It’s not easy to enter the field of medical entrepreneurship as a first-time founder, let alone one that’s still in college, but that’s what two St. Thomas University students are doing with their med-device startup, ExpressionMed.
Meghan Sharkus and Jackie Page, sophomores in St. Thomas’ Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, are the leaders of ExpressionMed, a startup creating and selling special medical tapes that help expensive wearable devices last longer. Most medical tape can be worn for about five days. Expression’s tape lasts anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, depending on how it’s used. It’s also available in a range of decorative designs, and is painless to remove.
Expression is one of six medical startups participating in gener8tor‘s inaugural gBETA Medtech program this spring. Funded by Boston Scientific, the free accelerator program helps early-stage companies by connecting them to physicians, researchers, investors and successful entrepreneurs in their field to develop growth strategies, gain customer traction and pitch investors.
Sharkus first came up with the idea for ExpressionMed about three years ago when she was still in high school. One of her friends had Type 1 Diabetes, and was annoyed by the boring-looking and uncomfortable medical tape she had to use to adhere a glucose-monitoring device to her body. Sharkus thought to herself, “Why not make the tape heart-shaped? Or put a pattern on it?”
She was surprised to discover that something like this didn’t already exist – but she soon found on why. No one wanted to manufacture it. Some thought it seemed costly or impractical to produce. But Sharkus felt there was a need for it in the diabetic community.
She eventually found a manufacturer willing to make her special stickers, and initially bootstrapped the project with $5,000 of her own money. She worked with the local DECA chapter in her home state of Wisconsin to further develop her idea, and enrolled in Endevvr, an entrepreneurship program at the University of Pennsylvania, to get the company off the ground.
As Sharkus finished high school and began preparing for college, she continued working on ExpressionMed, mostly on her own. While it’s challenging to start a new company, it’s doubly difficult to run the business on your own. The stress began to take its tole on Sharkus. At one point during her freshman year of college, she stopped sleeping, and was hospitalized for exhaustion.
“There’s a lot of stigma behind Type 1 Diabetes. It’s a forgotten market, and it shouldn’t be that way”
Sharkus realized that she needed help running Expression, and Page joined not long after. Page, also from Wisconsin, met Sharkus during their senior year of high school. The two became friends and stayed in touch when they learned they were both planning to attend to St. Thomas.
“People tell you not to start a business with your friend, but in this case I can’t see how I could’ve done it without her,” Sharkus said.
Like Sharkus, Page did not have experience with diabetes or medical startups prior to joining ExpressionMed, but has become passionate about changing the way people address and and deal with diabetes.
“There’s a lot of stigma behind Type 1. It’s a forgotten market,” Page said. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
ExpressionMed won the Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge last month, a startup competition hosted by St. Thomas for early-stage, student-run businesses from across the country. Around 150 teams startups from 110 business schools applied to participate, and the top 25 were invited to compete in Minneapolis. At the end of the three-day competition, Expression won the grand prize and was awarded $75,000.
Last year, Expression completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising just over $20,000 from 334 backers. Today, Expression’s stickers are currently sold in 49 states and 20 countries. As Expression continues to grow, its founders hope to get further involved with the diabetic community by forming partnerships with camps and advocacy organizations. Eventually, they also hope to make stickers for other medical devices.
“There’s a lot of different ways you can help serve this market,” Sharkus said. “We’re not going to invent a new cure or lifesaving therapy, but we can create new processes to make things more manageable while waiting for those long-term projects to come to fruition.”