Shadow Health, an educational technology startup out of the University of Florida (UF), is bridging the “academic to practice skills” gap in health care by providing rich, interactive, digital learning environments for nursing and allied health education programs.

The company’s digital patient technology, patented in 2018, came from a team of world-class thinkers and researchers in human-centered computing at UF that included co-founders Aaron Kotranza and Benjamin Lok. Their natural language processor-based technology intrigued David Massias, co-founder and CEO of Shadow Health, who had been looking at the challenges nursing students had in transitioning from school to a clinical practice setting.

“Given the size of the market and the fact that the nursing profession had identified a major need that we thought we could meet with this technology, we were off to the races, and Shadow Health was born,” Massias said.

The technology leverages its natural language processing algorithm to address communication gaps in the availability, presentation and standardization of educational experiences for health care professionals.

“We help train students to ask that one more critical question, display empathy and educate the patient at the right time,” Lok said. “This all began when we started the research into the simple question of ‘Can talking to a virtual human help you get better at talking with real humans?’ back in 2004.”

“While the impact of the scholarly work has been significant,” Lok continued, “the greatest way for the ideas and technology to impact everyone has been realized through Shadow Health commercializing the idea, innovating the concept and integrating this work into the curriculum of many thousands of students yearly.”

Shadow Health uses the technology to create patient avatars that communicate with nursing students, who interact with the avatar much as they would in a clinical situation. The cloud-based application provides anytime-anywhere clinical learning experiences in an engaging, interactive and multimodal form.

“When we started Shadow Health, we had a bold, but clear vision,” said Massias, who started Shadow Health with CTO Kotranza and Lok in 2011. “Our dream was to unleash any and every learner’s God-given potential through conversation no matter what their area of study – from the youngest student to the most seasoned professional. At our core, we’re about knowledge, understanding and wisdom.”

Since its commercial launch in 2013, Shadow Health has grown from a company of two to a team of 100 members, most based in its office in Gainesville.

“We always hoped we’d make a local impact and provide opportunities for young professionals and talented people of every age to stay in town and build a family and a good life here.”

“And it’s happening,” Massias said. “We have software developers, of course, but we also have writers, artists, instructional designers, quality managers, Agile leaders, sales people, IT, systems operators and the list just goes on. Our journey hasn’t been overnight, but it’s been building since Day One, and that has been incredible to see.”

Shadow Health started with four customers – four nursing schools. Today, the company serves more than 1,500 schools, and it’s growing at a rate between 35 to 40 % year over year. This year, based on the total number of students using the program, the technology will provide more than 200 million virtual patient encounters.

“When we think about the impact of helping develop more nursing students, assisting more nurse educators, transforming more health care offices where those nurses eventually serve – and, most importantly, helping those nurses deliver better outcomes to the patients themselves – that’s a great future to be chasing.”

The team at Shadow Health is putting together a broader plan for what’s next, and part of that plan is to put additional UF technologies to work.

“How can Shadow Health make an even bigger impact? Help even more learners?” Massias asked. “We’ve got a big dream. We’re going to need the tools – and the tech – to get it right.”


Thanks to Sara Dagen and our partners in UF Innovate | Tech Licensing for assisting with this article.

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