Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Sharanya Venkatesh sat down with Anya Pogharian & Vivian Eberle of Dialysave, 3rd place winners in the Health Sciences Track in this year’s McGill Dobson Cup powered by National Bank. Dialysave is an affordable, user-friendly and portable hemodialysis machine designed for CKD patients who require renal replacement therapy in developing nations. Learn more below about their journey as entrepreneurs since Anya first started working on the device at the age of 16.
Could you two begin by introducing yourselves and what you do in the business?
Vivian: I am a first year undergraduate student in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. With regards to what I do with our startup, Dialysave, I focus more on creating the business framework for the device and in the future, bringing it to market.
Anya: I am a first year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Nursing at University of Montreal. I work more on the technical side to the business. I have created the device and have been working on this project since I was 16 years old.
How did you come up with the idea?
Anya: This all started when I was 16 and I was volunteering at the Montreal General Hospital as a companion to patients on dialysis. During my time there, I became more interested in how the treatment works and the machine itself. After speaking to a lot of people and doing my own initial research about the machine and the treatment, I realized there was a tremendous need for this machine. This need was especially prominent in developing nations such as India and Pakistan where 90% of the kidney disease patients don’t have access to it. There are 112 countries in the world that do not have anything at all for dialysis.
As I dug deeper into this issue, I realised that there was nothing on the market to help these patients that need the treatment to survive. Also, it’s shocking to me that nothing was being done to make the machine more accessible. So I decided to try and create one from scratch. I made it and presented it at the Montreal Regional Expo-Science fair, which allowed me to present the project at the Provincial and the Canada-wide science fair.
How do you manage to balance cost and functionality, especially when you are aiming to reduce the cost from $30,000 to $500?
Anya: I began by reverse engineering it so that I got a better understanding on where I could cut costs yet still maintain the quality of the system. I took an existing machine, identified what was essential, what could be removed, and what could be replaced by cheaper components. Of course that is not to say that there are components that are not required at all, but there are a lot of good parts that could be replaced for a cheaper component.
Some of the essential bits were the pumps, which is what drives the blood in and out and the air bubble detectors for when the machine detects air bubbles in the blood.
The main aim for the device was to keep it simple and easy to repair because it is close to impossible to have a dialysis technician on the spot every single time. Also, I had to keep it under $500 because I had a budget when I first started out.
So, how does the machine actually work?
Anya: First, the blood comes in and passes through a filter and exits completely filtered. There is another type of circuit that mixes with it which is the dialysis circuit. The doctor prescribes the liquid that has the right concentration of electrolytes to enter the secondary filter and through osmosis, exchanges are made and the blood is then completely purified. The next aspect is the code: the code is read by a micro-controller called an arduino. It is commonly used in robotics projects and never really in medical devices. The code helps the micro-controller pass the message onto the circuit that controls the pumps and the filter that I was talking about earlier.
In a testing internship that I did with Héma-Québec and sponsored by Baxter Gambro, I got the opportunity to quantitatively analyze the values for the various components of the actual human blood. I was able to go into the testing internship knowing that it was going to be able to filter and all I had to make sure was that the mechanism works – the coding and the mechanical engineering part of it, which it did.
I went to bed, woke up and there were already 80 articles about me. In the following weeks, I just did interview after interview.
When did the media attention begin and what do you think about the fact that your product and you have received so much of attention?
Anya: It all started off with a Journal Metro article. The CBC then decided to do an interview based on this article and overnight it had 40,000 views. I went to bed, woke up and there were already 80 articles about me. In the following weeks, I just did interview after interview.
As a result of the media attention, I got a lot of cool opportunities such as the TEDxYouth Montreal talk and the panel discussion at CGI U where I got to meet a bunch of really cool contacts that have helped out with the project. It has also given our team credibility. When we’ve asked for help, people don’t really hesitate to help us out. We get a lot of encouragement for being bold and young, especially in medicine, as it is a tough field.
What were some of the challenges you faced thus far in your entrepreneurial journey?
Anya: One, there were many points at which I was ready to stop not only because I felt that I did not have time but there were external factors. This includes some of my teachers, who were mentoring me in high school, who told me to stop with this as it would have affected my grades. In high school it was relatively fine, but when I got to CEGEP, it got a little more unbalanced and out of control as a result of the media attention. But once the media buzz reduced, I was able to get a better handle on things. Last year, I came to a point where I was starting university and I again wanted to stop working on it because of time. I also had so many other things going on. Then again, Vivian encouraged me to continue on with the project and she joined me on this journey as well.
Second, as I mentioned before, an important part of the machine is the arduino – the coding bit. Writing the code in order to make that part of the device work was a huge challenge. When I wrote the code the first time, it had over 400 errors. The testing internship was just around the corner and I did not want to start working with human blood with a bunch of errors in the code. So before going into the testing internship with Héma-Québec, I got a computer programmer to read over and correct my code. Now, she is part of the team.
At some point, I was doing it to prove people wrong.
Given that you possibly face a lot of skepticism from experts and everyday individuals, and other equally as important priorities such as university, what has kept you going?
Anya: At some point, I was doing it to prove people wrong. I have spoken to many nephrologists and experts in the medicine field that have been skeptical, which is understandable. If you tell an expert in the field that you’re going to reduce the cost of a hemodialysis machine by almost 98% of the original cost, they are definitely not going to jump on board without skepticism.
Yet, I still decided that it was worth going ahead with because of the fact that I believe that this could actually work. Of course, it is really difficult, especially when you are doing it by yourself. I had not realized it at first but having a team is so important. Last year I was about to drop the project. Then, Vivian came in and saved the day. I told her about it and she was an instrumental factor in us applying to compete in the McGill Dobson Cup. I have a team now, that is there to support me and who are equally as motivated as me towards this cause.
How has your experience been in the McGill Dobson Cup?
Vivian: It was a little overwhelming at first because many of the participants competing already had Masters degrees and PhDs, and the quality of the participants were extraordinary. We didn’t think we would even make it to the top ten in the Semi-Finals. However, because we went through the Dobson Startup Bootcamp and we had Renjie Butalid coach us through that program, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. It was a lot of work at some points but a great experience overall. We got a chance to understand more of the business side to marketing the device as well as pitching in a business setting.
What is next for your startup?
Vivian: The mission is to make our $500 dialysis machine as widespread and accessible as possible. Through our research we found out that even here in North America, there is a need for it. Indigenous populations have to travel long distances to dialysis centres to get the treatment. Having a simpler machine is ideal so that the accessibility and cost issues are reduced.
We are still in the process of figuring out how realistic it is and trying to figure the out exact steps we are going to take to turn this into a legitimate product. We need more technical expertise to make the technology better and understand the business aspect of it better. We currently have a mentor who is helping us out with the more technical side to our business but there are a lot of steps that we still need to figure out and overcome to get to that point. Down the line, within the next few months, we’re aiming for more funding and a patent.
Applications for our 10-week summer intensive McGill X-1 Accelerator program close on April 30, 2017. For more details, click here.