Team develops device that reduces infection risk during at-home dialysis

These biomedical engineering undergraduates have raised more than $25,000 in cash prizes from business plan competitions, grant programs, and incubators for their design

Group photo

Image caption: The Relavo team won honorable mention at the 2019 Values and Ventures Competition, where they were represented by (from left) Tejasvi Desai, Sarah Lee, and Anna Bailey

Credit: Courtesy of Elaine Cole and Texas Christian University

A team of Johns Hopkins undergraduates is working to improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live with kidney failure, and their efforts aren't going unnoticed.

In fact, they've been on a bit of a winning streak, collecting substantial cash prizes from business plan competitions, grant programs, and startup incubators. In fewer than six months, they've raised more than $25,000, and they say they're still gaining momentum.

Group photo

Image caption: Students who have helped bring Relavo's PeritoneX device to market include (from left) Hallie Horvath, Eugene Oh, Giang Hoang, Sarah Lee, Tejasvi Desai, Anna Bailey, Dylan Hirsch, and James Qin

Image credit: Courtesy of Sarah Lee

Biomedical engineering students Anna Bailey, Tejasvi Desai, Giang Hoang, Sarah Lee, Eugene Oh, and James Qin founded Relavo, a company working to develop a device that reduces the risk for contamination during at-home kidney dialysis treatments. These treatments, called peritoneal dialysis, require connecting a surgically implanted catheter that extends into the lining of the abdomen to a series of tubes and fluid bags that deliver a cleaning solution to filter waste from the body. The treatment has been found to give kidney failure patients a better quality of life than other forms of dialysis.

But the team behind Relavo says that because patients administer peritoneal dialysis themselves, there is a higher risk of contamination during treatment setup. The resulting infection, called peritonitis, occurs in one in four patients, requires hospitalization 60 percent of the time, and is a primary factor in one in six peritoneal dialysis patient deaths.

In response, the Relavo team developed PeritoneX, an affordable, disposable device that disinfects contamination points before dialysis treatment begins.

"It seemed like a relatively simple solution, but no one had tackled it before," said Lee, who leads the team.

Last week, Lee and teammates Bailey and Desai earned honorable mention recognition and a cash prize of $2,500 at Texas Christian University's Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures Competition. They also received an additional $1,000 from Intuit Education for best financial forecast. The annual Values and Ventures Competition challenges student teams from around the world to develop and pitch plans for socially conscious business ventures. Relavo were among 56 teams to compete this year.

At the end of March, they won the $10,000 Summer Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Award to continue their work during the summer. In the fall they received a $10,000 grant from FastForward U's Ralph S. O'Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund. Both awards were granted through Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, which serves as the licensing, patent, and technology commercialization office for all Johns Hopkins researchers and inventors and cultivates emerging startups inside and outside Hopkins with education, space, mentorship, services, and funding opportunities.

The Relavo team also received $5,000 from VentureWell's 2019 Spring E-Team Grant Program, which provides peer networking, coaching, resources, and hands-on workshops to support new ventures.

The positive response from incubators and funding programs has helped the Relavo team move their PeritoneX device closer to market. They've used their winnings to purchase prototype supplies, pay for travel to additional competitions, and to fund a partnership with FDA-certified contract testing services.

"We have been limited in our ability to conduct our own experiments because we need to use some pretty dangerous strains of bacteria, and this poses many safety concerns, since we are not microbiologists by trade," Lee says.

But perhaps the greatest value of these awards is the momentum it generates within the team.

"Our success has definitely reinvigorated team spirit," says Lee. "We always had a strong commitment to seeing this project through, but winning these awards really made us believe more that this can go from a class project to a real startup."

Lee says the Relavo team plans to apply for larger regional and national grant programs this year.