Northwestern-based startup named winner in Neuro Startup Challenge

Peter Kotecki, Reporter

After several months of competing in the National Institutes of Health’s Neuro Startup Challenge, a Northwestern-based group was selected as one of 13 winning teams from a pool of more than 70.

The Neuro Startup Challenge, co-sponsored by The Center for Advancing Innovation, is a competition designed to bring medical inventions to market. This year, challengers could choose one of 16 inventions created and patented by NIH and compete for the opportunity to create a startup based on the invention.

The team that represented NU at the competition was made up of five NU graduate students and a graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The members received a cash prize of $2,500 upon winning the challenge in May.

The team members chose to embark on developing a product for treating traumatic brain injuries for their startup.

“You can treat traumatic brain injury by diffusing, at least in mice, by diffusing some compounds directly through the skull,” said John Marshall, a neuroscience student at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our whole plan is basically to work out how to do that a little more concretely.”

Marshall said the team is working on finding drugs that will allow this treatment to be used effectively in humans.

Neha Mehta, a neuroscience student at Feinberg, said she started the team in September 2014 with Marshall and Meriel Owen, another doctoral candidate in NU’s neuroscience program.

“Given our science background in neuroscience, we were interested in joining,” Mehta said. “We got started and then brought on three other members because we couldn’t do the business side of it on our own.”

The first stage of the competition consisted of concisely outlining the idea behind their chosen product.

“We chose the invention, came up with an idea and put together a two-minute elevator pitch,” Owen said. “We made it past that round and into the second phase, which was the business plan phase.”

Owen said the team collaborated during this phase and each member used his or her strengths, such as expertise in finance, business strategy and market analysis, to help create a 10-page business plan document.

The second phase consisted of a 20-minute live pitch to a series of judges to win the ability to develop the invention the team had chosen.

The team is currently in the third phase of the challenge, which consists of launching the startup. Owen said the group’s main priorities are to incorporate as a company and to negotiate the invention’s license with NIH to gain access to the patent.

“The third priority is getting funding,” Owen said. “We are looking into various funding opportunities, including SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants, as well as hopefully other … pitching competitions, business plan competitions.”

Mehta said another part of the startup will include looking at the research that led to the patent.

“I think that it will be challenging because we are taking this from someone else,” she said. “It’s someone else’s patent, and then we are replicating that and moving it forward, so I’m sure we will find some challenges there … that’s what I’m really excited about, to see how far we can take the science and the technology.”

Team member Thomas De Gregoris, a graduate student in a dual degree program at the Kellogg School of Management and the School of Law, said he was approached by Mehta, Owen and Marshall because he could provide a legal perspective on developing a business plan for the product.

“A big part of a startup is talking to attorneys and finding out the specifics of how we are actually going to get this thing moving,” De Gregoris said.

De Gregoris said he believes the team was successful because of the quality of the work it did, but also because of Northwestern’s many resources, including its hospital, business school and law school, and its proximity to a great MBA program at UChicago.

“I think that’s a very rare opportunity, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we were able to progress so far, is that we have a very diverse academic background in terms of the skills that we have been able to develop,” De Gregoris said. “I think that the judges kind of saw that, and I think that we are finding that too.”

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