Student-led venture Nephra has been named one of the Most Disruptive Business School Startups of 2021 by Poets & Quants. The start-up has collaborated with AxisMED, a pre-incubator program founded by Carle Illinois College of Medicine students including Al Smith (Class of 2024) and Ethan Chen (Class of 2022). AxisMED co-founder Smith serves as Nephra’s medical officer. Chen is Nephra’s health consultant. 
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Nephra, a student-led startup supported by iVenture Accelerator, has also moved into the second stage of the College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) student accelerator program, a partnership with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and The Grainger College of Engineering.
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This interview with bioengineering student Amartya Dave (BIOE ‘23), a co-founder of Nephra, describes more about the start-up and its collaboration with AxisMED.

What is the health problem that your team is solving?

People with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) have kidney function that declines over time and progresses into End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), a condition in which the kidneys have declined to the point that they can no longer function on their own. According to studies, 70.7% of the ESRD population, or roughly 500,000 people, are forced to go on dialysis, a method where blood is artificially filtered to compensate for poor kidney function. When the kidneys fail, patients can no longer maintain the balance of key electrolytes on their own. Since dialysis only recovers a very small amount of normal kidney function, it is very difficult for patients to maintain this critical balance. This balance is critical because a few of these electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, are key regulators of the heart rhythm, and when imbalances occur, it can lead to muscle weakness and heart arrhythmias that can cause sudden and fatal hospitalization. In fact, cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death for dialysis patients, with 43% of hospitalizations for these patients being linked to cardiac-related issues. This high rate of hospitalization contributes to the fact that 60% of dialysis patients will not survive for more than 5 years after being placed on dialysis. As of right now, these key electrolytes that maintain the cardiac rhythm are only monitored once a month via a blood test administered by their physician. Patients are more likely to develop fatal heart arrhythmias every weekend of the month, and we see this statistic is largely unaccounted for by the current standard of care. Furthermore, these electrolytes are known to vary significantly on a daily basis with diet, a component that many dialysis patients struggle with.

At Nephra, we are developing non-invasive electrolyte monitoring technology that can be utilized to alert patients and their physicians about abnormal electrolyte values so that emergency dialysis sessions or appropriate medication intervention can be initiated before it’s too late. At the same time, this kind of tool can be powerful in helping patients better understand and track their diet and overall health. By increasing the rate of monitoring of these key electrolytes from once a month to nearly once a day, we would not only play a vital role in working to reduce cardiac-related mortality for dialysis patients, but also in pioneering personalized care and wellness-oriented technology in the dialysis field.

Can you describe how you came up with this idea? 

Nephra’s team came together through AxisMED, a pre-incubator program founded by students at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Instead of starting with the idea itself, our team began looking into dialysis innovation because of our own personal connections to the field and how innovation has not made as much of an impact on patients’ quality of life compared to other practices. We began by talking to Nephrologists and patients at the Carle Foundation Hospital to make sure we hone in on a problem that was clinically relevant and then started working on potential solutions with support from AxisMED. We later participated in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corp programs at both the university and regional levels, which has really helped us develop our customer discovery and understanding of the problem with multiple perspectives. It was a really rewarding experience talking to real people about real problems and seeing what we can do to make a difference.

What’s it like to have a student startup at UIUC? What support have you received and what are some challenges?

Being a part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem here at UIUC has been an amazing experience. Actually taking what we talk and learn about in class and applying it in the real world is one of the main reasons why I pursued bioengineering – having the privilege to actively do that here is empowering and motivating. Nephra has a lot of people to thank: AxisMED, professors in our BIOE department, our iVenture community, and a host of other super helpful and encouraging mentors we’ve met along the way.

Right now, we’re focused on product development but some challenges we’ll be working through soon would be validating and testing our solution and seeing how it can be feasibly used in a real-world setting. We’re looking forward to it!

How did you go about building a team with diverse skill sets?

Although AxisMED does a great job in requiring business, medical, and engineering backgrounds on each of their teams, I think that when our team came together, our drive to solve real medical problems and our connection to the dialysis field is what really formed our group and is what keeps us motivated to keep working on this significant problem.

What are some key learnings from the iVenture Accelerator program? Anything surprising?

One of the biggest things that I took away from my iVenture experience is the importance of taking action, not being afraid of failure, and building community. iVenture has provided Nephra with resources, support, and mentorship that has really prepared us to take our idea to the next level. One of the more surprising things that I noticed as soon as our team entered the iVenture and larger entrepreneurship community was how willing everyone was to help others out, provide advice, and build relationships. It is really cool to see and be a part of – the community here is an integral part of what start-up culture is all about.

What’s next for Nephra after the iVenture Accelerator program?

Recently, Nephra was accepted into the College New Venture Challenge, the undergraduate track of the New Venture Challenge, one of the top startup accelerator programs in the nation. The program is offered through a partnership between The Grainger College of Engineering and The University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We’re also really excited to continue our product development and will be participating in various events around campus as well.

Editor’s note: The original version of this interview by Kaylan Waldron can be found here. AxisMED is a pre-incubator program founded by Carle Illinois College of Medicine students Ariana Barreau, Al Smith, Al Teague, and Diana Wu that connects students with innovation opportunities on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. AxisMED seeks to bridge engineering, business, law, and medicine to help cross-disciplinary teams create and market new health care products.


December 23, 2021