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Economy & Business

Entrepreneur Hopefuls Team Up To Develop Bio-Health Business Ideas

Joe McDonald (back left) came up with the idea for a fitness app that measures power use. He and his team are hammering out their presentation for the company tentatively called Watt Runner.
Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio

Updated at 11:05 a.m. Monday February 9, 2015 to include competition results.  

On Friday, St. Louis held it's first bio-health Startup Weekend. For 54 hours, eight teams worked to build a health-related business from the ground up.

Cities around the country and the globe have held Startup Weekends. St. Louis had its first Startup Weekend in 2012.

“Traditionally, building a business over 72 hours or 54 hours lends itself to information technology, highly scalable businesses, a lot of developers, and so that’s what typically comes out of Startup Weekends,” said BioHealth Startup Weekend organizer Ben Burke, who works for Arch Grants. “And so the idea here is that we wanted to narrow down to health technologies.”

That way, Burke explained, health ideas don’t get lost in the crowd.

According to Burke, about 45 people signed up to participate in the event, with 20 ideas pitched Friday evening. The group selected eight ideas to pursue, and then broke up into teams based on interest and skill sets to create business plans. On Sunday evening the teams presented their businesses to a panel of judges.

But most participants don’t sign up in the hopes of winning an award, said Burke.

Ben Burke, Startup Weekend organizer and director of entrepreneurship at Arch Grants.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Ben Burke, Startup Weekend organizer and director of entrepreneurship at Arch Grants.

“Typically these are ideas. And what’s more valuable than potentially some of these resources is just simply getting to that next stage of ideation—so understanding (if this) is a viable business,” Burke said.

Joe McDonald’s idea for a fitness app was one of the eight ideas selected. He envisioned an app that would measure the amount of effort runners put into their workouts.

“I knew that looking at elevation was a pretty good estimate (for how much power a runner is exerting). I just didn’t have the technical expertise to get that done,” McDonald said. “And so this weekend has really allowed a lot of different skill sets to come together and really jump on this one idea.”

McDonald is a triathlete and a Washington University student pursuing an MBA and a biomedical engineering degree.

His team of five combined the expertise of accounting, web building and science to build a prototype of the app, to determine customer interest and to create a business model.

“We definitely believe that this product is going to go forward” after this weekend, McDonald said. “We’re going to first take into account who wants to continue on with this project and then we’ll kind of do a gut-check—see what skill sets we need to fill after that and then we’ll start recruiting people to join the team because really have a great product here.”

The judges agreed that the business proposal known as Watt Runner has potential; they gave the fitness app team first place at the competition Sunday night.

Michelle Fiats (left) and Dana Watts work on their startup idea.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Michelle Fiats (left) and Dana Watts work on their startup idea.

Fifth-year Washington Uiniversity PhD students Michelle Faits and Dana Watt came to the event to flesh out a business model they began working on this past fall. They’re part of a National Institute of Health program that seeks to market products developed at NIH—in this case a medical test to help open up a treatment for multiple sclerosis to a wider patient pool. 

Their business Pro Arc Diagnostics received third place.

Another medical diagnostic, Sugar See, won second place. It offers an inexpensive diabetes screening test.

Ryan Norrenberns’s team put together a nonprofit business model to fill in the nutrition gaps created by food deserts.

Ryan Norrenberns (right) and his teammates work on an idea to bring fresh foods to food deserts.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Ryan Norrenberns (right) and his teammates work on an idea to bring fresh foods to food deserts.

Other teams developed bio-technology and genomic ideas.

But whatever the idea, the teams were able to get experience on how to build a startup and the benefit of expertise from coaches and mentors — business professionals and entrepreneurs who meet with the teams throughout the weekend and offer their help, said Startup Weekend facilitator Archana Gowda.

“The goal is not necessarily the artifact that they produce, the demo they produce and present on Sunday,” Gowda said. “It’s about how you actually get there. So after this weekend people have a firmer idea of how you take an idea and make it viable.”

According to Gowda, Startup Weekend is more about the “cross-pollination” of ideas than winning an award or coming up with a business worth a lot of money.

“This is a competition but we don’t really stress the competition part too much. It’s more about building community and building these relationships,” Gowda said.

St. Louis Public Radio was a sponsor for BioHealth Startup Weekend.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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