Startup Stories: Creating Diagnostic Tools for Sickle Cell Disease

In this series, Karen Guzman talks to student and alumni entrepreneurs about how to make an impact in their startups.

adventurer: Covadex It is building a point-of-care monitoring device for rare blood diseases, starting with sickle cell disease. Using 3D phase imaging microscopy and deep learning algorithms, the company aims to reduce hospitalizations by preventing severe attacks through routine monitoring and informed care.

Founders: Sung Kim 20; Yao Ansung Jnr, physician and scientist; Tim Adamson 22

When did you come up with the idea for this startup?

KovaDx was inspired by Yao’s work as a doctor in Ghana. He treated children suspected of having sickle cell disease (SCD), but since their parents could not afford a diagnosis, he did what he could to alleviate the symptoms. In the United States, we learned that the diagnosis of sickle cell disease was universally made at birth. However, there has been a lack of investment, both at the individual and systemic levels, which has prevented progress in improving care.

We recognized this with our skill sets – Yao with his clinical and research background; Tim with his expertise in computer science; And with my expertise in program management – we can expand access to services by building a new type of company that uses innovative technology to transform the way sickle cell disease is treated.

What is the problem you are trying to solve or the gap you are trying to fill?

Sickle cell disease is a global health problem that significantly affects life span and quality of life. It’s a genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to become hard, sticky and sickly and leads to serious problems throughout the body, including infection, severe pain, vision loss, chronic organ damage, stroke, and early death. It affects 30 million people worldwide. In the United States, where one in 18 black Americans holds this trait, the life expectancy of individuals is 34 years lower than the average American. The average cost of treatment has been estimated at more than $34,000 per year. However, despite its prevalence, sickle cell disease remains one of the most underfunded diseases. Underfunding translates into a lack of research and investment in health infrastructure, widening the health gap that already exists across racial lines.

What is the most important resource Yale SOM has contributed to your startup?

Prior to SOM, I was a lawyer providing services to marginalized immigrant communities. I had little work experience. Honestly, I hadn’t used a single formula in Excel before my first accounting course. Needless to say, everything I learned in the classroom — from basic courses like Sourcing and Managing Funds to courses in social entrepreneurship — helped me think about what it means to launch a sustainable startup with a mission to social impact.

Another important resource that SOM provided is the network it used every step of the way. From finding key advisors aligned with our values, to helping me learn the nuances of an incredibly complex and fragmented healthcare system, I wouldn’t have done it without the friends, teachers, and alumni who generously offered their support.

What has been your startup’s biggest achievement since graduation?

We set out to build a point-of-care monitoring tool that can measure patients’ blood health in real time. While this can be applied and customized for any number of diseases, we are clearly excited about our initial application because it will be the first point of care that can measure blood health for people living with SCD. To illustrate how this has turned out, consider the impact glucose monitors have had on people with diabetes! Our next steps are to test our devices and models in a clinical setting.