Catching up with Athelas, 2015 winner of the USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase

Where are they now?
Catching up with Athelas, 2015 winner of the USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase

By Peijean Tsai, USC Stevens Center for Innovation

Watch 24 USC student startups compete for over $30,000 at the 11th Annual USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase on Friday, October 13, 2017. We recently spoke with past Showcase winners to see how they have progressed since competing and to ask if they had advice for the next group of students competing in the Showcase.

When Deepika Bodapati won the $7,000 Most Innovative award at the 2015 USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase, she was just starting to build her medical technology startup, Athelas.

Less than two years later, Athelas’ product – a low-cost, portable blood-imaging device that diagnoses medical conditions automatically – is available for purchase by clinics and pharmaceutical companies. It is in use at clinics in multiple countries, including the U.S. and Mexico. The device  can test for malaria, anemia, and flu virus with a single blood drop. It can quickly deliver white blood cell and activated lymphocyte counts – important information for chemotherapy patients and those suffering with neutropenia, a rare blood condition where a person has a low level of certain white blood cells crucial to fighting infections.

In 2017, the goal for Athelas is not only to deploy a large quantity of devices but also to increase the number of tests completed.

“We really want to hit the ground with thousands of devices deployed, but more than that we want to increase the number of tests done per device,” said Bodapati, who competed she was a junior at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. She is now taking a break from USC to focus on her business. “If we can exponentially increase the amount of testing that’s done, then for 2017, we’ve done a good job.”

Bodapati’s $7,000 award at the USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase in October 2015 and a $25,000 prize from the USC Marshall’s Silicon Beach competition that same month were the first grants earned by Athelas. Bodapati and her Athelas co-founder Tanay Tandon, a Stanford student, used the funds to pay for hardware components for a working prototype of their product.

“More than giving us money for parts, the awards we got from USC bought us time not to have to look for money,” said Bodapati in an interview this summer. “We could just have our heads down and build for a year.”

After the two USC competitions, Athelas earned a coveted spot in the Y-Combinator accelerator in Silicon Valley, which came with $120,000 in funding. The company also closed $3.7 million in funding from Sequoia Capital. Today, Athelas has a team of 8 people and Bodapati said they are always looking to hire.

Bodapati still remembers her experience pitching to judges at the USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase. Based on her experience, she has advice to give to the students competing in the next competition, where judges will circulate all the teams in the morning portion of the competition and ask tough questions to each project team about their startup or invention: “Be extremely succinct with your answers and get to the point. That’s the most important thing, to have a sense of clarity about what you’re doing.”

She adds that students should write down the three most important things they want the judges to remember about their projects. “Always make sure to communicate and emphasize those three points, since people may not retain everything you say,” she said.

For the afternoon portion of the event where the finalists will deliver 3-minute business pitches, “rehearsing your speech is key,” she said.

“It’s so important to practice. Practice in your room if you can,” she said.

The USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase is an annual USC student business competition hosted by the USC Stevens Center for Innovation. USC students in all disciplines present their startup ideas and inventions to members of the business community, competing for thousands of dollars in USC-sponsored prizes. The annual competition has distributed over $117,000 in awards to USC students from 2007 to 2016, and over $30,000 in awards will be up for grabs on October 13, 2017 at the next USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase.

–published October 11, 2017

Deepika Bodapati presents to judges from the venture and business community at the 2015 USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase (photo by Chris Brake Photography for the USC Stevens Center for Innovation).