Once every three minutes someone dies from injury or violence in the US. That’s 199,000 people whose lives are cut short from horror stories that not only deal physical trauma to the victims, but impart emotional trauma on their friends and families. It’s easy for us to forget something so terrible because it’s just a statistic, an unemotional number foreign to our everyday lives. For Thomas Cavett, trauma is something intimately familiar to him that he has never forgotten. After six years as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant, Cavett has seen it all. From pulling teeth to amputating limbs, Cavett has trained to provide emergency medical care at any moment, for any injury, in any environment. After performing hundreds of procedures on fellow soldiers and foreign civilians, Cavett has both been able to save lives and have to watch them fade away because he was not able to reach the victim fast enough. Now, after transitioning from active duty as a Green Beret, Cavett is focused on ensuring that patients get the rapid emergency medical care they need with his Point of Wounding Trauma Indicator, a high-tech wearable that can detect when the user has suffered a traumatic injury and immediately signals emergency medical responders to the scene by transmitting information to 911 dispatch systems. Today he is CEO of POWTI Innovations, but his desire to help others started long before now.
Cavett was born to serve. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, he dreamed of being a fighter pilot. His parents had both served in the military, retiring right before he was born, and so he “grew up hearing stories about [their service] all the time.” His parents not only inspired Cavett to serve his country, but to help others in any way he could. His father’s job as a physician piqued his interest in medicine, prompting Cavett to work as an EMT in college. However, instead of studying biology or nursing, Cavett actually majored in international affairs and Japanese at George Washington University. The interest in international affairs came from Cavett’s passion for learning about foreign cultures, and the study in Japanese stemmed from spending his sophomore year of high school living in Japan and falling in love with the nation and its people.
Before coming to Japan, Cavett ran cross-country in middle school and high school, during which time he made friends with Japanese exchange students who became his running partners on the team. Cavett was fascinated about their stories from back home and wanted to experience completely immersing himself in another language and culture. His parents were expectedly skeptical of the idea, but as Cavett describes the situation, “I’m a pretty headstrong committed person, so I told them that’s what I wanted to do and they went for it.”
While he knew he wanted to serve in the military while applying to college, it was not until his junior year of college that he decided he wanted to become a Green Beret. The role combined everything Cavett loved. He would be serving his country, treating patients, travelling abroad, speaking another language, operating outdoors, and living a high-octane adventure. Instead of focusing on the dangers and risk involved, Cavett describes the role of a Green Beret as, “You get to be outdoors doing exciting things, jumping out of planes, blowing things up, and you get paid for it.” With that enthusiasm it’s hard to see why he left, but with a wife and two kids Cavett realized that he could not bear to spend his entire life away from his family, deployed two thirds of the year. He and his team could be operating anywhere in South East Asia while his family waited at home in Okinawa, not knowing whether or not he was safe. Once he decided to explore his interest in business, Cavett was determined on getting into the best business school in the country.
"I was actually studying for the GMAT while I was deployed. I was living in this house in Thailand with no air conditioning sleeping on this mattress on the floor sweating over my GMAT books."
Cavett’s unstoppable determination might be his greatest strength and most valuable takeaway from his experience in the Special Forces.
The training and the lifestyle of being in an elite unit like that changes a lot about you. [It] makes you very risk-tolerant, you get very comfortable in ambiguous environments [with] not a lot of structure or guidance because you’re trained to be able to be dropped in some country, potentially by yourself or with one or two people, and you’re expected to perform and execute without being able to call back and be like “Hey what should I do?” That gave me a lot of confidence and ability to figure out a plan on my own without working within a very structured environment
Coming back to civilian life, however, Cavett thankfully has not had to figure out everything on his own as he found a strong veteran community here, which is what initially attracted him to Wharton, and has made countless other friends. For Cavett the hardest part of the transition to civilian life was leaving his team whom he had deployed with countless times.
“We’ve been through good and bad experiences together...And it’s just an environment where everybody knows each other so well that you almost don’t have to talk to communicate.”
However, coming to Philadelphia began the start of another adventure for Cavett as he began to meet new people from all over the world, who all had unique stories of their own.
When Cavett was first accepted to Wharton he began talking with his co-founder, Frank Miller, about the initial idea that has grown into POWTI Innovations. Miller was an adjunct professor of Cavett’s back at GWU who taught a class on emergency tactical medicine as he was a former special operations medic for the Navy. The two men have seen “a lot of trauma throughout [their] careers in the military, also as civilian medical providers,” which influenced the story behind POWTI. However, the primary influence for POWTI was the story of one of Miller’s fellow firefighters who fell off an elevated highway while putting out a vehicle fire. His fellow firefighters were so busy putting out the fire, that nobody noticed he was missing until hours later. Once they found him the man was already dead. For Cavett and Miller this is unacceptable; first responders who spend their lives keeping the public safe, should not have to worry about whether they are going to make it home at the end of the day. The saddest part of the story is that if someone had known the firefighter was injured, he could have been helped in time, and his passing would have been prevented.
The fact is that studies show that almost forty percent of [trauma-related fatalities] are preventable because the truth is that trauma is actually pretty easy to treat. It’s not like treating diseases where there is a lot of variability...the treatments themselves are relatively simple. The key variable is the time. So from that injury point to receiving that definitive care is the single most important variable to determining your outcome.
What the Point of Wounding Trauma Indicator does is detect when the wearer has suffered a traumatic injury, and then alert rescue personnel by sharing the location of the user. Additionally the team is working on delivering information to medical personnel regarding the type of trauma, so that they know what to expect when arriving on the scene.
POWTI uses a variety of sensors to detect trauma. A fall such as what the firefighter suffered, or the impact of an object hitting your body, causes a large acceleration not found in normal circumstances. That sudden spike in acceleration triggers the device. The overpressure from a concussive explosion will cause a spike in atmospheric pressure triggering the device. The user catching on fire would cause a spike in temperature, triggering the device. Running behind all these sensors is software that can sort through any noise in the data and determine whether or not there has been a traumatic injury. While POWTI can detect the vast majority of traumatic events, if the device does not trigger an alert, because a distant part of the body distant from center mass where POWTI is located is somehow affected, the user can manually trigger the device similar to using Life Alert.
When he arrived at Wharton, Cavett was considering other, more traditional, career paths such as management consulting, but that all changed when he went to a Lauder pitch competition in New York City and won, beating fellow students and alumni going all the way back to the 1980’s who had far more business experience than him. That served as validation for the idea behind POWTI and he has since dived into entrepreneurship head first. Besides solving a pressing need for police officers, firefighters, and soldiers, POWTI also is invaluable to industries such as construction and oil and gas which have the highest rates of traumatic.
The system is easy to sell and easy to scale because it can easily patch into municipal dispatch systems which use common software. In terms of sales, POWTI plans to begin pilot programs with five police departments and fire departments in early 2018, and is targeting individual buyers as well by tapping into veteran communities who love to buy new gear, especially anything safety related. Since POWTI Innovations is not treating or diagnosing disease, they do not have to go through FDA approval which shortens the timeline to when they can hit market and begin to help save people’s lives.
When asked what he would say to any students who are thinking about starting companies, Cavett gave the following advice:
My litmus test for doing a startup... is that...I eat sleep and breathe nothing but this business honestly. It keeps me up at night; I’m fiercely passionate about the mission...And so I think that it has to be something that you have that passion for and you’re so sure about that you’re rock solid in your commitment because the part of entrepreneurship...is that it’s an emotional roller coaster and you have super highs where you raise a round, or you win a contest, or sell your first customer, and you have other days where you get told no, or something doesn’t work in your product development and you have to pivot, and it’s like you put your whole life into that… and you have to be ready to weather those moments.
Thomas Cavett’s passion for helping others and saving lives has already led him to make a difference in the world through his deployment in the Army Special Forces, and now he and his co-founder will continue to save lives through POWTI Innovations.