Though Angelique Johnson is pleased her team won the $27,000 top prize in the Michigan Business Challenge earlier this year, the University of Michigan student, who’s earning a doctorate in electrical engineering, says the competition was not just about money.
“Coming from the engineering side, I had a piece of technology, I did not know how to turn that into a company,” Johnson says. “I knew it was exciting, I knew it was useful, but I did not know how to commercialize it.”
Over 50 student startups competed in this year’s challenge, in which students must develop a business plan in four months.
Johnson’s technology, which she has been developing for several years, is a platform for creating electrode leads or wires that can be easily integrated into devices that shoot electric pulses into a patient’s nervous system. Doctors today use such stimulation devices to treat everything from pain and obesity to depression and Parkinson’s disease.
Currently scientists fuse wires together under a microscope to create the individual leads, a process that’s slow, expensive and susceptible to human error, according to Johnson. But with her technology, medical device makers can produce multiple leads at a time.
“We’re taking what used to be a hand assembled process to a fully automated system,” she says. “Basically it’s a room full of robotic machinery so we’re just kind of moving the technology into the next century.”
Johnson and her business partner, U-M business student Christopher Cadotte, are spinning the technology out of the university into a company called MEMStim. So far, the two entrepreneurs have developed an early stage prototype for pre-clinical testing and hope to have full scale a prototype to ship to customers in the next year.
The technology’s first prototype will focus on a hearing device called a cochlear implant. But Johnson says her technology can produce wires for a variety of applications.
“We’re really enabling the next generation of technology for what we’re producing,” she says. “They’ve reached a limit of what they can do. They can’t move to new exciting applications like curing blindness.”
In the meantime, MEMStim will the spend next four to six months researching the market, forging customer relationships, and wooing investors. Cadotte says they’re exploring venture capital firms and grants.
Johnson and Cadotte say MEMstim reflects the university’s efforts to encourage collaboration between engineering and business students. They met initially at a Zell Lurie Institution “Meet and Mingle” event and each brings a different skill set to the company.
Growing the company, the two students say, is more than just an academic project.
“It’s really a way to gain experience and it’s grown from there,” Cadotte says. “It’s taken on a whole life of its own and it’s taken what I’ve learned in the classroom to the next level.”
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