Start-ups powered by students at Carle Illinois College of Medicine to tackle health problems like monitoring for iron deficiency and kidney disease have won more than $50,000 in investment funding as part of a campus-wide innovation competition. Carle Illinois students are represented on two teams — Ferritiva and Nephra — that tied for second place in the COZAD New Venture Challenge, a campus-wide competition in which student start-ups bid for cash and in-kind support to develop their ideas into a marketable products and enterprises. Each second-place team will receive $20,000 to invest in their innovations. Ferritiva was also awarded the Dr. Paul Magelli Innovation Prize with $10,000 funding by Illinois Ventures and also won the ‘best elevator pitch’ award.

Ferritiva saliva test example
Ferritiva saliva test example

First-year Carle Illinois student Jeffrey Lu founded the startup Ferritiva to develop his idea for a cheaper, convenient, and accessible way to monitor for iron deficiency anemia, an under-diagnosed but treatable condition that affects about 12.5% of people in the world. Doctors now rely on blood test panels to check for iron deficiency, but Lu envisions a new point-of-care immunoassay (LFIA) device that uses saliva to check for iron deficiency. “Given that saliva is now used to assess many things such as COVID-19 (like at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s SHIELD ILLINOIS initiative), I wondered if saliva could be used for iron deficiency evaluation,” Lu said. Saliva ferritin (a protein that stores iron) levels have been measured in academic research but have not been used in clinical applications.

Team Ferritiva
Team Ferritiva members Nathan Chung (BioE) and Jeffrey Lu (Carle Illinois College of Medicine)

Lu says a saliva-based test would be especially valuable to patient populations that are most affected by iron deficiency anemia, including student athletes. As a former track and cross-country coach, Lu witnessed a dramatic performance improvement in one of his runners, after she was diagnosed and treated for iron deficiency anemia. “I recognized that it is a problem that needed to be solved especially because student athletes had no options to assess their iron deficiency status,” Lu said. “With an accessible screening tool, individuals can check their iron statuses on their own and seek care as needed.”

Lu and his undergraduate teammates Nathan Chung (BioE) and Shreya Ghosh (Business/Biology) plan to use the investment winnings from the COZAD Challenge to build a prototype, conduct proof-of-concept research studies, and pursue protection of their intellectual property.

The other second-place start-up with ties to Carle Illinois is Nephra, focused on developing engineering software for chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients to monitor their potassium levels using a handheld electrocardiogram (ECG). The team’s monitoring technology uses a machine learning algorithm to classify risky ranges of key electrolytes through non-invasive, convenient ECG readings. The Nephra startup was co-founded by UIUC bioengineering student Amartya Dave in collaboration with the Carle Illinois student interest group AxisMED. Current team members include first-year Carle Illinois student Suma Gangidi. The previous team has won numerous accolades, including being named one of the Most Disruptive Business School Startups of 2021 by Poets & Quants.

Two other teams led by Carle Illinois students won prizes from COZAD sponsors, including:

  • Voca – An app designed to analyze voices to help manage diagnosed voice disorders and prevent the onset of future complications. Team members include Carle Illinois students Shreya Rangarajan and Michael Chen, along with Bhargav Chandaka. Voca won the AWARE (Accelerating Women And underRepresented Entrepreneurs) prize from the Grainger College of Engineering with a $1000 cash prize and the Founders Best Newcomer cash prize ($250).
  • ZamCare – A next-generation telehealth platform offering comprehensive physical exams virtually using digitally connected devices. Team lead is Carle Illinois student Alex Teague. ZamCare won the Research Park Entrepreneur-in-Residence Support Prize that includes $2,000 worth of consulting services from EnterpriseWorks’ Entrepreneur-in-Residence program to provide advice regarding legal issues, business plans, fundraising, and industry connections.

Since 2000, the COZAD New Venture Challenge hosted by the Technology Entrepreneur Center has allowed students from across the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus with an idea for a new start-up company to team up and compete for funding. Since its inception, the COZAD New Venture Challenge has awarded more than $2 million dollars in cash and prizes. This year, a total of $200,000 in support was awarded.

You can review the awards ceremony video here.