Steve Kiene had an epiphany in 2015.

He and his wife had just had a baby, and he was working at home, spending time with his newborn.

Kiene was sitting in a chair, holding his baby, while negotiating the sale of one of the companies owned by Nebraska Global, the venture capital fund he helped to start.

He said he realized then, "I don't want to sit behind a desk and invest in companies."

Kiene is an entrepreneur at heart. In 2006, he sold two software companies he had founded, MindVision and eSellerate, for $25 million.

He gave a lot of that money away — to his employees and to charity — but he kept enough that he was able to put $5 million into Nebraska Global, Lincoln's first true venture capital fund.

Nebraska Global invested in and nurtured several companies, many of which are still going today.

Kiene is proud of those accomplishments, but he also realized that his strength was in writing code and designing software, not managing other people's companies.

He had taken a keen interest in a company that had started as a project within Nebraska Global.

Ocuvera uses a three-dimensional camera to try to prevent patient falls in hospitals.

Unlike competitors' products, which require monitoring by a person and generally don't alert hospital personnel until a fall is occurring, Ocuvera uses an algorithm to interpret video and predict when a patient at risk of falling is about to get out of bed.

"What we really focused on was we have to get these nurses in the room before (patients) get out of bed," Kiene said.

He said in talking to nurses, what he heard was they need about a 30- to 45-second head start to be able to get to a room and prevent a fall.

The system Ocuvera developed takes all the data from what the camera sees and makes a guess about how likely a patient is to get out of bed. If a fall seems likely, the system sends an alert to a phone or other device.

Kiene said that about three of four times, it gives nurses a 2-minute head start.

While it produces a false positive about one-third of the time, that's still a much better error rate than other systems, he said.

Kiene was heavily invested in Ocuvera — not just financially — and when Nebraska Global did not see the same kind of future for the company that Kiene did, he bought 75 percent of Ocuvera and focused on it full-time.

Ocuvera seemed to have a bright future. According to Kiene, there are about 1 million falls annually in U.S. hospitals. Of those falls, about one-third result in injury and about 11,000 people die.

Medicare and many private insurers will not pay for injuries caused by those falls, he said, leaving the hospital on the hook for the costs of additional care, which averages $14,000 per patient.

Multiply that by about 330,000 cases each year and, "It's a lot of zeros. It's in the billions," Kiene said.

Bryan Health has certainly seen the benefits of the system.

One of the first pilot projects Ocuvera did was at Bryan West Campus, which is just a couple of blocks from Ocuvera's offices at 14th and South streets.

The company put cameras in the hospital's inpatient rehabilitation unit, because the 30-bed unit has a significantly higher fall rate than the rest of the hospital.

Christie Bartelt, nurse manager of the unit, said Ocuvera has been a godsend.

"They almost completely eliminated our falls," she said.

The product was so successful that Bryan moved from a pilot project to Ocuvera's most lucrative customer, putting dozens of cameras in both of its Lincoln hospitals.

"If they went public with stock, I would buy," Bartelt said.

Ocuvera may or may not go public some day, but it almost didn't get the chance, after a seemingly small hiccup nearly caused the company to go under.

The system used an off-the-shelf Xbox Kinect camera made by Microsoft. But the tech giant decided in 2017 to stop manufacturing the camera, which imperiled Ocuvera's future.

Kiene said he searched far and wide for another camera that could work but couldn't find one. The company tried to develop its own, an effort that cost several hundred thousand dollars, but it didn't pan out.

At that point, things looked bleak. Kiene said he laid off several of Ocuvera's employees, and the company was running out of money.

"I don't think we would have made it another month," he said.

But a lifeline may have arrived.

Microsoft debuted a new Kinect camera last month at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona.

Called Azure Kinect DK, the camera is focused on artificial-intelligence applications and is meant specifically for developers.

One thing that Kiene and his team knew weeks before that announcement was that Ocuvera was going to be one of three companies to get early access to the camera.

"For us it's big," Kiene said. "And for Microsoft, I feel like they're excited for us."

Microsoft sent a crew to Lincoln a few weeks ago to shoot video of the system in action at Bryan West Campus — a video that was shown to the world in Barcelona.

"We're very excited to be working with Ocuvera to get those fall rates from 11,000 each year down to zero," Julia White, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure, said during a presentation at the World Mobile Congress.

The new Azure Kinect camera will hopefully allow Ocuvera to bring on more customers and prevent more falls.

Currently, Bryan Health is the company's only large customer, Kiene said. It has some smaller hospitals around Nebraska as customers and is still in the process of doing a few pilot projects, including one with the Cleveland Clinic. Several hospitals also are waiting to do pilot projects.

Now with the prospect of not only an ongoing supply of cameras, but one of the most technologically advanced cameras on the market, the future looks brighter.

Kiene said he only needs a couple more large customers like Bryan Health to make Ocuvera cash flow-positive, meaning it has enough revenue coming in to cover its costs.

He's also actively looking for investors.

It wouldn't be wise to bet against a seasoned, successful entrepreneur such as Kiene, especially when he's all-in.

"This is something meaningful," he said of Ocuvera. "I believe in this. I have a mission again."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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