InMEDBio, one of the University of Virginia’s most successful undergraduate startups, added to its momentum recently with a bronze medal at the national Collegiate Inventors Competition.
Founded by fourth-year student Ashwinraj Karthikeyan, InMEDBio’s first product, Phoenix-Aid, is a five-layer bandage for chronic wounds.
Phoenix-Aid is designed to be more breathable and absorbent than gauze, while retaining optimal moisture for skin healing.
InMEDBio received $2,500 in prize money for its third-place finish at the Collegiate Inventors Competition, administered by the National Inventors
Hall of Fame in collaboration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Eleven Inventors Hall of Fame inductees served as judges for this year’s competition, held at the USPTO headquarters in Washington.
“It was such an honor to even be selected as a finalist,” Karthikeyan said. “The judges are people who have invented some of the greatest inventions that we use today ... We have gotten so much good advice.”
InMEDBio’s award marked the second-straight year that a UVa undergraduate team has medaled at the Collegiate Inventors Competition. AgroSpheres, a biotechnology startup still based in Charlottesville, won first prize at the 2016 competition.
Phoenix-Aid is still being prototyped and is not yet approved for patient use. Karthikeyan said he is overseeing rigorous tests of the product’s material qualities and antibacterial properties. He recently filed for a patent for the technology.
“The [Collegiate Inventors Competition] judges are trying to find projects and companies that someone will use,” Karthikeyan said. “They don’t want to create something and just leave it there.”
Karthikeyan’s interest in wound care was sparked by a tragedy in his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. One of his coworkers from a part-time job died of a surgical site infection just before he enrolled at UVa in 2014.
Karthikeyan said he was shocked to learn that surgical dressing products often failed to prevent these infections. “I wondered: If the situation was this bad in America, what it would be like in developing countries?” he said.
Originally from India, Karthikeyan has made multiple return trips in the last several years to learn about chronic wound care in the country. His research has focused on foot ulcers affecting people with diabetes.
Nerve damage caused by diabetes can cause blisters on the feet to form unnoticed and become infected. India has the world’s largest diabetic population, currently estimated to be more than 60 million.
Karthikeyan said most Indians don’t have health insurance, and are forced to rely on sub-standard products for diabetic wound care. Those with access to medical care — in India, the U.S. and elsewhere — have these wounds treated with complex packs of gauze and ointments that most patients can’t apply by themselves.
Karthikeyan said daily trips to the hospital to have the dressing changed can drain patients’ time and resources.
“The emerging markets we are looking at include parts of the U.S.; there is a gap in affordability in this country,” he said. “We are trying to create something novel that is both affordable and effective.”
Karthikeyan said Phoenix-Aid has undergone many iterations based on hundreds of conversations with doctors, patients and health care industry professionals.
“Every time we iterate, it’s based on a new piece of information that we got from someone,” he said. “You think we would have heard it all at this point, but we haven’t. There are so many different stories.”
Karthikeyan has worked closely on Phoenix-Aid with his father, Annamalai, a physicist and founder of a Wisconsin startup that manufactures activated carbon.
“Working in his lab throughout high school gave me exposure and knowledge of those materials,” Karthikeyan said. “The properties of the materials ... aligned really well with what I was trying to do with this wound-care dressing. It was a great connection to have.”
Karthikeyan and a small team of fellow undergraduates are developing Phoenix-Aid in labs outside of UVa to retain full ownership of the intellectual property. However, Karthikeyan said the university has played a critical role in his entrepreneurial journey by letting him access opportunities for grant funding and guidance from expert faculty.
Bala Mulloth, an assistant professor at UVa’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, helped Karthikeyan strategize for InMEDBio’s growth in a social entrepreneurship course. He served as InMEDBio’s primary investigator for the Collegiate Inventors Competition.
“I feel like there is a lot of potential for what [Karthikeyan] is doing,” Mulloth said. “Phoenix-Aid is not another app or a service — it’s a real product.
He has the intellectual property, and the potential to scale it up for the entire globe .... But rather than start with the entire world, he’s focused on a very targeted market.”
InMEDBio also participated in the accelerator program at UVa’s i.Lab Incubator this past summer.
InMEDBio’s win at the Collegiate Inventors Competition is just the latest addition to the startup’s impressive haul of grants and prize money.
This summer, InMEDBio won first place and $10,000 at BMEidea, a national competition for undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs in biomedical technology sponsored by VentureWell.
InMEDBio recently received $5,000 from UVa’s new Pike Fellows program for undergraduate entrepreneurs. Karthikeyan will compete against other student fellows for a $50,000 prize, to be awarded in April.
Karthikeyan said he will work full-time on Phoenix-Aid after graduating with an aerospace engineering degree next year, and is seeking out potential investors in his company.
“We are super excited to go forward from here and get Phoenix-Aid into the hands of patients as soon as possible,” he said.