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Student startup Relavo takes home $500,000 KidneyX prize

August 4, 2020

Team Relavo
The Relavo team won honorable mention at the 2019 Values and Ventures Competition, where they were represented by (from left) Tejasvi Desai, Sarah Lee, and Anna Bailey Image credit: Courtesy of Elaine Cole and Texas Christian University

Relavo, a company founded by Johns Hopkins undergraduates studying biomedical engineering, has been awarded a $500,000 KidneyX prize to develop a product that reduces the risk for contamination during at-home kidney dialysis treatments. The prize will primarily fund the team’s product development efforts and will pay salaries, allowing the company co-founders to work on the project full-time.

“This is huge for us, as our timeline has been set back due to the pandemic,” said Sarah Lee, now a mechanical engineering graduate student who leads the team. “This sense of security, particularly in the COVID-era, is significant and allows us to put more energy and focus into building the company.”

The pandemic has also sparked in Lee and her team a new sense of urgency to expand access to at-home dialysis, ensuring that vulnerable patients won’t have to visit in-person dialysis clinics for treatment.

“Kidney failure patients are high-risk for complications from COVID-19—yet nearly half a million people in the U.S. still have to travel to dialysis clinics several times a week just to survive,” said Lee. “And with the risks for long-term kidney complications due to COVID-19, even in patients with no history of kidney disease, there is definitely a community-wide focus in supporting these patients now and in the future.”

KidneyX, also called the Kidney Innovation Accelerator, is a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology. Established in April 2018, KidneyX prize competitions aim to accelerate the development of innovative solutions that can prevent, diagnose, and/or treat kidney diseases. The Relavo team was one of six winners of the KidneyX Redesign Dialysis Phase 2 competition. Building off the success of KidneyX’s inaugural prize competition, Phase 2 challenged participants to build and test prototypes that can replicate normal kidney functions or improve dialysis access.

Peritoneal dialysis is a form of kidney replacement therapy that patients self-administer at home, and studies have shown that it gives patients a better quality of life than other forms of dialysis. Despite its advantages, PD remains underutilized due to higher risk of contamination that can lead to infection. To address this problem, the Relavo team developed PeritoneX, an affordable, disposable device that disinfects contaminated connection points before PD treatment begins.

Looking ahead, the red-hot startup will participate in two global startup accelerator programs that run through October: MassChallenge Boston program and the MedTech Innovator Accelerator, the largest accelerator for medical technology. Out of 1000 applicants to the MedTech program, Relavo was selected as one of 50 showcase companies and one of 29 early-stage companies chosen to be part of their intensive accelerator program.

– Catherine Graham