Entrepreneur Spotlight: Kim Vergottini of SMART-LE

It goes without saying that the entrepreneurial journey isn’t easy. Entrepreneurs take bold risks and fight uphill battles to bring their ideas to life. Though difficult, the entrepreneurial spirit is key to innovations that can solve real-world problems and revolutionize entire industries.

For Kim Vergottini, a former nurse turned health tech software developer, innovation and problem-solving are at the heart of everything she does. Throughout her extensive career in nursing, she’s been recognized for her big ideas and proactive mindset.

“I’ve always believed that you can’t complain about something if you haven’t thought about how to solve it,” Kim says. “You may not have the answer right away, but if you only complain then you’re just part of the problem.”

As a Cleveland Clinic nurse with more than two decades of experience, Kim was part of a team that opened Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi in 2014. There she moved from bedside nurse to clinical instructor. In her new role, Kim coordinated the onboarding of nurses all over the world, which gave her an inside look at how nurses were trained globally.

As part of orientation, Kim assessed incoming nurses to identify knowledge gaps or areas of improvement. Based on needs, be it clinical skills or critical thinking, she developed and implemented programs to augment their training.

Around this time, she discovered Microsoft HoloLens and was introduced to the concept of mixed reality. Kim says witnessing the seamless blend of real-world elements with computer-generated imagery piqued her interest and compelled her to learn more. She asked her colleagues for product demos and more information on cutting-edge technology.

“I’ve always believed that you can’t complain about something if you haven’t thought about how to solve it. You may not have the answer right away, but if you only complain then you’re just part of the problem.”

Kim Vergottini

With her proximity to innovation and desire to solve challenges, Kim noticed a pattern in the application of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) at the hospital; nursing was largely omitted from the equation.

“I thought to myself, why should doctors have all the fun?” she says. “Why not nurses? Why not develop something for the nurses?”

As a 23-year nursing veteran, Kim knew that the industry was changing rapidly. In the last few years, multiple reports have offered a dire warning: by 2030 there will be a projected global shortage of nurses with estimates ranging from nine to 13 million. In addition, post-COVID-19 reports cite burnout and exhaustion as factors that have continued to hollow out the world’s workforce of nurses and healthcare workers.

Kim says that in a lot of ways, these reports have served as a wakeup call for governments worldwide to make investments in nursing education and ramp up recruitment efforts.

“The concern is valid,” Kim explains. “If you have a shortage of nurses, it hurts every other aspect of healthcare.”

From capacity issues in nursing schools to the price of higher education to steep clinical requirements, there are numerous impediments for both institutions and nursing students.

Recently, the industry began replacing some of these clinical hours with simulation programs that reduce reliance on the costly labs and time-intensive curriculum. Kim says that these virtual reality solutions help universities process larger numbers of students, and with a possible solution in mind, she embarked on the entrepreneurial journey. She began learning about game engines and their role in developing virtual reality applications and taking bootcamp courses on software development.

In 2020, Kim left the Cleveland Clinic to develop a VR platform for clinical simulation. Together with her Co-Founder Mary Zaller, they launched a product they call Simulated Medical AR/VR Technologies & Learning Environments (SMART-LE) to help streamline clinical education in healthcare. For Kim and Mary, Northeast Ohio is the perfect place to scale their startup the region’s world-renowned healthcare institutions make Cleveland fertile ground for developing this sort of technology.

To gain traction and accelerate their project, Kim reached out to regional startup support organizations, including JumpStart, for resources, direction and opportunities. At JumpStart’s recommendation, Kim enrolled in the I-Corps program which is helping validate their ideas and clarify the future development of the project. Kim says that the program has already helped them understand how to further develop a product that is driven by market fit. At the same time, Kim is working on beta testing her SMART-LE software in university settings.

Beyond addressing immediate challenges, Kim and Mary are driven to improve healthcare, and harness technology’s potential for good.

“Technology is advancing so quickly,” Kim explains. “There’s no way to prevent it from happening and that can be really scary.”

But she hopes that her startup’s innovative contribution to healthcare education will show that leveraging technology for good can be lucrative and make a positive impact on the world.

Posted in Entrepreneur Spotlight