Campus & Community

HBS team wins big — and twice

5 min read

Harvard team takes top honors at Harvard and MIT competitions

A Harvard Business School class, a 12-year-old competition, and the collaboration of some of the University’s sharpest scientific and business minds have yielded a company that could save countless lives.

A six-member team recently won both the Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) business plan contests for their work on Diagnostics-For-All (DFA), a nonprofit that seeks to change the landscape of health care in the developing world with accurate, affordable, and easy-to-administer diagnostic devices. The technology is tantamount to replacing a high-tech laboratory with a simple paper-based test the size of a postage stamp.

“The objective is to find ways in which we can provide diagnostically useful information at the lowest possible cost. … It has to be cheap and accurate and portable [as well as] mechanically robust and easy to interpret,” said George Whitesides, Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, whose lab created the technology.

The annual Harvard competition affords students real-world experience, encouraging them to develop a business model around an innovative concept. This year’s contest narrowed the field from 73 teams to nine finalists. It gave out two first-prize awards, one to the top team competing in the “traditional” track and one to DFA, which took part in the social enterprise track, “for enterprises with an explicitly social agenda.” For its plan the nonprofit received a check for $10,000.

This was the first time a Harvard team took top honors at both the HBS Business Plan Contest and the MIT 100K Entrepreneurship Competition, where it beat out more than 230 other teams from both the for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors for the grand prize and a check for $100,000.

In recognition of its accomplishment, the DFA team rang the opening bell for the New York Stock Exchange in June.

The technology, invented and developed by Whitesides and his colleagues Scott Phillips, now an assistant professor in chemistry at Pennsylvania State University and former member of Whitesides’ group, and Andres W. Martinez, a current research assistant in chemistry and chemical biology in Whitesides’ lab, aims to help diagnose and treat patients in the developing world using a small paper-based testing device. With a drop of a patient’s blood, sweat, or urine placed on specially treated paper, the test wicks the fluid to four distinct zones that change color to determine the presence of certain proteins or enzymes that can, in turn, indicate certain renal diseases and metabolic disorders.

The images of the color changes can be photographed with a cell phone, sent electronically or digitally to an off-site lab, and quickly analyzed by a specialist who can then send back a result.

A future goal of the test is the on-site, instant diagnosis of diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria with a simple color change indicating a positive or negative result. The technology, its creators say, can also be modified for other applications like environmental testing.

The test’s simplicity reduces the need for trained specialists and complex, expensive lab equipment in hard-to-reach locations, say DFA team members. In addition, it is easy to manufacture and discard, rendering it cost-effective.

“If you are going to use this in difficult circumstances, whether it’s the Third World or homeland security or the military or environmental monitoring, you don’t have the full facilities of trained technicians in a central lab so you need simpler and more self-evident kinds of tests,” said Whitesides.

The new venture grew out of the HBS course “Inventing Breakthroughs and Commercializing Science.” The class examines ways of bringing new science to the marketplace and includes graduate students from other Harvard departments as well as from other institutions. As part of its curriculum the course also guides students in the development of a business plan for the annual HBS contest.

“[The class] really represents a place where students with quite different backgrounds but who are interested in the commercialization of really innovative science can come together and work on both evaluating the science and asking, ‘Is it ready for commercialization?’” said Vicki Sato, HBS professor of management practice and professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Sato teaches the class and acted as the team’s mentor. She praised the diverse nature of the group, which included a cardiac surgeon, a postdoctoral research associate from MIT, and a visiting scholar from the Middle East.

The latter, Saudi Arabian scholar Hayat Sindi, who works in George Whitesides’ laboratory and took part in the HBS course, proposed creating a business plan around the technology. Together she and her classmates formed a team and consulted with members of Harvard’s School of Public Health as well as the creators of similar companies while crafting their plan.

For Sindi, the chance to participate in the project made her dream of helping people a reality.

It was about “how we can convince people that science can affect people’s lives and invest in [that science],” she said.

As for winning both competitions, Sindi remarked, “It was a starting point. It made us believe in ourselves more. When you have all this attention, it only pushes you to make sure you will make it.”

Like many new ventures that began as part of these contests and developed into successful companies, DFA is well on its way. The company has a board of directors, recently hired a chief executive officer, and is currently searching for office space in the Cambridge area. In addition, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development will license the company’s intellectual property without charging royalties.

For Whitesides, the work represents a shift in focus for many students looking to make a difference in the world.

“The students are genuinely excited by the idea that by working on this, by doing research, they might do something which makes a perceptible social contribution as opposed to just a financial contribution.”