Jaundice is a common condition that occurs in approximately 60 percent of newborn babies. If left untreated, it can be life-threatening, especially in underdeveloped countries where health care and technology are limited. NeoLight, an Arizona State University student startup, aims to solve that problem with a portable and cost-effective medical incubator.
NeoLight constructed two devices, one designed for the United States and a second, called NeoLight Freedom, that was designed for underdeveloped countries where power supply is scarce. Both devices are lightweight, portable, solar powered and utilize LED lighting, which lasts for more than 20,000 hours and consumes only five watts of electricity.
"We give something called the minimum viable product to the underdeveloping countries, so for those, there is just one setting-- you switch it on, there's light and it cures jaundice," said Vivek Kopparthi, one of four founders of the company.
Kopparthi said existing incubators in the U.S. cost around $5,000 and cause side effects such as skin irritation, dehydration and weight loss in the baby due to halogen lighting; however, because of Neolight's LED lighting, heat isn't emitted, which reduces these side effects in newborns.
The U.S. version is focused on comfort for the baby, runs on direct power and can be synchronized to the management systems that hospitals have in order to set up an automated timer. The device can be placed next to the mother, allowing it to act as a catalyst in the baby's health development, Kopparthi said.
"When we talked to the nurses at St. Joseph's Hospital, they said don't come up with a device that cures jaundice, please come up with a device that's ergonomic for us to use," Kopparthi said. "It has to be comfortable for the baby and for us to use."
Three-day-old Helen Dela Torre was delivered prematurely at Payson Regional Medical Center in Payson, then transferred to Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa to take advantage of the neonatal ICU facilities. NeoLight provides phototherapy to prevent jaundice.(Photo: Stella S. Lee/The Republic)
NeoLight was started by Kopparthi and fellow engineering and business graduates Chase Garrett, Sivakumar Palaniswamy and Deepak Krishnaraju. Currently, the team consists of the four co-founders and seven student interns in various fields such as engineering, biotechnology and industrial design.
Prior to starting NeoLight, Palaniswamy had been employed in the neonatal engineering field for two years, designing incubators for newborn babies. He mentioned to Kopparthi that incubators, because of their bulk and expense, weren't universally available in undeveloped and developing countries. By remedying those issues, the team could save the lives of more than 12,000 babies a day who wouldn't otherwise receive treatment for jaundice.
"Ninety-nine percent of this is from countries like India and Africa. Being engineers, we felt we could find simple solutions from device engineering and fill this market gap," Kopparthi said. "It's not a want, but a need for India, so we felt that we had to quickly come up with a solution and work on this one. So that's what drives us every day."
Kopparthi approached graduate school classmate Chase Garrett to join the team and from there, the team applied for and won ASU's Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative competition in 2014. They were among 20 teams who were selected for the program.
"Even before this started, we've applied together for a lot of competitions," he said. "We're like-minded and I knew Chase had the same vision as me. Our common vision is to use engineering skills to solve global problems."
Garret Westlake, associate dean of entrepreneurship at Skysong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, said the office is able to support more than 50 student startups through a grant provided by the Edson family. Teams typically remain at Skysong for up to a year and receive benefits such as seed funding up to $20,000, office space and access to the knowledge and expertise of a mentor network.
"Teams selected for the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative at ASU are provided office space at ASU Skysong and assigned a venture manager who guides teams through ASU's startup curriculum," Westlake said.
The first NeoLight prototype was completed within a month at the Skysong office and was followed by several additional prototypes to test efficiency. The team received feedback from professors, nurses and Dr. Lawrence Lilien, a neonatologist from St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, and implemented what they heard into their final design.
"Before we approached (the St. Joseph's Hospital staff) we had a completely different idea for what has to be done with the product," Kopparthi said. "After we talked to them, it's a 360 degree change."
The Skysong office has primarily been focused on helping the NeoLight team engage with the startup school's curriculum, secure funding, as well as build a network of advisors and mentors, Westlake said.
"Every day we see a lot of energy in the Skysong building," Kopparthi said. "This is an open office work space, you see a lot of activity that's happening and the ASU Foundation is always available to us for help. None of this would have been possible if it wasn't for the ASU entrepreneurship team here."
Garrett said ASU's entrepreneurship opportunities have been a big assistance, especially with mentorship.
"We're coming out of school, we're entrepreneurial-minded, but sometimes we need the feedback from somebody else that's been through it," he said. "The fact that they provide us with great office space with all these mentor rooms and the ability to just collaborate with other teams over there has been priceless."
NeoLight is now manufacturer ready and the team is preparing for several upcoming startup competitions.
"We are here trying to solve a global problem and we're in the phase where we are looking for funding and support to move forward to save lives," he said.
Eventually, the team aims to set up a manufacturing unit in Scottsdale, add a small sales team and work on distribution and sales channels.
"Phoenix is a place where you have a diversity of different types of companies—you have software, biomedical, engineering and Scottsdale is emerging as a hub for entrepreneurship," Kopparthi said. "None of this would have been possible if it wasn't for ASU, so we owe it back to our school and the city we live in."