Clint Cole (’87 B.S. Comp. Sci., ’00 M.S. Elec. Engr.) vividly remembers the drama of trying to save lives as a paramedic in the 1980s.
He and his fellow paramedics typically responded to emergency calls by driving as fast as possible to their destination. If they arrived in fewer than seven minutes, they were doing well. Usually, though, they weren’t fast enough.
Only about 10 of the 250 people he tried to save survived.
But as one the developers of the world’s most popular portable defibrillator, Cole has since contributed to saving tens of thousands of lives.
More than six feet tall and a little uncomfortable at his desk, Cole looks more like a firefighter than the inventor, CEO, and college instructor he is now.
A native of Issaquah, he first came to Washington State University in 1979 to study computer science. He also became a campus fireman. Soon, he realized that academics weren’t his priority. So for the next five years, he traveled the country working as a paramedic. He returned to WSU in 1985 and received his undergraduate degree in 1987.
Cole was working toward a master’s degree in electrical engineering, when he heard his advisor talking with a Hewlett-Packard representative one day about a project to develop a new defibrillator. So he went to work for Hewlett-Packard, designing chips and circuit boards for the new machine. From there, he went to Seattle-based Physio-Control, joining a small team of research engineers who were looking for cheaper and easier ways to restart a stalled heart. But the company was under investigation by the federal government, and Cole and his fellow researchers were asked to focus their work on re-engineering manufacturing processes.
Meanwhile, Cole and the team found a way to make a portable defibrillator. Over several months, they told their bosses about it, insisting that they needed to start the work immediately. Finally, one member of the team threatened to quit and take the research group with him. In a matter of days, the entire group of five found themselves unemployed, and in 1992 they started a company called Heartstream.
Heartstream’s innovation entailed the use of a bi-phasic wave form to deliver a jolt of electricity to patients, halving the energy requirements of earlier defibrillators. Because it required less energy, the machine could be lighter and smaller by a factor of five, and therefore portable. It hit the market in 1996, and soon after, the group sold Heartstream to Hewlett-Packard.
The number of machines sold has now exceeded 100,000-and they’re everywhere. No longer is it necessary to wait the crucial seven minutes for paramedics to arrive. Anyone can grab a defibrillator and get to a patient almost instantly. According to a Seattle study, portable defibrillators save 2,000 to 4,000 lives in the U.S. annually.
Now married, Cole joined the WSU faculty in 1997.
Having left a cutting-edge engineering position, he realized that the curricula at WSU were not taking advantage of the latest digital design tools and methods.
In his entry-level digital design classes, for example, the circuit boards his students were using enabled them to design and build only the simplest circuits. And his advanced students were limited to designing circuits on paper without the opportunity to actually try them out.
So Cole designed a circuit board that students could use for a variety of projects, from simple circuits to complex microprocessors. Next, he designed an advanced version and built 400, 300 of which he sent to colleagues at other universities. They were well received, and demand started growing.
Soon he was getting calls from universities nationwide.
In 2000 Cole and a former student, Gene Apperson, founded Digilent, Inc. to manufacture and market the boards to schools and colleges nationwide. Since then, the pair has designed more than 50 products, which are in use by more than 400 universities worldwide. The company now has seven full-time employees, excluding Apperson and Cole, who don’t receive a salary-and a new director, enabling Cole to focus on his teaching.
So what’s Cole’s next project? More time for “Version 3.0,” he says. That’s his affectionate name for his new son, Thomas, who was born to him and his wife, Fiona, in August 2004, joining brothers Jamie (4) and William (2).