A University of Virginia student team’s vision for a virtually painless way to take blood samples with a miniscule needle, inspired by a mosquito’s proboscis, garnered some votes of confidence last week, winning three business plan competitions in two days.
On Wednesday, the ProVazo team’s three members – U.Va. fourth-year biomedical engineering students Timothy Higgins, Andrew Andreae and Jessica Ungerleider – had to split up to be in two places at the same time. Ungerleider stayed on Grounds and won the Jefferson Entrepreneurship Team competition, beating out 18 other U.Va. teams, to take the $4,000 top prize. Almost 300 miles away in Charlotte, N.C., Higgins and Andreae won the graduate student category and the people’s choice award at the Charlotte Venture Challenge, taking home $5,500.
The next day they reunited and beat out teams from 20 other Virginia colleges and universities to take home the grand prize of $10,000 at the Governor’s Business Plan Challenge, held in Richmond’s Capitol Square.
“The team made a compelling five-minute pitch to a group of judges that consisted of some of Virginia’s most successful entrepreneurs and business owners,” said Brian Cullaty, director of undergraduate research opportunities at U.Va.’s Center for Undergraduate Excellence, who attended the Richmond competition. “They responded to the judges’ questions with the poise of seasoned professionals. The judges were impressed with the team’s detailed planning and analysis of their market and existing competition.”
Event host Jacob Geiger from Work It, Richmond agreed. The team’s poise answering questions from the judges made it clear they “had thought through a lot of the potential challenges they would face as they go to market,” he said.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell gave opening remarks at the event, and later Thursday said in a press release, “I’m particularly impressed and offer my congratulations to the team from the University of Virginia, with their innovative blood sampling solution. The idea not only holds business promise, but is one that could improve the lives of patients.
“While these students started out with ideas and keen entrepreneurial drive, I hope that today’s challenge and the advice and questioning of the mentors and judges helps them further develop their plans and encourages them to take a risk and create the next great business in Virginia.”
“We are very excited to have the support of Gov. McDonnell and the state of Virginia,” Andreae said. “The winnings and support will go a long way in enabling us to reach our company vision, especially as we transition from a student project to a full startup.”
That transition is already under way. In March, the team incorporated as ProVazo LLC, changing its name from HD MicroSampling. In February, the team won one of 25 spots in this year’s U.Va. i.Lab incubator program, starting this summer, which will give it an additional $8,000 in funding, Ungerleider said. With help from incubator mentors and services, the team plans to spend the coming year refining their designs and technology and pursuing approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Inspired by a mosquito’s proboscis, which can penetrate human skin without being felt, ProVazo’s patented catheter needle’s tiny size makes it virtually painless, minimally invasive and easy to use, Higgins said. The micro-scale catheter allows for sampling just a few drops of blood, which can be measured accurately with the coming generation of laboratory equipment, providing more accurate measurements than the now-standard disposable lancet tests, which “were never designed for use in a critical care setting.”
This new approach eliminates the need for painful lancet fingersticks, which are used as often as once an hour in some hospital care regimens, often preventing patients from sleeping through the night.
“We are passionate about revolutionizing the way blood is sampled in hospital settings,” Andreae said.
Plenty of observers apparently see the team’s passion and revolutionary promise, because the team’s victories in Richmond and Charlotte are the latest in a series of business competition winnings. Following a second prize at the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup in November, the team has also earned prizes from three other U.Va. competitions, including Wednesday’s JET competition.
“We look forward to promising business, technological and legal developments this summer and are excited to take ProVazo to investors in the fall,” Ungerleider said.