Christopher and Andrew Pagels aren’t your average college students. Not only are the brothers immersed in the demanding bioengineering program at the University of Utah, they have also started a company that produces mobile phone health devices by combining their passion for entrepreneurism and engineering.
The two have been engaged in entrepreneurial pursuits their entire lives, they said, long before they knew what the word meant. Christopher described having a bracelet business in the first grade. He made so much money in one day, the principal called his parents to both congratulate them for having a kid with such an entrepreneurial spirit, and to also let them know Christopher wouldn’t be allowed to sell his wares at school anymore.
The brothers’ company, Descue Medical, essentially turns a smart phone into a medical testing device called i-Test. By plugging hardware into a phone and using an app, a user can run tests for illnesses from influenza to HIV.
The Descue Medical team is currently housed in the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) supported BioInnovations Gateway (BiG), a life sciences incubator, educational institution and workplace training facility. BiG has provided Descue Medical with lab space, resources for production and expertise and advice from industry experts.
Andrew said not only is the space inexpensive, he would pay “multiples” of the amount they are currently paying for leasing space, and forego the space, to be able to connect with other occupants of BiG.
“It’s such a phenomenal resource,” said Christopher. “While we’ve been here, I’ve never met anyone that wasn’t absolutely willing to sit down with us and say ‘how can I help?’ which is great for Andrew and I. We don’t think of ourselves as a corporation or a business, we think of ourselves as motivated people who are excited to learn. At the same time, our “corporate DNA” is about helping others, so it’s a very good fit for us. Everyone there is just like us.”
The objective of Descue Medical is to enable the user to use the smartphone software in locations besides doctors’ offices, eliminating the waiting process that often accompanies medical testing and the results . Once a diagnosis is made, the user can make a decision about making an appointment with their medical provider.
While on a school trip to Mongolia to investigate health care systems, Christopher said he was struck by people’s lack of access to medical testing. What he observed stuck with him and became one of the driving forces behind the company.
“There were people who would have to drive sometimes for a day and a half to get routine checkups,” said Christopher. “That to me was crazy. Sometimes they would drive a day and a half just to have the clinic tell them they couldn’t provide the needed test, and then they’d have to drive to the capitol city.”
Descue Medical has built a functional working prototype to test its applications. The company is currently in the process of final iterations of refinement. The next step will be finishing the final industrial design and looking at how to scale the product for manufacturing.
Smart-phone testing for illnesses is one thing, but ensuring accurate test results is another. Andrew and Christopher have done proof of concept on Descue with a variety of different tests. Andrew said that every experiment they do makes the product better.
“We have a pretty strict set of protocols that we are using, and we’re referencing as we build,” said Christopher. “Andrew and I spent two and a half months last summer exhaustively interviewing people in medical labs and hospitals, medical health providers, learning what they do and how they test their instruments. For our customers who will end up using the product, we’ve built in three or four different checks that are happening behind the scenes to make sure that they got enough of the sample, that the sample was applied properly, etc.”
When people ask the brothers why they thought it was appropriate to start a company while going through college, they respond that they think it’s a great idea.
“I think it’s really been an incredible way to give application or context to what we’re learning in our classes,” said Andrew. “Often times it’s hard to see what applications or what real world implications the theoretical stuff in class has. We’ve been able to leverage what we’re learning and also the people that we’re around at the U to get this off the ground.”