital are going gaga over a new gadget they have been using on the job for the past month. The gadget at hand, literally, is an iPhone application called Voalte One, which is pronounced like “volt” and is derived from a communications trio of voice, alarm and texting.

The technology behind Voalte was created and marketed by a Sarasota-based startup under the same name. The premise is simple: Give harried nurses a way to send and receive text messages, make voice calls and receive critical care alarms in an efficient, easy and safe way.

“Nurses are a tough audience,” says Rob Campbell, Voalte's chief executive. “They want to make sure everything they do is driven toward patient care.”

The Voalte One system works by acting as a central desk for all incoming and outgoing messages. Nurses can also text info and data to each other or update a shift supervisor on a patient care issue, tasks that can eat up a day using traditional communication methods.

In fact, the technology behind Voalte has been so good, it's turning some nurse technophobes into big fans. Such as Alissa Rottingen, a nurse on Sarasota Memorial's sixth floor respiratory unit. Rottingen says she has rarely used an iPod and doesn't own a cell phone.

But Voalte allows Rottingen to work her shift without hearing the constant distraction of an overhead page — a big improvement over the previous setup.

Rottingen's colleagues share her enthusiasm for Voalte, which Sarasota Memorial is using under a pilot program with the company.

Campbell and Voalte's co-founder, Trey Lauderdale, are likewise enthusiastic about the company's long-range prospects. “There are 7,500 hospitals in the United States,” says Campbell, a Silicon Valley veteran who worked for both Steve Jobs at Apple and Bill Gates at Microsoft. “And we think everyone of them would like to have a Voalte system.”

Campbell is predicting success for Voalte over the short-term, too. He says the company, which has survived so far on about $1.5 million in outside funding from angle investors, will hit $10 million in revenues next year. He also expects the company, working out of an office on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota, to double its employee base to 25 people by the end of 2010.

Not bad for a technology firm with a core product — a software application — that relies solely on another company's technological breakthrough, in this case the iPhone. But the industry of apps for iPhones and smartphones isn't a fad, most technology industry players say.

Indeed, a recent BusinessWeek magazine cover story on the fledgling industry predicted that apps “will determine technology's next big winners.” The industry, which barely existed two years ago, now has more than 100,000 apps on the market, from video games to radio stations to cooking recipes.

It's that kind of get-in-early excitement that attracted Campbell to the technology and to Voalte specifically. Campbell, who previously worked on teams that developed PowerPoint and FileMaker, had been living the life of a semi-retired technology executive in Sarasota from the mid 1990s though late last year.

But then Campbell, a guest lecturer at the University of Florida's business school on entrepreneurial topics, got a phone call from a friend who mentioned what Lauderdale was working on. Campbell remembered meeting Lauderdale when he was speaking to a class in Gainesville and Lauderdale was a student in the business school's entrepreneurship program.

Campbell says he was so jazzed about Voalte after speaking with Lauderdale that he decided to join the company. Campbell likens the startup to the heady 1970s, when he was working for companies that were trying to turn the microcomputer into a change-the-world product.

One current challenge, Lauderdale acknowledges, is the cost of hospitals fully implementing a Voalte system isn't cheap. That's partially because the process involves buying as many as 300 retrofitted iPhones at a cost of about $600 each — or close to $200,000 for a two-year contract.

That's not going to stop Lauderdale, 27, from trying to generate some big sales. He says he's close to signing a deal to bring Voalte to a pair of hospitals in California, and he's hopeful Sarasota Memorial executives will sign on for real after the pilot program there ends. He also has appointments to pitch Voalte to as many as 35 hospitals over the next few months.

“Hospitals tend to be very conservative,” says Lauderdale, not unlike the nurses that work there. “No one wants to be leading edge.”

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