Malaria testing startup wins MIT $100K Accelerate Contest

Disease Diagnostic Group aims to save half a million lives a year through early diagnosis

February 21, 2014

Jonathan Edward of Disease Diagnostic Group

Jonathan Edward of Disease Diagnostic Group

Disease Diagnostic Group last night won the MIT $100K Accelerate Contest, netting a $10,000 prize. Bragging rights, photos with the big ceremonial check, and applause all pale in comparison to the promise of the company’s mission: developing an inexpensive, portable malaria testing device with the potential to save half a million lives, mostly of children, globally each year.

Eight finalist teams pitched their startup concepts and business plans to a panel of judges and an audience of hundreds in Room 26-100, MIT’s largest lecture hall. The Accelerate finale pitches, however, were only the most visible component of the program, which runs throughout the academic year. Thirty teams were chosen from roughly 270 applications. Those 30 were assigned industry-specific mentors, provided a $1,000 expense account, and charged with moving their startup concepts beyond the “idea” stage to develop prototypes, conduct market research, and prove their idea viable in the real world. From there, eight teams made the finale.

The $10,000 grand prize is named in memory of Daniel M. Lewin, the MIT alumnus and MIT $100K competition participant who went on to co-found Akamai Technologies. He is believed to be the first person killed on 9/11.

A $2,000 audience choice award—voted on by text message—went to Kubra, a Bluetooth-enabled wearable ring that can connect to televisions and other devices. The team’s presentation began with a video of two team members waving in the air to browse through their Netflix library, and tossing the remote control in the trash.

For Disease Diagnostic Group, founded by MIT mechanical engineering graduate student John Lewandowski, presenter Jonathan Edward, who is pursuing an MBA at Harvard Business School, said the resources provided by the Accelerate contest during MIT’s January Independent Activities Period proved invaluable. Malaria is highly treatable with early diagnosis, but expense and access to reliable tests are substantial barriers, Edward said. The team had proven the science of their rapid assessment of malaria device, but through the Accelerate program they developed a plan to make it sturdier, an important attribute for a pocket-sized device that will be carried in military packs into remote villages.

There are currently five prototypes of the rapid assessment of malaria device in clinical testing through the U.S. Navy and Bosch Healthcare. Next steps include assessing the data from those field tests and taking the first steps towards eventual global use by working with the World Health Organization.

“We’ll be using the prize money to continue to build and refine improvements on the prototype,” Edward said. “Early models were broken in shipping, and [through Accelerate] we were able to access design assistance to make them much more robust. They’re going out with the military; they need to be able to withstand harsh treatment to be effective.”

The Kubra team, according to lead presenter Ilica Mahajan, an MIT undergraduate, turned an idea into a working prototype with myriad potential applications, from replacing the television remote to gaming.

“When we began in January, we only had a general idea about the product we were making,” Mahajan said. “Throughout the month, we refined the idea significantly based on surveys and brainstorming sessions. We used the resources to build the prototype, and then had to think a lot about how to very simply market a product that was so complex.”

Accelerate is the second of three contests presented by the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. In the first, Pitch, held in November, individuals make one minute pitches of their business concepts. The third, Launch, has a $100,000 prize up for grabs for a company with a more developed business plan. Applications for Launch are now open, with final judging in May after several elimination rounds.

Gino Korolev, MBA ’15, contest director at the MIT $100K, said prizewinners are far from the only beneficiaries of the program.

“From the start of the school year, the $100K has an ongoing mission to support entrepreneurship,” Korolov said. “Through mentors, partner organization, and sponsors, what we try to create is an ongoing program where the pitch contests are the most visible focal points. The reality is, there’s work going on all year. All of it is marketing the idea of entrepreneurship.”