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Disease Diagnostic Group wins MIT $100K Launch competition with malaria testing device

“Triple crown” winner also honored at Pitch and Accelerate competitions

May 15, 2014

John Lewandowski, MIT PhD student

John Lewandowski, MIT PhD student

Disease Diagnostic Group (DDG), the grand prize winner at this year’s MIT $100K Launch competition, demonstrated its potential impact to the audience at the competition’s finale with a dramatic image: a small, empty pair of shoes, followed by an image of hundreds of pairs, representing the 500,000 deaths each year from malaria among children under 5 years of age.

“What if I told you we could save a half-million lives with a refrigerator magnet and a laser pointer?” said John Lewandowski, founder of DDG, on stage during the competition’s final night on May 14.

With its Rapid Assessment of Malaria (RAM) device, DDG promises a diagnosis that is fast, accurate, and cheap. A handheld device that travels easily, it magnetizes a blood sample and shoots a small laser through it, detecting malaria with 94 percent accuracy. It works in less than a minute, can make a diagnosis before symptoms appear, costs 25 cents per test, and requires no medical training – all critical to fighting a disease where access to medical facilities is a significant barrier. Malaria is completely curable when properly diagnosed, but spreads rapidly before symptoms can appear.

Lewandowski, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at MIT, says prototypes of DDG’s device are currently being tested in the field by the United States Navy in Peru and by the German manufacturer Bosch in India. Both deployments are providing valuable feedback for modifications. The prize money from the $100K will enable the company to send 50 to 100 more devices into the field. The company has begun conversations with organizations ranging from the World Health Organization to Coca-Cola about a larger scale deployment next year.

This is the third $100K win for Lewandowski and the DDG team. They won the $10,000 prize in the Accelerate round of the contest in February and were the audience choice at the Pitch round last November, winning $2,000. They also won $15,000 as the Segal Family Foundation Emerging Markets track winner. Those cash prizes and the winnings from other business plan competitions fueled prototype development, Lewandowski said, but the process of competing also drove positive changes to the company.

“We met Jonathan Edward at Pitch, and he’s now our CEO,” said Lewandowski. “And we learned a lot from our mentors through the process, as well as the other teams involved. Our strategy has changed a lot since Pitch and Accelerate, and our presentation changed a lot, especially as we learned more about customer validation.” Access to mentors, professionals in the field, and key people in potential partner organizations were other added benefits.

An elite field

More than 300 applicants entered the Launch phase of the competition, but just 70 were chosen to participate, then provided with mentors and $1,000 per team for expenses. The most involved of the three phases of the competition, Launch takes businesses from idea to reality: they incorporate, bring products or prototypes to market, engage with potential customers, and develop business plans. From the 70 participants, judges selected eight teams to compete in the May finale.

“One thing I’ve noticed is how much the presentations change through the process,” said Perihan Abou-Zeid, MBA ’15, and co-managing director of the $100K. “When we see that, we realize they’ve learned something, that their vision is taking shape through the $100K.”

Abou-Zeid and fellow managing director Gino Korolev, MBA ’15, aim to continue to foster the valuable relationships formed during the course of the competition by creating a $100K social network on their website. “Participants, judges, and mentors can remain connected, send updates, and build upon conversations begun during the $100K,” Abou-Zeid said.

Other winners at the final stage of the competition included Definitive Drone Data: D3, a data management system for commercial drones, which won the Web/IT track; Agile Devices, developer of a micro-catheter with adjustable stiffness to ease implantation in blood vessels and winner of the Life Sciences track; Unified Solar, recent winner of the MIT Clean Energy Prize and winner of the Energy Track with its solution for shade in the solar panel market; THOR Tourniquet, a tourniquet designed for the military that can be rapidly applied with one hand, winner of the Products and Services track; and RapidSOS, an emergency dispatch system utilizing smart phone technology, winner of the Mobile track and the $2,000 audience prize.