The time eventually comes when the founder of a start-up takes a leap of faith – quitting school or a full-time job to devote all efforts to the entrepreneurial endeavor.
For Vidur Bhatnagar, that leap came last fall, when he took a leave of absence from his master’s degree program in robotics at the University of Pennsylvania. And on Monday, his Keriton LLC, a technology company focused on breast-milk management and lactation analytics for neonatal intensive-care units, was named digital health winner at a pitch competition at SXSW.
“This is such a validation of what we’re trying to achieve here,” Bhatnagar, 26, said Wednesday, back home in Philadelphia from his victorious trip to the tech/film/music confab in Austin, Texas. “It’s such a truly important problem, an important real-life problem.”
That “problem” is a process currently “very manual and time-intensive … and error-prone,” said Bhatnagar, who witnessed as much in 2011, when his nephew was born premature and had to spend three weeks in a NICU.
Yet he was not moved to create a business until spring 2016, when he was in the audience of PennApps, a renowned student-run hack-athon at Penn, where he heard nurses describe the trouble of tracking mothers’ milk-pumping patterns.
During the hack-athon, Bhatnagar visited the NICU at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. There, he saw that the issues were broader, involving nurses' having to manually record information on the labels of bottles of milk provided by mothers and manually track them, resulting in “nurses wasting time,” he said.
He not only drafted a tech platform to address the needs he identified, Bhatnagar also placed second with the idea at the hack-athon. “In 45 days, I started the company,” he said.
He raised $100,000 in pre-seed funding last summer and recently closed on $1 million in seed funding.
“We are ready to pilot,” said Bhatnagar, a native of India and formerly an engineer at SAP. This year “is all about proving. The first babies will come on the system," he said. "We’ll see how our technology is impacting moms’ and babies’ lives.”
Keriton has developed two apps. One automates data entry from the mother’s end, such as log creation and hospital notifications. The other automates inventory management and work flow, such as receiving, discharging, and fortifying milk. Both include patient-engagement components. Keriton's lactation analytics are designed to help consultants proactively counsel mothers.
The company's financial supporters include Ben Franklin Technology Partners, BioAdvance, the Dorm Room Fund, DreamIt, AmeriHealth, and Penn’s academic and medical communities, along with a few unidentified angel investors.
“What makes Keriton so appealing is that they are solving a big pain point they have heard time and again from the dozens of NICUs they have talked to,” said Steve Barsh, chief innovation officer at DreamIt, a global accelerator. “Another reason is that Vidur has all of the characteristics you look for in a great CEO: passion, focus, resilience, intelligence, coachability, and an endless drive to succeed.”
At SXSW, he emerged from a field of 125 companies to be among 10 finalists in Impact Pediatric Health’s pitch competition, designed to showcase and support the best pediatric health-care innovations. Impact is a three-year-old collaboration of eight U.S. children’s hospitals, including Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The 10 finalists each had three minutes to pitch, followed by six minutes of questions and answers from the judges, who represented each of Impact's eight member hospitals and a variety of other companies.
As a winner, Bhatnagar was awarded $15,000 and the chance to work with each of the hospitals.