Vitrix Health, the winner of 2018 Cozad New Venture Challenge, made the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Illinois work for the startup. Learn how, from Aashay Patel, Co-founder of Vitrix Health, an Illinois startup specializing in affordable and accurate medical screening devices. Aashay Patel is pursuing Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. He shares his entrepreneurial journey, the growth of his company, and five tips to master the Cozad New Venture Challenge.
How did the idea of Vitrix Health come about? Tell us your story.
Vitrix Health started by recognizing the need for affordable and accessible oral cancer screening in India. The idea was always on my mind. My grandpa had chewed tobacco for years and the horrifying images or oral malignancies on the tobacco packets in India motivated me to hide and trash his tobacco stash.
As a bioengineering student, I researched the problem (oral cancer screening) based on a few conversations with faculty members and students. I realized that there were many simple but disparate technologies and processes being used in emerging markets. Using my engineering and clinical background, I found a balanced way to innovate by piecing together the prior literature into a product and process that would be affordable, accessible, and more effective than what was on the market.
Did you plan to launch your startup in college or did it just happen?
It happened. I was initially working on putting our optical technology on a phone camera and presented the idea at an informal meeting of entrepreneurs at Illinois. There, I met Ayush Kumar (Co-founder of Vitrix Health) who had seen the dismal state of cancer diagnosis in India via cases in his own family. The late Dr. Paul Magelli, Sr. our common mentor, connected us. We both knew if Prof. Magelli had taken each of us under his wing, then he saw in us untapped potential and competence. We planned to meet at a local coffee shop for a 30-minute meeting which turned into a two-hour planning session, which has now turned into a two-year project and a legitimate company.
What expansion, product commercialization/diversification plans do you have for Vitrix Health?
We are on the cusp of deploying our end-to-end oral cancer screening system. It’s more than just the device. We’ve created a software platform with an associated biopsy process in which we can “plug in” various screening cameras for different mucosal cancers. The modularity allows us to expand our product line easily. Also, we are in the early stages of prototyping for cervical cancer screening.
What kind of market research did you do for Ora1 (oral cancer screening device)? Are there similar products in the market?
We based our understanding of the market via the TAM (Total Available Market), SAM (Serviceable Available Market), and SOM (Serviceable Obtainable Market) method. I’ve been to conferences and interacted with our competitors. We’ve tried the competitor devices. Furthermore, we’ve looked into other disease spaces and varied industries to pull technologies into our system that many of our competitors overlook.
How did the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Illinois contribute to the development and growth of Vitrix Health?
First and foremost, I only continued developing Ora1 because Founders Illinois Entrepreneurs gave me a $500 microgrant. More than the money, the tangible validation of an idea worth pursuing was instrumental.
Access to the entrepreneurial faculty at Illinois was also very useful. We did and still do talk to the professors for technical and business advice.
SocialFuse was an opportunity to practice pitching. The NSF I-Corps program helped us in customer discovery, and Dr. Madhu Viswanathan’s class on Bottom-up Business Development helped us understand our end-user and beneficiary.
Cozad New Venture Challenge was instrumental in helping us refine our pitch. Ultimately, the Cozad prize money helped us cross the bridge from project to company. The iVenture Accelerator was also a great opportunity for us to work full-time on the company for a full summer.
Vitrix Health won the Cozad New Venture Challenge last year. How did the experience help the company grow?
To win the entrepreneurship competition at one of the most entrepreneurial universities in the country gave us the credibility to reach out to industry leaders and investors. The process of building the business model canvas allowed us to clearly communicate our ideas. Ultimately, preparing to pitch to a panel of actual investors, along with the hefty $25k grand prize, and $10K Dr. Paul Magelli Innovation Prize, offered by Illinois Ventures was the motivation we needed to present and conduct ourselves as a company rather than a project.
How should students best utilize the widely available resources in and around the campus to succeed as an entrepreneur?
Talk to people! Don’t worry about NDAs or protecting your idea when it’s yet an invalidated idea. So many students make solutions to problems that don’t exist or can’t be solved profitably. Even if you’re doing something for social good, and Vitrix Health certainly is, you need to understand the problem your customer is facing. You need to have deep insights before you design the right solution for them.
Make use of NSF I-Corps, TE classes, and the immense expertise we have in our faculty. We have a micro-urban microcosm of America in our surrounding community. If you have a product, your customer almost certainly exists within a 10-mile radius of campus. Go out into the Champaign-Urbana community and talk to your customer. Use the prototyping resources at the Mechanical Engineering Lab’s Innovation Studio, Illinois MakerLab, etc. to create your products if they’re physical, or go to hackathons and get credit for things like Amazon Web Service, if they’re virtual.
Utilize the resource pools and acceleration mechanisms on campus like the Cozad New Venture Challenge and iVenture Accelerator to turn your project into a real company.
What, according to you, is the biggest challenge when choosing entrepreneurship? How did you overcome the challenge?
The biggest challenge is managing expectations. It’s an empirical truth that the vast majority of startups fail. The process of ideation, solution, and commercialization is a huge learning opportunity that so many people never take advantage of, especially in college when the stakes are low. Enter expecting to learn a lot. The chances of you succeeding in creating a profitable business will be so much higher.
If you were to start all over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve made some smart decisions. More than anything, I’ve created a college experience for myself in which I’ve learned more than any course could teach me. I’m in medical school now, and the ease with which I can operate in certain aspects of this new world is astounding, to myself and my peers. Entrepreneurial thinking and learning is in itself a tool for so many of life’s situations.