Student venture advances jaundice treatment globally
In 2012, 21-year-old engineer Sivakumar Palaniswamy witnessed a heartbreaking sight at a hospital in India: a single halogen bulb hung from the ceiling, illuminating several newborns in bassinets. The bulb was intended to treat infants with jaundice.
Jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin, affects nearly 14 million newborns each year. It comes from an accumulation of bilirubin, a byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells. Without treatment, some infants develop dangerously high levels of bilirubin that can cause deafness, cerebral palsy and other forms of brain damage.
Fortunately, most infant jaundice cases can be treated through phototherapy—exposing a newborn to certain wavelengths of light for prescribed periods of time. However, Palaniswamy quickly realized that a single halogen lamp wasn’t an appropriate or adequate solution to the problem.
An idea was born that day in the neonatal unit, one that would grow into a startup company with support from entrepreneurship programs at Arizona State University.
“I found out that phototherapy devices were either too expensive or required a steady supply of electricity to provide adequate care to newborns in need, resources that aren’t easily available in a developing country,” Palaniswamy says. “Infants were suffering due to a condition that is entirely treatable. I realized that the entire approach to treating infant jaundice needed improvement.”
Palaniswamy and Vivek Kopparthi, a childhood friend and electrical engineer, often spent evenings discussing societal challenges around them and how their engineering education could help solve them. When Palaniswamy brought up the scene at the hospital, they knew they were on to a problem that had been largely ignored.
In 2013, Kopparthi and Palaniswamy moved to the United States to pursue graduate degrees at ASU in business management and biomedical engineering, respectively. They joined forces with Chase Garrett, a master’s student majoring in business and legal studies, and Deepakshyam Krishnaraju, a mechanical design engineering major, to brainstorm paths to a solution for treating infant jaundice.
However, to progress any further, the team needed funding, mentors and other resources. Branding themselves as NeoLight, the team applied to ASU’s 2014-2015 Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative and began to develop technology that would help newborns with jaundice and their families.
From 2005 to 2015, the Edson program has awarded over $2.5 million to more than 250 student startups.
“We couldn’t have made the progress we made if it hadn’t been for the Edson program,” says Kopparthi. “It not only gave us funding and desk space, but also access to mentors, entrepreneurship training, ASU’s networks and Techshop at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center to build the prototypes ourselves.”
As they built their venture, the team experienced plenty of growing pains. They quickly realized that funding would be hard to come by if they didn’t have a prototype in hand to show potential investors. Then there was the matter of their approaching graduations and the temptation of a regular job with a steady income.
“After the initial few months, it was much harder to keep ourselves motivated,” says Kopparthi. “We’d pitched at least 100 times, of which only a small percentage of attempts had been successful. It was hard to not have means to support ourselves. However, our families continued to believe in our mission and supported us financially while our ASU mentors kept us motivated.”
The team developed a working prototype that is slightly bigger than a computer tablet. The device is fitted with six to 10 LED bulbs that produce a stronger intensity of light distributed evenly to an infant’s entire body. This results in quicker, more energy-efficient treatment of high bilirubin levels with no side effects, such as burns or rashes from exposure to ultraviolet light.
Taking advantage of ASU’s networks and connections, the startup was able to test the device at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. There, the team discovered that effective jaundice treatment isn’t just a challenge in the developing world.
“Most of the commonly used phototherapy devices in the U.S. are unwieldy,” says Kopparthi. “Additionally, the technology used doesn’t allow for a quicker and energy-efficient way to treat an infant with jaundice based on the severity of the case.”
To address the challenges of treating the condition in radically different parts of the world, the team produced two versions of their device.
SunLife, a low-cost, solar-powered version with a simple on-off option, can protect infants from jaundice in low-income regions.
SkyLife is a more expensive and more advanced device offering multiple levels of light intensity to treat varying levels of severity of jaundice. Parents of newborns could also use SkyLife for at-home treatment to avoid a costly return to the hospital.
The team has continued to improve the devices, seeking counsel from experts available through ASU’s mentor networks.
With the help of the university’s investor networks, they have raised nearly $600,000 in seed funding to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They have also connected with medical centers in Phoenix and Los Angeles to continue testing the device.
“ASU supported us so much during our journey that we knew if we couldn’t succeed here, we would not be able to do it anywhere else,” says Kopparthi.
“NeoLight is an example of how much is possible when a public research university commits to access, student success, research and discovery, and instills a responsibility for the communities it serves. An interdisciplinary team of engineering and business students who can identify a problem, design a solution and persist in bringing an idea to life is education at its best,” says Garret Westlake, associate dean of student entrepreneurship in ASU’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“The passion and purpose with which the NeoLight team works is contagious. NeoLight has inspired their mentors, fellow students, faculty and members of the global community through their unending quest to make the world a better place through design, collaboration and hard work,” he adds.
Startups and spinoffs from ASU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem raised more than $239 million in external funding from 2012 to 2015.
NeoLight is now transitioning from a product-based company to a technology-based company, developing effective treatments for not just infant jaundice but also hypothermia—problems that often go hand in hand.
“While major private and public organizations are targeting bigger health problems, startups like NeoLight are in the unique position of identifying and developing solutions for health challenges that are yet to receive sufficient attention,” says Kopparthi.
Using the conscious capitalism model of business that emphasizes purpose beyond profit, they hope to help U.S. hospitals conserve precious resources. They also hope to collaborate with other companies to treat infant jaundice in the developing world.
“We don’t see other organizations working to prevent infant jaundice in developing countries as competition,” says Garrett. “This entirely preventable health condition requires that we support each other and build upon our successes.”
“Every year, nearly six million babies suffering from jaundice don’t receive adequate care,” adds Kopparthi. “If we can reduce that number by even a tiny margin, we’d consider ourselves successful.”