By Emily Hackeling

The Story of a Startup

How UNC has become a launchpad for student innovators

The Story of a Startup
How UNC has become a launchpad for student innovators

The four UNC alumni sat at a long wooden table in the 1789 Venture Lab overlooking Franklin Street. The space, filled with bright overhead hanging lights, board games, whiteboards and colorful modern furniture, has been the place they have spent hundreds of hours since graduating last year. As they began discussing their invention, their white swivel chairs moved back and forth and their voices grew more and more excited.

“When we got our first test results back, we knew we’d be fools not to pursue this,” said Jorge Martinez-Blat, one of the alumni.

Martinez-Blat, along with his friends Chase DuBois, John Pamplin and Christopher Roberts, graduated from UNC’s biomedical engineering program in May 2014. At the start of their senior year, they began creating the VoluMetric, a small handheld device used for measuring precise doses of chemotherapy drugs.

More than a year later, Martinez-Blat said they are at a standstill in their innovation process as they wait for responses from funding sources and the university in order to move forward.

Former Chancellor Holden Thorp repeatedly referred to as UNC as an “Engine of Innovation.” Since the creation of the Chancellor’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2010, the university has made investing in the University’s “innovative spirit” an even bigger priority. Nearly $125 million have been raised to support student entrepreneurial efforts.

Some student innovators have found difficulty in communicating with the university about projects once they’ve graduated. Since university resources, faculty and funding are used in innovation projects, students are left with questions of ownership once they graduate and bring their projects out of the university setting.

“With chemo, a little more or a little less can make a huge difference,” Pamplin said.

The idea for the VoluMetric came from Stephen Eckel, the associate director of pharmacy at UNC Hospitals, who performed a study on the accuracy of chemotherapy drug dosages. He was one of the first in the country to investigate the topic, and he found that the range of measurements varied widely.

His results indicated that 12.6 percent of dosages were outside the accepted error range. With so many people in the United States receiving multiple rounds of chemotherapy, as many as 82,000 people are receiving the wrong dose each year.

Dr. Eckel’s results prompted Pamplin, Martinez-Blat, Dubois and Roberts to begin their research on creating a product that could decrease variation when doctors administer drugs through syringes.

“It’s difficult to say what exactly the consequences are, but with high-intensity drugs and small measurements, you could be potentially killing somebody,” Pamplin said.

After testing their invention for the first time, the team yielded only a 0.3 percent error. That’s compared with a 10 percent error in the commonly used procedure for measuring doses, which the VoluMetric team refers to as “eyeballing it.” That difference may mean as much as life or death for patients.

“There’s nothing out there that’s like this,” Martinez-Blat said. "The best thing you’ll get is plus or minus 2.5 percent, and that’s for a multimillion-dollar, big, giant machine that takes up the better half of a room.”

“We can make it for $50, and it would be substantially less if we mass produced it. Plus, it’s something that’s much more accurate,” Pamplin added.

The device adjusts to fit on any size syringe, and it converts the linear distance the plunger travels backward into a volume, which gives a very precise measurement of the amount of liquid that actually enters the patient’s body.

The VoluMetric was designed for long-lasting use in a hospital setting; it adjusts to fit on any size syringe, is handheld, and has a replaceable battery. Photo Contributed by Volumetric team.

The VoluMetric team received a provisional patent for its design through the Office of Technology Development before the members graduated, which allowed them to continue researching and even bring their device to the 2014 Collegiate Inventors Competition as one of only seven undergraduate teams selected nationwide.

Now, the weeks are running out for their provisional patent, which cost about $3,500, and the team awaits more funding and licensing permission from the university to apply for another.

“The reason it’s so complicated is that there are so many parties involved,” said Devin Hubbard, the VoluMetric team’s advisor. “When you go through the OTD, which we do for every project in the course, they automatically have certain rights.”

For some student work, the university doesn’t intervene, Hubbard said. For other cases where university faculty and resources are widely used, placing the credit for ideas and licenses can be complicated.

Hubbard said working with the OTD for his class has been reasonable, and it is good at what it does. He said they’re not trying to do anything under the table, but certain license requests can take a long time to process.

“We all have hundreds of hours in this, and we can’t continue if we have a roadblock of no funding,” John said. Their next steps include paying for a patent, a contract manufacturer to send back a professionally made prototype, and marketing the device to research companies.

The team said the hardest part for them has been the legal side of product creation.

“It’s been a lot of, ‘We’ll talk about it,’ and ‘We’ll take care of this,’ from university officials, probably just because these kind of relations don’t happen all that frequently,” John said.   

The team said that although they are thankful for all the help they’ve received from the university, they have had trouble predicting what steps the university is making with their project.

“We have not been as involved as we would like to have been, and we’ve had to push a little for our rights in the process,” John said.

The VoluMetric team, from left to right, John Pamplin, Jorge Martinez-Blat, Christopher Roberts, and Chase DuBois, was one of 7 undergraduate teams selected nationwide to attend the 2014 Collegiate Inventors Competition last November. Photo contributed by Volumetric team.

Earlier this year, the UNC-CH Board of Trustees announced the creation of a fund to boost growth for university-born start-up companies.

The fund is overseen by a board of directors and has advising from leading venture capitalists across the country. It will dedicate $5 million from investment earnings on non-state money to companies in the early stages of research and growth, who are less likely to have success getting funds from large venture investors.

UNC ranks in the top 10 research universities in the nation, so ideas for the fund came from a 2013 concept that aimed to boost state economy and translate research into a job marketplace, according to a statement from the university’s Communications and Public Affairs Office.

Other university efforts to boost innovative thinking have emerged or become more active in recent years, including Launching the Venture, Carolina Challenge, Carolina KickStart, the CUBE Social Innovation hub at the Campus Y and the Office of Technology Development, or OTD.

According to the OTD’s statistics from 2014, more than 150 start-up companies have been created at UNC. These companies provide more than 8,000 jobs throughout the state and employ 38,000 people worldwide.

These UNC-born companies bring more than $7 billion in revenue back to North Carolina each year.

Of the 150 start-ups, one-third are in the biotechnology industry, like VoluMetric.

Hubbard moved from side to side in front of a dry erase board, vigorously jotting down a flow chart with arrows pointing in all directions. He explained his role as the faculty advisor of the VoluMetric team while eating a cup of layered chocolate pudding.

“Here,” he said, circling one point on his chart and then underlining another, “and here are the places during the process where students probably run into the most trouble.”

This creation process comes with many areas of uncertainty, but the stage in which students find the most difficulty is not necessarily the actual creation of a physical product.

Hubbard, who now lectures in the undergraduate biomedical engineering program, is also an alumnus of the UNC’s Biomedical Engineering Department, which is a joint program with NC State. He said the hardest parts of producing a new product often lie in the phases of brainstorming, marketing, legal battling and funding.    

In Hubbard’s first days teaching a biomedical engineering senior design capstone course, he tells students to get into small groups.

“Here’s a problem. Come up with 75 solutions,” Hubbard instructs.

He says the students always look at him warily as they begin to think of ideas. They work, think, finish, and say something like, “That was a little exhausting.”

“Then I say, ‘Now give me 100 more.’”

Students are told to come up with a real world problem, think of how it could be improved and design and create a feasible solution. The unique part about this senior course, Hubbard said, is that students have to come up with their own problem, rather than being given problems to choose from as in previous BME courses.

Pinning down a problem on their own, Hubbard said, is usually the students’ first point of difficulty.

Pamplin, Martinez-Blat, DuBois and Roberts used Dr. Eckel’s results as their problem in their 2013 - 2014 senior design course with Hubbard as one of their main advisors, and their innovation process continued throughout their senior year.

The course extends through two semesters, and it involves a few different stages with deadlines along the way.

“Students have to figure out how to get in there and find problems in the ways doctors have been doing procedures,” he said. “It can be overwhelming to learn how to be in there with them but also get out of a doctor’s way.”

He said the best way to find a problem is to ask, “Why do you do it that way?” Usually the doctor will say, “Because we’ve always done it like this.” People usually don’t question a practice after learning it, and there often are more effective and more efficient ways to operate that have been ignored because no one has bothered to change it.

“Design is a strange beast,” Hubbard said. “It’s like getting a driver’s license and having no maps and nowhere to go.”

Once they’ve identified problems, students have to filter through them and find a strategic focus. Hubbard said this part can be tricky because the options are so unlimited.

Next comes more brainstorming. This time, they are finding not just problems, but also potential solutions. Hubbard said the basic rules of this stage are, “Don’t be a jerk.” Anything, despite outlandishness or unlikelihood, is supposed to be put out in the open for consideration. “Crazy ideas lead to great solutions,” he said.

They filter through once again, and choose one solution to pursue. At this point, there are only a few weeks left in the first semester. The design stage begins second semester, followed by rounds of prototyping and testing. Their goal is to present a functioning prototype by the end the year.

“It’s a lot of narrowing down and then narrowing down again, discussing pros and cons, and trial and error,” Pamplin said.

Durability, power sources, small hospital spaces and reducing steps in measuring and administering drugs were all aspects the VoluMetric team explored during their first semester.

“You have to think of everything — things like power cords running across the room and the amount of space a doctor has to work with,” Pamplin said.

The way VoluMetric works is incredibly simple — it’s powered by a replaceable small cell batteries.

“We got 100 for like 20 bucks on Amazon,” Martinez-Blat said.

After months of designing, laser-cutting and machining, the team printed their alpha prototype for the device for about $100 with a 3D printer.

“That includes all the tries and fails that led up to the first one,” Martinez-Blat said. “If we wanted to make more, we could do it for $50.”

“The first one was crude, and the final project grew so much better,” Hubbard said.

“I really think it could be a useful tool, and I’m excited to see where they go with marketing and improving things.”

The team has two devices now. “It’s good to have one to give to researchers, and if one was to break, we can say, ‘Here’s another!’” Martinez-Blat said.

Between researching potential markets for the product, waiting to hear back from grants and funding sources and trying to communicate with the university’s Office of Technology Development about licensing, they spend their time outside their full-time biomedical engineering jobs on the VoluMetric.

The team won’t stop at VoluMetric. BackBar pizzas, skiing trips, ping pong tournaments, and the genuineness of those who say they actually enjoy the taste of Indian Pale Ales were among the topics of conversation after the VoluMetric team’s meetings for the project.

“Pediatric hospitals, vet hospitals — small kids and small animals — really any place where a small amount matters, this can be great,” Martinez-Blat said. The team said they plan to market to research labs as a way of breaking into the hospital setting.

“There are a million tests that need to happen for use in a hospital, along with getting through regulations from the FDA that are necessary for use on real patients,” Pamplin said.

“We really believe in our initial purpose — improving accuracy for chemotherapy drug doses — and think it has the potential to save some lives and be used nationwide,” Martinez-Blat said.

For the future, the VoluMetric team said they hope their experiences can help establish protocol for better communication between the university and student innovators upon graduation.