Music bumped and strobe lights were set to defcon-seizure in Harvard Business School’s Burden Hall on a miserably wet and cold Tuesday evening. In case anyone forgot about the myriad ventures cooked up by Harvard MBAs, the massive screen at the front of the auditorium served as a reminder. As some atrocious Pitbull-sounding song blared out, those names began to fly onto the screen and into the galaxy—Star Wars credits style. Baublebar … Birchbox … Coffee Meets Bagel. U2’s “Beautiful Day” begins and serves as a polarization to the previous song. Earnest … Grabtaxi … and so it went until a voice analogous to the Golden State Warriors announcer politely asks everyone to take their seats.
Indeed, hype was brimming as MBAs, faculty and guests trickled into the 775-seat auditorium for the 19th edition of the HBS New Venture Competition. And rightfully so. At stake was a potential total of $52,000 in seed funding and the street cred that comes with winning one of the most prestigious B-school startup competitions, to boot. After Jodi Gernon, director of the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, made introductions, HBS Professor and–based on the theme music when he approached the stage–the Darth Vader of Entrepreneurship, William (Bill) Sahlman, took the stage to reassure any fearful entrepreneurial minds.
“Many of you have gone through your careers and have not really suffered significant setbacks,” Sahlman said. “You think that if you get involved with a venture and the venture fails then somehow that will be a life threatening or career threatening outcome. I’m here to tell you that can’t possibly be the case.”
GAME-CHANGING LUNG CANCER INDICATOR TAKES GRAND PRIZE
If the 12 ventures competing were an indicator, Sahlman is absolutely correct. Outside of rent-a-tiny-home-in-the-woods-of-Massachusetts venture called Getaway, the bulk of these ventures are out to solve some of society’s greatest problems: Lung cancer. Brain tumors. Women’s health. Sexual abuse. Aids. And so, one-by-one, the final four teams in each category—alumni, business and social enterprise tracks—took the stage to test their mettle in 90-second final pitches to the audience and judges.
When all settled, health care-related ventures dominated. Taking the $50,000 grand prize in the student business track was a team of medical students and PhDs. “We are Astraeus Technologies and we are going after lung cancer,” were the first words spoken by dual MD-MBA, Jay Kumar. Astraeus Technologies is a game-changing cancer detector. The team, made up of dual MD-MBAs from Harvard and a PhD from MIT, has created a card—called the “L-CARD”—that’s a little bigger than a postage stamp and can diagnose lung cancer from a person’s breath. “You breathe on this and it tells a smart phone whether you have lung cancer,” Kumar announced, holding up the card, which was hardly visible from the fourth row of the auditorium.
The team has already won the grand prize and audience award at MIT $100K startup competition in February–netting $13,000 along the way. And if there was any doubt to it’s legitimacy, Kumar put those to rest in the final moments of his 90 seconds. “It’s cheaper than CT scans,” Kumar said. “It’s easier to use. And it’s more accurate. All told, this is a market opportunity north of eight to nine billion dollars. Annually.”
Hesitant to reveal much detail during the presentation and a follow-up conversation, Kumar explained the idea came after multiple years of brainstorming hundreds of potential ideas. The revolutionary idea stemmed from the 2014 research of team member and MIT PhD student, Joseph Azzarelli, and Timothy Swager, an MIT chemistry professor. The research led to the development of a one-time wireless chemical sensor, able to identify unique gasses found in the breath of an individual with lung cancer. Ideally, the product will identify lung cancer at a far earlier stage, lowering the fatality rate. The team is waiting FDA approval to move into clinical trials.