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NJIT contest accelerating startup spurt in Newark

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Laura Osorno pitches her business, S&D: Science and Dermatology, during the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge at NJIT.
Laura Osorno pitches her business, S&D: Science and Dermatology, during the Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge at NJIT. - ()

The cost of diagnosing sleep disorders is mounting — and that's without counting the damage to quality of life.

Estimates show that diagnosing such disorders cost insurance companies $3 billion in 2009, a number projected to rise to $11.7 billion in 2017.

A team of New Jersey Institute of Technology students aim to put that problem to rest by developing Koala Band, a sports band embedded with electrodes and other technology to help diagnose sleep problems at home. The idea is to save millions of dollars of costly and often unnecessary laboratory work.

The potential was enough to convince judges at the Newark Innovation Acceleration Program that Koala Band has a business plan worth endorsing, at least with some seed money and mentorship.

“To me, it's a powerful, simple idea that can get to market,” said Daniel Delehanty, who is the senior director of community development banking for Capital One — and someone who suffers from sleep apnea.

NJIT held its fifth annual acceleration event last week, a program run in combination with Capital One Bank to identify and support aspiring entrepreneurs from the school and the Newark area. Contestants were narrowed from more than 60 applicants.

Seven teams, including four student-led units and three from the community, were chosen from 14 competitors, gaining $3,000 in seed capital plus enrollment in a 10-week accelerator program at NJIT next summer.

Koala Band seeks to create an accurate in-home sleep study — the setup includes an oximeter to measure pulse and oxygen levels in the blood and a microphone to detect snoring — that can rule out whether a patient has sleep apnea. That determination would prevent a patient from being sent to expensive sleep laboratories.

One of Koala Band's founders, biomedical engineering student Daniel Tanis, said about 40 percent of patients sent to labs by doctors to investigate for sleep apnea actually have that condition. That leaves 60 percent who could have avoided a costly lab visit by getting an earlier diagnosis, Tanis said.

Tanis and his team know it's a long road before they can get the product to market. After all, any such device will have to pass muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first. They plan to use the seed capital to advance the development of a prototype.

Giving entrepreneurially minded students and local residents that pivotal boost is why the acceleration event was started. The program has been underway for five years, expanding last year beyond the school to include teams from the Newark area in general.

At least two of last year's winners are moving forward with some help from the early-stage capital and mentorship. Cheryl Munley of Bandbox LLC, which makes bicycle helmets designed to be attractive while still meeting safety standards, reports earning $30,000 in annual revenue.

And NJIT student Margaret Christian, of Safer Surgical Solutions, is developing a prototype device that makes multiple stitches at once, thus saving time during heart valve surgery.

She is now talking to medical schools and hopes to have a licensing agreement by spring.

Half of this year's contestants failed to win grants, but at least one isn't deterred.

John Fahim, a mechanical and industrial engineering student, is pushing AirCharge, a wireless way to recharge mobile device batteries. He said the educational experience has inspired him to explore further.

“What this has taught me, whether I win or not, is that I have enough information to build on my own,” Fahim said.

E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @biztzanki

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