Cardiologist Inventor Lives What He Preaches

When a family member suffered a heart attack, Dave Albert, MD, took a leave of absence from medical school in pursuit of an engineering degree.

Do you remember the hit medical drama, Ben Casey, which ran on ABC from 1961 to 1966? It depicted the life and experience of a neurosurgeon in the 1960s. It also captivated a young Dave Albert, MD, who recalls being “fascinated” by the show.

“Being a neurosurgeon in the 1960s, you had to have a strong constitution,” Albert explains. “Many of your patients did not do very well.

Despite the poor prognosis for many patients, that show — and succeeding medical dramas like Marcus Welby, MD – had a strong and lasting impact on Albert.

“I always wanted to be a physician, all the way through school,” he recalls.

But it was family circumstances that would position Albert for all he has accomplished in the field of cardiology.

A Father’s Illness

Albert was a third-year medical student at Duke Medical School, just eight months shy of graduating, when his father, who was in his 70s, had a heart attack. When Albert’s father was released from the hospital he was instructed to exercise and take his heart rate as part of his cardiac rehab.

“He lived way out in the country,” Albert recalls. “And I knew he was incapable of measuring his own pulse rate accurately.”

Albert began looking for a device to handle the job — but this was circa 1980. There were no consumer heart rate monitors. Through a friend, he connected with a biomedical engineering graduate student at Duke, took his “very precious money, I think it was $200,” and paid the student to develop a heart rate monitor his father could use. Three months later the student, having depleted Albert’s savings, returned with “a bundle of wires and a circuit board” that didn’t work.

Frustrated, Albert took a leave of absence, completed an undergraduate degree in engineering in 18 months, then went on to graduate school, and two years later graduated from medical school. By then he had invented the Avis One heart rate monitor, which was licensed to Timex.

In the late 1980s, Albert — who had been working in the cardiology research group at the University of Oklahoma – left academic medicine to start his first company. He developed the world’s first EKG microscope, and built the company into a $2 million business, which he then sold in 1991.

Faced with the decision of whether or not to return to practicing medicine, Albert was introduced to “the first handheld computer device I’d ever seen,” an HP palmtop.

“I said, ‘I think this wireless handheld computer thing is going to be big,’” Albert recalls. “So much for my predictive abilities.”

From Idea to Reality

Albert would go on to start a company called Data Critical, which built wireless handheld medical devices. It went public in 1999, and was purchased by GE in 2001. Albert spent the next three-plus years as chief scientist of GE Cardiology, and it was during that time he had the idea to put a collectible cardiogram in the hands of every patient and every doctor who needed it.

“I actually got a patent and built a prototype,” Albert says, adding that, “the product was never commercialized. While we could make it work, it was not practical. The idea was ahead of its time.”

Then came 2007, and the introduction of the iPhone, and later the app store.

“You could develop apps for the iPhone,” Albert explains. “And I said, ‘This is my idea. I can do my idea.’”

He gathered medical engineers and entrepreneurs, and by 2010 they had functional prototypes that they built onto an iPhone case. Then, with the help of his 9-year-old son, developed a four-minute video demonstrating the prototypes. In preparation for an electronic show the following week, he uploaded the video to YouTube.

“I also just happened to click the box that says Share to your LinkedIn Connections,” Albert recalls. “I had about 400 LinkedIn followers. And at the end of the video I included my personal email address.”

Not only did emails begin pouring in, the YouTube video received 200,000 views within a matter of days. Albert traveled to the electronics show and found himself “caught in a viral tornado.” He met three times with people from Apple, demonstrated the device taking their EKG from 10 feet away.

“They said, ‘How are you doing this? You shouldn’t be able to do this,’” Albert says. “I was called in by multiple venture capitalists that week. It was crazy.”

Crazy Like a Fox

By mid-2011 Albert moved his “company” from his basement in Oklahoma City to San Francisco. Thus began the odyssey of AliveCor, which has become buzzworthy among members of the technology community, consumers and cardiologists alike — especially following the pending introduction of Kardia Band for Apple Watch. The device, which is pending FDA approval, captures a medical-grade EKG in 30 seconds, and provides instant EKG analysis and consultations with board-certified cardiologists.

“From the beginning, we treated this as a medical company that would be supervised by the FDA; that we would seek out clinical validation, clinical studies, and publish in period journals,” Albert says. “And at the same time, we sought to be a direct consumer-to-consumer available technology. We never lost sight that we had peoples’ lives at stake. And hardly a week goes by when I don’t receive some kind of indication and some kind of thanks, you just saved my dad, my mother’s life, my life.”

Beyond work, Albert says his focus is his family. But somehow he also finds the time to read approximately 40 magazines a week.

“I tinker all the time; I’m an inventor,” he says. “My kids will tell you that their dad is no longer a doctor. He’s a mad scientist and inventor. And you know, I wear that badge proudly.”

Albert also lives what he preaches. A former Division I wrestler in college, he describes himself as a “workout fanatic” who still weighs what he did in college.

“I’m giving a keynote next Wednesday at a major healthcare investor conference in Dallas,” Albert says. “And I’ll talk about how in 1980 our computers were big and our waistlines were small. But in 2016, our waistlines are big and our computers are small. We’ve got to get our computers and our waistlines in harmony.”