Hospitalized and experiencing pain, Srinath Vaddepally did what millions of patients do: He reached for the hospital call button to summon a nurse. Then he did something one in seven patients in hospitals do: he fell. The 20 agonizing minutes he spent on the floor were enough to realize there had to be a better way.
“At the time, one of the biggest problems I had was just trying to reach over to this call button,” says Vaddepally, a graduate student at the time. “I just started thinking, if this can happen to me, how about the patients who are older and infirm? And that’s when I started looking into the numbers.”
Within months of his fall in 2013, Vaddepally had developed RistCall, a wearable device that wirelessly connects patients and nurses. RistCall, which Vaddepally hopes will ultimately replace the hospital call button, lets patients speak to hospital staff immediately. It also collects data on response times and patient satisfaction and has an accelerometer in the wristband that can detect when a patient has fallen or wandered away—a feature that may help hospitals dealing with patients with memory issues or disorientation.
Shortly after he founded the company, numerous large hospital systems in Pennsylvania told Vaddepally they loved the idea. RistCall quickly won funding through and secured early partnerships with healthcare facilities that agreed to pilot his device—early support that can be difficult to obtain in the healthcare space.
Given the nature of my business, America is a much better place for me to work and innovate than back home.
Yet, even though Vaddepally has achieved such success, he still has to spend considerable time worrying about ability to remain in the country long term.
Vaddepally is from a small town in India, one of three children born to a photographer and homemaker. He won a government scholarship for college and built a promising home-automation application while in school, but America’s entrepreneurial promise beckoned. Vaddepally moved to Houston for a job with a Texas Instruments contractor. Declining further job offers, he enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University to earn dual Master’s degrees in engineering and technology innovation management and computer engineering.
There he developed RistCall with help from the university’s Project Olympus incubator. But he quickly realized his new startup couldn’t initially pay him enough for him to be eligible for an H-1B visa, so he had to try to “find an H-1B at any cost.” As Vaddepally explains it, “Every day since I’ve graduated, this has been the thing that I think about the most.” He worries what will happen if he isn’t fortunate enough to secure one. “Given the nature of my business,” he explains, “America is a much better place for me to work and innovate than back home.”
Luckily, in 2016 he was able to find a way to stay securely in the country—at least for the short term. Vaddepally won a highly competitive spot with the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Venture Development Center to serve as a global entrepreneur in residence. Such programs allow entrepreneurs to work as mentors in a university context. And because universities are exempt from the H-1B cap, entrepreneurs are able to secure a visa through the school.
The position, however, has not removed Vaddepally’s visa worries. His post could expire in a year, and it prohibits him from working for his company officially. Nevertheless, Vaddepally plans on hiring three full-time workers in Pennsylvania to conduct Ristcall’s initial testing. He worries, though, about how his official absence will look to the investors he so desperately needs. “How can you approach an investor and say, ‘I’m not actually working for my company; I’m working for the university,’ “ he says. “Can you make this business case to an investor?”