What started as a senior project for several Virginia Commonwealth University students now has become a nearly two-year odyssey to build a successful startup company.
Joshna Seelam, Aniket Kulkarni and Kashyap Venuthurupalli are the founders of Kilo Medical Solutions LLC.
They were biomedical engineering majors in the spring of 2018 when they tackled a senior capstone project with a challenging goal: developing a tool to help premature infants recover more quickly in neonatal intensive care units.
The problem that needed solving — explained to them by Debra Hearington, a pediatric nurse practitioner at VCU — is that premature infants are often exposed to too much light in their isolette incubators, which can influence the baby’s recovery and length of stay in the hospital
“We wanted to develop a standardized system that can provide the best environment for these infants and get them out of the hospital sooner,” Kulkarni said.
The product the students designed — called the Brise-Solette — is an isolette covered with transitioning film and equipped with an electronic system that can switch the film between opaque and transparent, enabling caretakers to control how much light an infant gets.
As undergraduates, the students had figured they’d probably eventually enroll in medical school. But with the encouragement of advisers at VCU, and after presenting a prototype of the device at a National Academy of Inventors conference in April 2018, they decided to create a startup company to try to bring the product to market.
“Towards the end of the capstone project, we realized the potential for this to actually be commercially available in hospitals, and that is when we all decided to enroll in a master’s program at VCU,” Seelam said. “We come from an engineering background, and we needed entrepreneurial skills.”
So since the fall of 2018, the founders of Kilo Medical have been enrolled in the master’s degree program in product innovation at VCU’s da Vinci Center while further developing the Brise-Solette.
“I think this is a great example of an undergraduate senior design capstone project in the College of Engineering that matured into the students having a place to stay at VCU in a master’s program to bring their early-stage idea all the way to the marketplace,” said Garret Westlake, executive director of VCU’s da Vinci Center.
“Universities don’t do enough, in my opinion, of creating that pathway,” he said, adding that the da Vinci Center is trying to provide a “landing space” for talented students who have good startup concepts but need time to develop them.
It has been a whirlwind journey for the co-founders of Kilo, taking them all over the country to attend conferences and startup business pitch competitions.
Those have included presenting at the International Business Model Competition in Utah and the Virginia Shark Tank competition in Williamsburg. At the SCORECard Business Pitch competition in Richmond in May, Kilo Medical received the top prize of $5,000. That money went toward filing a patent application for the Brise-Solette.
This fall, the Kilo Medical founders have been attending the 12-week RIoT business accelerator program in Raleigh, N.C.
“This has definitely become beyond a full-time job,” Seelam said. “It has to be beyond full time for progress to happen.”
One of the big challenges ahead for Kilo is getting Food and Drug Administration approval for the device, but if Kilo can do that, then the potential market is large. There are more than 5,000 neonatal care units in the U.S., with an average of about 30 isolettes per unit.
Venuthurupalli said the market for neonatal care products is more than $7 billion a year and growing.
“I think there can be a lot of impact with what we are doing, and that is what I love about it,” said Venuthurupalli, adding that the co-founders each bring complementary skills to the startup. He serves as chief business officer, helping to identify funding possibilities and conducting market and industry research.
Seelam is chief executive and strategy officer, handling company finances, strategy, vision and day-to-day operations. Kulkarni is chief technology officer handling the design and testing of prototypes.
“We have faced a lot of challenges from when we started,” Seelam said. “There have been times when we have all questioned it — it is a huge commitment and a huge responsibility, but the value and the impact of our product is what we remind ourselves of every day, and we come back even stronger.”