2021 Most Disruptive Business School Startups: Nephra, University of Illinois (Gies)


University of Illinois, Gies College of Business

Industry: Medical Device

Founding Student Name(s): Jonathan Politzki (business student / business lead), Mary Cook, Amartya Dave, Maya Miriyala, Al Smith

Brief Description of Solution: We are engineering a handheld ECG that uses machine learning to quantify serum potassium levels for patients on dialysis. Patients on dialysis do not have fully functioning kidneys to filter electrolytes and a buildup in potassium can cause major cardiac events and is one of the largest causes of death for their population. We can be thought of as the Dexcom for chronic kidney disease (CKD).

What led you to launch this venture? Most startups stem from an idea. Ours was actually formed in an extremely processed and iterative manner. We started as a team of students passionate about healthcare innovation in a pre-incubator called AxisMED and over time ideated until something checked all the boxes. We knew we wanted to innovate in the dialysis space as it is extremely antiquated and has lots of room for improvement.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Unlike many startups, our progress is solely dependent on a singular event of a working prototype. As soon as we get a great prototype, we are immediately a multi-million dollar company due to demand. As such, all of our greatest accomplishments lie around the timeline of getting a successful device working since we know the science is tried and true. Our greatest accomplishment is that we recently ran models with R on data we acquired from hospitals from South Korea and found correlations alongside affirmation of the problem from top dialysis doctors. We hope to have the hardware done by December.

How has your business-related major helped you further this startup venture? My finance major has been instrumental in exposing me to the necessary case studies and curriculum to instinctively know how to navigate a startup, reach out to the right people, and seek the next short term goal. My education gave me the skills to accurately pick out markets ripe for expansion and disruption when choosing the idea we would move forward with.

Which business class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? BADM 211 (Business Analytics II). Data really is a huge part of the digital transformation. Understanding it, interpreting it, and sourcing it have been tasks that I have faced over the past 6 months and the machine learning concepts that I learned in this class have given me the resources to tackle these challenges.

What business professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? I came to school with an interest in business, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. John Quarton and Robert Metzger created opportunities that showed me how to get what I want out of my time here. Business is an attitude and it was great to learn from the best. These professors have not only taught, but have created an infrastructure that allows students to build themselves up years after they may leave the university.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? In a perfect world, I would like to be able to bring a device to the masses that can save lives. I, along with our contacts in the medical community, truly believe that this has the potential to make a real change in the world.


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