Like a lot of other young people, Suman Mulumudi has always had plenty of questions for his dad about his job. It just so happens that Mahesh Mulumudi is a cardiologist, so dinnertime conversations with his son almost always focused on his job's challenges.
"He always used to insist, 'Dad, how do you listen to murmurs, and how do you grade them?' said Dr. Mulumudi, who would explain that "quiet heartsounds" don't always show up with a stethoscope. Most had to be detected with echocardiograms, "which are ultrasounds of the heart, and they're expensive. They raise the cost of health care."
Fifteen-year-old Suman wanted to help his dad solve his problems. That goal led to Suman's invention of two devices that could improve a patient's diagnosis and reduce healthcare costs.
It also prompted Suman to become the CEO of his own startup company, StratoScientific.
Why would a typically busy teenager - one who enjoys biking and rowing, plays bassoon for his Lakeside School band, loves attending high school dances and can kill more than his share of time on Tetris - take up this particular entrepreneurial challenge?
"The idea that an idea can make a change, that it can really change the way people live? That to me is mind-blowing," Suman said.
Using off-the-shelf parts and a 3D printer, Suman built the Steth IO, an add-on device that can turn a smartphone into a stethoscope. In fact, it transforms a phone into a better stethoscope than the traditional doctor's appliance, thanks to the addition of visual as well as audio data about all heartsounds.
Suman said the Steth IO builds on the advanced technologies many consumers take for granted in their smartphones.
"They (tech companies) already put so much work into designing the audio capabilities of the device," he said. "We're able to display those quiet heartsounds so that doctors are more able to be precise about what they're trying to identify."
Another issue facing cardiologists and vascular surgeons involves angioplastys, procedures that clear out blocked or narrowed arteries. Damaged arterial tissue, or lesions, have to be shored up with miniature devices called stents. But placing those devices is "an art and science," said Dr. Mulumudi. An accurate way to measure the length of lesions could reduce the need for repeat hospital visits.
That was all Suman needed to hear. He took a microprocessor from an optical computer mouse, combined it with 3D computer modeling and printing to invent the LesionSizer, a device that measures lesion length without impacting the "feel" that specialists need in manipulating the wire.
"By precisely placing the stent in the right location," Dr. Mulumudi said, "you can reduce restenosis (reoccurrence of artery-narrowing) so that repeat procedures are reduced."
The chance that both low-cost devices can in turn trim healthcare costs appealed to StratoScientific's chief technology officer Craig Rosenberg, a veteran engineer who has worked in a variety of tech-related industries.
"I'm very attracted to the benefit that these medical technologies can bring not only to the United States, but to the developing world," he said.
Rosenberg, who has a Ph.D in engineering, is impressed with the elegant simplicity of Suman's devices and his grasp of complex concepts.
"When communicating with Suman, I completely forgot that I was interacting with a 15-year-old," he said. "He is a colleague and a peer - a true engineer."
There are now new goals in the Mulumudi household. Both the Steth IO and LesionSizer are patent pending, so now Suman has begun the process of seeking both FDA approval and venture capital funding. Meanwhile, both he and his father want to make sure that chasing entrepreneurial success doesn't keep Suman from enjoying his teenage years.
"He's a pretty driven person," Dr. Mulumudi said. "But at the same time, it's a fine balance to keep him motivated to do these kinds of things (teenage activities). We want him to finish his schooling, obviously, so that's one of the problems we have. He's a good boy but we need to make sure he stays on the right track."
Suman sees StratoScientific as part of the typical teenage desire to explore and experiment - to figure out his place in society and the world.
"In some ways I feel like I'm still being a teenager, even in doing this," he said. "I'm still doing what every teenager does. It's just manifested in a different way."