A team of U students won the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge and $40,000 for designing a medical device that helps doctors open airways for patients who are unable to breathe.

The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute hosts the annual challenge for students across the state to pitch business plans, earn money or gain investors for their projects. The three students on the winning team, Through the Cords, LLC, are from different disciplines, but came together for the competition. Benjamin Fogg, a doctoral student in medicine, helped provide a scientific and medical perspective.

“I think having a multidisciplinary team was key,” Fogg said. “Just in covering different aspects and being able to come together with the Lassonde program, it was awesome.”

The medical device, called an endotracheal tube, is inserted through the patient’s mouth or nose to deliver oxygen or other gases to the lungs. It is a typical procedure for surgeries and is the third most common medical procedure in the United States, but often results in injuries because doctors may insert the tube too deep or in the wrong location. The team’s tube is color coded so that doctors know how far to insert the tube and includes a steerable controller to help guide the tube into the patient’s airway.

The competition, held April 9, featured the top 20 business proposals from across the state. Judges cut the pool down to eight teams, who then pitched and presented their proposals again.

The winning group set up a table with a mannequin and allowed people to practice using the device for themselves. Samer Merchant, a team member and doctoral student in bioengineering, said he thinks designing a prototype helped propel their team to the top and hopes to improve it in the future.

“We’ll be using the money to build a better prototype, start the FDA approval process and start talking to investors,” Merchant said.

Mackenzie Hales, a first-year MBA student, said the group was surprised and excited to win the competition. Hales helped design the team’s business proposals and analyzed the marketing viability of their product. Last week, the team also won $10,000 in a separate medical device competition.

Sean Runnels, a professor in anesthesiology, originally felt the need for a new breathing tube when he was practicing medicine in Africa. Inserting breathing tubes became difficult for patients with tumors, mouth and neck injuries or other respiratory problems. At the U, Runnels worked with the students to create a design that would solve the issues he had seen.

Zion’s Bank donated the competition’s prize money. Latitude, a group from BYU focusing on virtual tours, won second place and $5,000, and PassportXpress, a team from UVU that designed a smartphone ID system won the People’s Choice Award and $2,500. The U dethroned BYU, who has won the grand prize for the past three years.

“If people have ideas, they just need to pursue it. It’s wonderful to see new ideas and technology,” Merchant said. “It just takes hard work and time.”




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