When Bloomfield Hills resident Hal Zaima was having lower back problems, it was natural that he would make an appointment with his longtime neighbor, friend and orthopedic surgeon Bradley Ahlgren.
"I went to go see him and Brad was overexuberant for some reason," Zaima, an engineer by education, said. "He said, 'Hal, you're here for a reason.' I said, 'Yeah, lower back problems.'"
But Ahlgren wasn't talking about spine issues. Rather, it was infections that were on his mind, as well as a way to combat them through a hand sanitizing and monitoring system. Tapping his friend's expertise, Ahlgren's idea was developed into a state-of-the-art system that can help hospitals encourage and track hand sanitizing, thereby cutting down on infections. The idea led the two friends to form Sterilogy, the only patented, body-worn personal hand hygiene system designed to decrease infection and increase compliance in hospital settings.
"Then he explained his idea, noting that 247 patients die every day, with $30 billion in unnecessary costs in hospitals alone," Zaima said. "So, we knew it was a huge problem and costs a lot of money, unnecessarily. Brad's solution sounded like a great idea."
Working in the hospital a lot, Ahlgren said he could see how the hand-sanitizing systems there were being used, or not being used. With healthcare professionals already carrying a plethora of equipment and devices, carrying hand sanitizer in a pocket is inconvenient and bottles get lost. Wall-mounted dispensers help, but health workers sometimes fail to sanitize after coming in contact with doors, curtains or other surfaces. Ahlgren thought by attaching the dispenser to the worker, the system would be more convenient and encourage more sanitizing.
When Zaima came in with his back issue, Ahlgren knew his friend was just the person to bring his idea to life.
"I knew he had sold his company, and I was hoping he was looking for something to do," Ahlgren said. "I knew I needed an engineer to move things forward from an idea to something."
Working with a group of professors and graduate students from Grand Valley State University through the Michigan Corporate Relation's Small Company Innovation Program, the system expanded to include an electronic monitoring and compliance system.
The whole system includes a personal sanitizer unit, as well as a zone alarm emitter unit and a base station unit. The alarm is placed on each patient's bed and waits for the sanitizer unit to enter the range, alerting the worker to sanitize their hands. The unit records if the worker complied. The data is then relayed to the base unit, which can be used to track compliance.
"Hospitals have expressed they have a need for a compliance system, and we have a number that are very interested," Ahlgren said. "But first, we have to get it into the beta phase."
"We do believe it will be the gold standard, as the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization are pushing for point-of-care sanitizing," Zaima said. "Wall units just aren't efficient or convenient."
Ahlgren, who was born and raised in Wisconsin and moved to Bloomfield Hills after joining Beaumont in 1995, said this was his first product idea to ever take shape. Zaima, who was born on a U.S. Airforce base in Japan, went into engineering after attending West Point and serving in the field artillery.
"We met each other when we moved kitty corner from each other in Bloomfield Village. Our kids are the same age... we've known each other for at least 20 years," Zaima said.
It really was all about location, just like the adage.
Photo: Laurie Tennent