Engage’d for Global Good

By Meagan Garrett

It’s been a busy and exciting year for Engage Biotech since winning first place and $15,000 in the WSU Business Plan Competition in May 2016.

Engage Biotech won with SafeShot, an innovative prototype of a lid that attaches to and sterilizes multi-use vials used to give vaccines and other critical medications throughout the developing world. The team’s sterilization lid is designed to prevent the spread of blood borne diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis passed through contaminated equipment.

The World Health Organization estimates that the reuse of contaminated equipment results in nearly 1.3 million early deaths annually, the loss of 26 million years of life, and $535 million in direct medical costs.

Engage founders Emily Willard (’16) and Katherine Brandenstein (’16), both bioengineering students at WSU at the time they invented the SafeShot, knew needle reuse was a problem that needed a solution.

No rest for a world changer

Immediately after the WSU win, Engage competed in the University of Washington’s inaugural Health Innovation Challenge. Engage took fourth place and won $5,000. After this victory, it was back to WSU’s Pullman campus for graduation.

After graduation, the team returned to Seattle to start the Jones Foster Accelerator, a six-month program housed on UW’s campus designed to move startups forward very rapidly. Entry into the accelerator came with a total of $30,000 in seed funding, mentorship, and critical lab space at Harborview needed to continue to develop and test their prototype.

Additionally, Engage was accepted into the 2016-2017 Amazon Catalyst cohort. Out of 227 applicants, Engage was one of the 10 ventures invited into the program. The Amazon Catalyst program speeds innovation in young startups by providing mentorship, community, and funding. Engage received $100,000 in funding to continue testing and prototyping the SafeShot device.

Emily Willard and Katherine Brandenstein speaking with Masai members.

Where are they now?

“We’re still in the lab,” says Willard. “We recently returned from a field test trip in Tanzania, Africa, and are taking what we learned to refine the product as well as continue our FDA testing.”

Willard and Brandenstein traveled with a group that included Marie Mayes, director of the WSU Center for Entrepreneurship, leaders from the WSU Paul Allen School for Global Animal Health, and fellow WSU student entrepreneurs Annalise Miller and Victor Charoonsophonsak, founders of Kulé Tech. Miller and Charoonsophonsak invented a new digital thermometer to aid in the pasteurization of milk among cow herding tribes in the developing world.

While in Tanzania, Engage traveled to both government and private funded clinics to learn more about how needles are used in a medical setting. Their focus was on the supply chain. “We wanted to learn specifically where the needles come from, how they are ordered, and by whom,” says Brandenstein. “We wanted to know if they come as one piece or if the needle and syringe are separate elements. This research is invaluable to us as we design our product and think about how to sell it to the organizations that will supply these clinics.”

Coming up next

This has indeed been a busy year for Engage, and Willard and Brandenstein don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. After graduating from the Jones Foster Accelerator, they plan to find office and lab space, continue product testing, and ready the SafeShot for sales and distribution.

According to Willard, their next big step will be raising money, with a focus on major grants initially. It will be a big task, but they feel prepared.

“We feel prepared to submit real grant applications, for real money, and it’s because of Marie and WSU,” she says. “Marie is always helping us become better entrepreneurs, even after graduation. She keeps us in mind for trips like Tanzania that provided invaluable knowledge for our product development. She helps us write and rewrite our business plan so it is ready for important presentations, like a grant application. She challenges us to improve our pitch. We are 10,000 times better at giving our pitch today than we were when we won the Business Plan Competition last year. We can stand our ground in any business meeting or situation now.”