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Taking a shot at preventable deaths

Recent bioengineering grads Katherine Brandenstein and Emily Willard created a promising needle decontamination product for their senior capstone course. Now the budding entrepreneurs are striving to bring their product to the marketplace.

Addressing a staggering need

Contaminated needles ultimately kill 1.3 million people each year. That’s one person every 20 seconds.

Reusable syringes are the primary culprit. Syringes and needles are used dozens of times in some developing countries before being sterilized or replaced.

The results are predictable—and astonishing. The World Health Organization estimates about 21 million hepatitis B infections and 2 million hepatitis C infections worldwide are caused by unsafe injections. In Cambodia, a doctor was charged with murder after infecting more than 100 people with HIV by reusing a syringe multiple times.

For decades, health experts have pushed for single-use syringes. But cash-strapped countries have been reluctant to allocate the funds required to purchase greater quantities of needles, which also create disposal challenges.

Two recent Washington State University graduates are addressing the dilemma. As part of their senior class project, Emily Willard and Katherine Brandenstein, who graduated from the Pullman campus last May, invented a small plastic cap that decontaminates needles. Aptly named SafeShot, the cap fits over the opening of a multi-dose medication vial and is filled with a decontaminating liquid. Any needle that accesses the medication must first pass through the decontaminating cap. It allows needles to be re-used while reducing waste.

The solution is brilliantly simple. And it has launched Willard and Brandenstein on a life-altering path to entrepreneurship as the pair seeks to improve the health of people worldwide.

A spark ignites

Bioengineering majors Willard and Brandenstein listened attentively as their professors described the requirements of their fall 2015 senior design project. Part of a year-long entrepreneurship and engineering class co-taught by business professor Marie Mayes and engineering professor Howard Davis, the capstone project required students to form teams, create a product, develop a business plan, and enter the WSU Business Plan Competition in the spring.

Having previously collaborated on class projects, good friends Brandenstein and Willard joined forces again. They agreed they wanted to pursue a project that would keep their attention for the entire year and make a positive social impact. A quick Google search for “leading cause of death in developing countries” turned up some attention-getting results.

“In developing countries, there are about 16 billion injections given each year, and almost half of them are given with reused needles,” Willard says. “That ends up spreading Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV, and other blood-borne pathogens. So people are getting vaccines or injections to help them but they actually get hurt by other contaminants.”

Plenty of inventors have approached the problem by re-engineering the needle. There are needle-locking mechanisms and even smart syringes that break after one use. But those solutions, for a variety of reasons, have been derailed from being widely implemented.

From concept to competition

The SafeShot cap idea came easily to Brandenstein and Willard. After developing the initial concept, they used $500 from the capstone class to create a prototype. Motivated by Mayes’ offer of extra credit, they applied to the University of Washington’s first ever Health Innovation Challenge (HIC) and asked for funds to continue their project. Three WSU teams, including theirs, received funding.

The WSU inventors used the $500 from UW to test the cap with ethanol as a decontaminating agent, working with WSU professor Andrei Smertenko, who let them use his lab space to conduct their tests. In December, they applied for the HIC competition. They were the only WSU team to get in.

“I remember getting a text from Emily, ‘Emergency company meeting tonight!’” Brandenstein says, recalling her reaction to reading the acceptance email from the UW. “We kind of freaked out. What did we just sign ourselves up for?”

For the next two weeks, Brandenstein and Willard worked furiously to 3D-print a SafeShot prototype, create a poster, develop marketing materials, write a one-page summary, and prepare a pitch for their product. In addition to their full-time course loads, they each spent about 30 hours a week preparing for the HIC competition scheduled in March.

“We met with our teachers every day. I swear they were probably so sick of us by the end of that semester,” Brandenstein remembers, chuckling. “We were bugging them all the time with drafts of things we were typing up. It was basically a crash course in business.”

But their professors were delighted to help the driven duo. “They were the type of students that really had a passion for learning how to learn,” Mayes says. “Whenever they came up against something they didn’t know, they would come to me or Howard [Davis], and we’d provide them with a resource or mentor. They took that and immediately ran with it.”

Brandenstein and Willard tackled finances, watched videos on how to pitch, set milestones, wrote a business plan, and learned to present and network at events. They also established their own company: Engage Biotech. After traveling to and from the University of Washington for a pre-competition pitch clinic, the team was ready for the main event: the HIC trade show.

The Health Innovation Challenge

Sporting brand new suits, Brandenstein and Willard dashed through the rain splashing down on the UW campus on March 3, 2016 to set up for the trade show.

After finding the room in which the competition was to take place and assembling their table display, Brandenstein and Willard paused to scan the room and scope out their competitors, the 17 teams from the UW. The result was unsettling. Many teams consisted of four or five students. Ph.D. students represented some teams. Other teams already had patents and seed funding.

The competition began with each team submitting a one-page summary of its concept and delivering a 60-second pitch to the judges, whose ranks included 120 health professionals, CEOs, and technology experts. Based on those two factors, the judges would decide which teams they would visit with individually to gather more information.

Willard delivered the pitch for team Engage. Almost immediately after the pitches were completed, a stream of judges flocked to the team’s table. The stream quickly became a flood.

“Katherine and I did not stop talking to people the whole time,” Willard says. “We thought there would be the two of us talking to a few people at a time, but we actually had to split up. She would take some people, and I would take other people. Katherine had lost her voice by the end of it.”

Judges delved into the team’s business plan, target customers, prototype, pricing, etc. They also quizzed the women about the technical aspects of SafeShot—a relief to the inventors—both of whom would rather talk science than business.

“We’d had no plans to really move forward with this project. We just did the HIC for extra credit, and all of a sudden we’d won this competition.”

An unexpected win

When the awards ceremony rolled around, Brandenstein and Willard whispered to each other about the teams they expected to win. They dismissed their own chances, figuring their youth, team size, and inexperience created insurmountable odds.

But then, the unexpected happened. “First place, Engage Biotech,” boomed through the public address system.

Brandenstein began to walk toward the stage. Then she stopped, turning around to look at Willard for confirmation that she’d heard the announcement correctly. Moments later, while in an admitted state of shock, the teammates stood on stage and accepted their winnings: an oversized $10,000 check.

The next several minutes were a blur as the two women posed for pictures and received congratulations.

Later, after the competition room was emptied and Brandenstein and Willard had reloaded all of their gear into Willard’s car, the reality of their achievement began to set in. They sat in the parked car for several minutes, staring at the concrete wall in front of them, trying to make sense of what had happened.

“We’d had no plans to really move forward with this project,” Brandenstein says. “We just did the HIC for extra credit, and all of a sudden we’d won this competition. Right afterwards someone was interviewing us on video, and someone from Geek Wire was asking us questions. It was such a strange situation to be in.”

Finally, they broke the silence. “Let’s go eat.”

They drove to an Indian restaurant in Brandenstein’s hometown of Woodinville (east of Seattle)—Indian food is always their cuisine of choice after anything SafeShot related—and enjoyed a well-earned meal.

Graduation and next steps

While winning the UW HIC was a milestone achievement, it was just the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of the western Washington natives.

Later last spring, Brandenstein and Willard went on to win the WSU Business Plan Competition and earn an award for best social impact. They also entered the UW Business Plan Competition, finishing fourth among 36 teams.

What’s the secret to their success?

“They’re not afraid to give each other honest feedback,” says Mayes, their former business professor. “They have a great back-and-forth. The secret sauce of successful student startups is healthy conflict and a willingness to disagree but still be great friends.”

Their success in the competitions netted Engage Biotech $37,500 in prize money. Some of it was donated to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, an organization to which both Willard and Brandenstein had belonged. The rest was invested in advancing the development of SafeShot.

“We like that Girl Scouts is encouraging women to get involved with STEM, because we think that’s a big problem,” Willard says. “There were not a lot of women in our engineering or math classes, so we like companies that are working toward that. We’re glad that we’ve come this far with our project because we can tell younger girls about what’s possible.”

SafeShot’s next target

Based on their success a year ago, the UW Foster School of Business offered Brandenstein and Willard a spot in the Jones and Foster Accelerator Program managed by the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship in the Foster School of Business. It was an offer they quickly accepted.

The six-month program provides student teams with industry mentors and meets monthly to review progress and set milestones. After successfully completing the program in January—eight months after their graduation from WSU—Willard and Brandenstein received $25,000 in additional funding to help SafeShot move closer to the marketplace.

During their time in the accelerator program, Willard and Brandenstein collaborated with UW professor Stephen Polyak to run their experiments. They completed tests with the SafeShot device on the Hepatitis C virus and some veterinarian diseases and refined the cap design so it can be mass-produced. They also signed legal documents establishing Engage Biotech, LLC and filed for a utility patent.

In January, the two traveled to Tanzania with a handful of WSU faculty and students to visit local village clinics and learn about the potential impact of SafeShot on the lives of Tanzanians. Recently, Willard and Brandenstein were also one of 10 teams (out of 227 applicants) to receive an Amazon Catalyst grant for $100,000.

Looking ahead, they will pursue further testing and develop plans to manufacture the syringe caps so they’re affordable, especially for developing countries. Their target customers include drug companies like Merck and AstraZeneca.

“We both have that very strong feeling that if our name is on it, it’s going to be the best it can be,” Brandenstein says. “We both use that as a driving factor.”

Spoken like a true Cougar.