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Connecting Disciplines: Living Room Becomes Lab for New Venture

Students from Fuqua and Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering market a new medical device that may help prevent seizures.

By Elizabeth Michalka — This article was originally published in the alumni magazine Team Fuqua.

February 26, 2009
Members of the Cerene Biomedics team
Cerene Biomedics Team

From left are Carolyn Nohejl, Heidi Koschwanez, Christina Li, and John Stroncek, pictured after winning $100,000 in the Southeast BIO Plan Competition in December 2008. (Not pictured is Vivek Sasikumar.)

Those who suffer from epilepsy may soon have hope for relief, thanks to a team of students from Fuqua and Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.

The students are combining and adapting various existing technologies to develop a medical device that aims to prevent epileptic seizures. The students incorporated Cerene Biomedics in July 2008, to develop the device. Last year, the students won several business plan competitions, including the Duke Start-Up Challenge and the Southeast BIO/Plan Competition, collecting about $150,000 to use toward their venture.

"This has been an amazing opportunity," said Christina Li, CEO of Cerene Biomedics. "It has been a lot of hard work and long nights, but the experience has all been worth it. We are very excited for the future of our company and always keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of people we can help with this technology."

The venture began as part of a class at Fuqua — Invention to Application with Barry Myers, said original Cerene Biomedics member Vivek Sasikumar (Daytime '08) who also completed the Health Sector Management program.

A local entrepreneur visited the class, presenting an opportunity for students to develop a business plan around a technology developed by his company. Sasikumar was among the first to volunteer to help, and he was joined by classmates and biomedical PhD candidates John Stroncek, Christina Li, Heidi Koschwanez, and Carolyn Nohejl, who is pursuing a joint degree at Fuqua and Pratt (Daytime '09, Health Sector Management, biomedical engineering MS).

"The initial goal was to develop a business plan to market the device, but then we realized there was a greater opportunity for us to pursue," Nohejl said. "We started working in a living room, and recently joined the student business incubator at Pratt."

The device — based around a thermoelectric cooling chip — will prevent epileptic seizures by delivering targeted thermoelectric cooling to the surface of the brain. Brain cooling has been shown to stop epileptic seizures.

Sasikumar said the team realized the potential impact the device could have after their first competition. They were approached by a gentleman who told them he had recently lost a good friend as a result of an epileptic seizure.

"That put everything in perspective," Sasikumar said. "That was really moving and motivating for the whole team. We realized what a need there was for this."

Sasikumar, now at Eli Lilly, left Cerene Biomedics soon after graduating. He said he's proud to have been a part of the team, and is excited about Cerene's future. As winners of the Southeast BIO/Plan Competition, the Cerene Biomedics team has the opportunity to present at other BIO conferences in 2009.

 "We have been so encouraged and supported," Nohejl said, referring to the many mentors and contacts the team has had from Duke and beyond.

To learn more, visit http://cerenebiomedics.com/.