2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: epiSLS, University of Michigan (Ross)

epiSLS

University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

Industry: Medical Device

Founding Student Name(s): Parker Martin, Cory Cooney

Brief Description of Solution: epiSLS is a medical device enabling point-of-care allergy testing.

Currently, the gold standard for allergy testing is the skin prick test administered by allergists. While accurate, this method often involves long wait times due to the scarcity of allergists, with only approximately one allergist per 65,000 patients in the country. Thermo Fisher Scientific offers a blood-based test that any physician can order, but it requires sending samples to specialized labs and takes several days to yield results, often considered less accurate than skin prick tests. Neither of these options are developed for the point of care when you need to know a patient’s allergic status immediately.

epiSLS presents a game-changing solution, combining the strengths of both existing methods into a point-of-care system. It employs innovative application and sensing technology to automate the highly accurate in-office skin prick testing protocol. epiSLS can be initiated by any healthcare provider in any setting, offering reliable interpretation and results within just thirty minutes. This point-of-care solution empowers healthcare providers to conduct real-time, bedside allergy testing with confidence, enhancing their ability to craft effective treatment plans.

Funding Dollars: Non-Dilutive Grant Funding

What led you to launch this venture? During my clinical rotations in medical school, I had a patient report a penicillin allergy. Any patient who reports a penicillin allergy cannot get penicillin or related antibiotics. We had to rely on a second line prophylaxis prior to surgery for this patient because of a problem we all knew was overwhelmingly likely to be false. Still without the ability to perform point of care testing, we couldn’t prove the safety of the more efficacious first line treatment. This patient ended up developing a multidrug resistant bacterial infection, which required transfer to the ICU and eventually killed them. Had we been able to test the patient and provide them the first line therapy, it is possible that they might not have died.

It didn’t sit well with me that we knew patients were at this increased risk, yet there was nothing we could do about it. Combining my background in electrical engineering and signal processing with my knowledge of the medicine and physiology at play, I decided to find a solution.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? A huge accomplishment has been bringing this device to patients in an IRB approved clinical trial. It has been hugely rewarding to take what started as an only identification of a problem all the way through solution ideation, prototyping, and now to clinical use where it can start to make an impact in patient care.

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? Developing any new technology is challenging, and ours has had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. Some have been technical – we are really proud to be able to say that epiSLS works well for all patients including those traditionally underserved by healthcare and medical innovation. epiSLS’ sensor operates based on light in the visible spectrum bouncing off of the skin. The reason you and I experience different skin tones as unique from one another is that they interact with photons in the visible spectrum differently. The skin is a unique organ that has both reflective and transparent properties. Different skin tones have different nuances in their reflective behavior and internal reflection, which can really mess with our sensor. We had to overcome those differences to ensure that we were able to bring allergy testing to patients everywhere.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? The skills we learn in an MBA are foundational to ensuring epiSLS is sustainable. A good idea is not enough; you must bring it to people to make a difference. The MBA program provided us with opportunities to grow our knowledge of entrepreneurship, resources to develop our ideas, and a network to expand our reach.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Herbert Boyer, co-founder of Genentech and a pioneer in the field of biotechnology, served as a significant source of inspiration for me as I embarked on my own entrepreneurial journey. Boyer’s groundbreaking work in genetic engineering and his role in co-founding Genentech showcased not only his scientific brilliance, but also his entrepreneurial spirit and ability to bridge the gap between science and business.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? BA 523 Comprehensive Health Care Strategies – Not only is this the class through which Cory and I met, it was a remarkable overview of the healthcare system, how healthcare is reimbursed, the complex interplay of users, payers, and decision makers, as well as the process by which new innovation enters the highly regulated space of healthcare. The biggest lesson I learned from this class, and one that has shaped our strategy, is that many good innovations – even those that improve patient outcomes or reduce healthcare costs – never are adopted. I learned that the system of value analysis committees is an important stakeholder we need to actively plan for and target as we build out the branding, features, and value proposition of epiSLS.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why?

Rajan Ravikumar – Professor of Allergy & Immunology; Dr. Ravikumar has been an invaluable supporter. He was the first person I told about my idea to solve this problem. From the very beginning, he encouraged me to pursue it. Had it not been for his patience teaching me about the field of allergy medicine and his encouragement to pursue new innovation in the field, there is a chance epiSLS would never have been. He has remained an important advisor and mentor now acting as the PI for our clinical trial.

Mike Johnson – Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer in Entrepreneurial Studies at the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, and Faculty Managing Director of the Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund; Dr. Johnson has been a great mentor as we have trekked the path towards commercialization turning epiSLS into a real company. He has shared both his experience and expertise as he has helped to guide us and connect us into his network as well as the greater entrepreneurial ecosystem.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? We are very fortunate to have support from the University of Michigan, the Zell Lurie Institute (ZLI), and the Ann Arbor community. ZLI specifically has been an amazing opportunity to learn the skills needed to lead a successful business while also connecting directly with successful entrepreneurs who are so willing to share their experience and insights. So much of the success and momentum we have had can be attributed to this support network and for that we are extremely grateful.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? We hope to make rapid, reliable, and accessible allergy testing available to patients no matter where they are or when they need it. We hope to bring allergy testing into the 21st century.

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