The key to a winning startup in a business competition, believes Jay Kumar, is having a significant problem and a viable solution. To be sure, Kumar and his three co-founders have taken his own advice to heart–and then some. The foursome, who founded Astraeus Technologies last autumn, are going after lung cancer. And so far, things are going quite well.
In the past six or so months, Astreaus Technologies has won the MIT $100K Accelerate business plan competition, along with the audience choice prize. They’ve also picked up the audience choice prize at the MIT Sloan Healthcare and Bioinnovations Conference. And just last week, the team of medical students, MBAs and a PhD took home the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition Student Business Track grand prize of $50,000.
Besides the added confidence, support and legitimacy that comes with an elite B-school startup competition win, the team joins a growing list of impressive ventures to earn the prize. Some of Astreaus Technologies predecessors include CloudFlare, Oscomp Systems, Vaxis Technologies, Alfred and many others. So what exactly does it take to mold a prize winning startup and team? Poets&Quants was able to catchup with Kumar after the HBS New Venture Competition to find out.
FINDING THE TECHNOLOGY
Kumar, Alex Blair and Graham Lieberman all met on the first day of orientation at Harvard Medical School in the fall of 2012. Kumar came from the University of Oklahoma, Blair from Carnegie Mellon University and Lieberman from Harvard. It didn’t take longer than the first day to establish a common passion for impacting medicine through entrepreneurship and innovation. The trio spent the next three years of medical school brainstorming they ways in which they could do just that.
“We thought of ideas wherever we could find them–in policy, health care delivery, medical devices and in basic sciences,” recalls Kumar. “We were looking for any idea, big or small, that could improve the lives of patients, lives of providers, the efficiency of systems, etcetera.”
Hundreds of ideas were generated. But it wasn’t until last fall when they came across an important problem and solution–and a new teammate. During the first year of Lieberman and Kumar’s MBA portion of a joint MD-MBA program, Blair happened upon some research. It’s been known for a while lung cancer patients have distinct gases in their breath. Blair set out to find some sort of technology that could detect the gases. But he certainly didn’t have to go far. About two-and-a-half miles away at the MIT Department of Chemistry was Joseph Azzarelli who had recently co-authored a paper alongside MIT Chemistry Yoda, Tim Swager. Within the paper was a technology able to inexpensively detect distinct gases, dubbed a Chemically Actuated Resonate Device (CARD). The trio of medical students met with Azzarelli and “kicked it off” immediately. And the CARD would shortly become the technological basis of Astraeus Technologies.
THE L-CARD IS BORN
“Outside of the iPad, it’s hard for me to think of a technological innovation in recent memory that did not address a pain-point that people felt,” says Kumar, noting the first step in a successful venture is finding an important, real-life problem.
“It all starts with the problem,” Kumar continues. “The problem you are solving has to be a real problem. This is where a lot of smart people get tripped up. They come up with a cool idea but there is a difference between a cool idea and a cool idea that solves a problem.”
No doubt the CARD is a cool idea. But the next piece for Kumar and the team was developing a lung cancer-specific card so the idea would be cool and solve a problem.
“The L-CARD is a simple gas sensor that detects molecules unique to the exhaled breath of lung cancer patients and sends a diagnosis to a smartphone,” Kumar said during his 90 second pitch at the HBS New Venture Competition. “You breathe on this and it tells a smartphone whether you have lung cancer. It’s cheaper than CT scans. It’s easier to use. And it’s more accurate. All told, this is a market opportunity north of $8 to $9 billion annually.”