Chasing opportunity: Pandemic opens doors for BBA student entrepreneur to co-found health tech start-up

Sep 06, 2022

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Michelle De la O, an SFU Beedie with a concentration in entrepreneurship and innovation, joined the TechE@SFU program and is now co-founder and CEO of health tech start-up IUVOX.

Michelle De la O’s entrepreneurship journey started with bad news. A travel enthusiast, she had been excited to go on two student exchanges during her undergraduate degree—one in France and one in Italy. But those plans were quashed when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and international travel came to a halt.

With student exchanges no longer available, De la O looked for other options to enrich her experience at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. Eventually, she decided to concentrate in entrepreneurship and innovation and joined the TechE@SFU program. Now, she is co-founder and CEO of health tech start-up IUVOX, which develops smart air disinfection devices for dental offices to reduce the risk of disease transmission by killing 99.9 per cent of airborne pathogens—a concept born out of the pandemic.

“When COVID happened, I was so sad because I could no longer go on exchange,” says De la O. “I didn’t want to have just a degree. I wanted some other value-add like extracurriculars or activities on the side—something that would make my degree more valuable and exciting.”

De la O, a senior BBA student from Mexico who came to Vancouver because it was the “most tropical” part of Canada, originally planned on studying science. She loved genetics—still does—and had done a science concentration in high school. But after working in a genomics lab, she didn’t see herself working in a lab for life. De la O decided to take a year off to backpack across North America and Europe to figure out what she really wanted to do.

“While I was travelling in Cuba, I just had so many business ideas,” says De la O. “That’s when I realized that I want to study business. With business, I can do so many different things—it’s like a big umbrella that allows you to make big impacts in different ways.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to pivot, De la O discovered the TechE@SFU program. In this transformative program, students from across SFU faculties get access to expertise, funding, resources, expert training, and exclusive networks to help them create opportunities or make connections.

“It’s been so much fun,” says De la O. “There are no rules in entrepreneurship. It’s about being creative, taking risks, exploring new things. It’s about going outside your comfort zone—and that’s my zone. I’m expanding my comfort zone all the time. My status quo is going beyond my limits and trying new things.”

De la O and her co-founders started out as a group of seven—four mechatronics systems engineers, one accounting major, one microbiology major and herself, an entrepreneurship and international business major. They built an innovative device that uses far ultraviolet light to kill off airborne pathogens. This can be as effective for preventing transmission as wearing an N95 mask. Named after iuvo, Latin for “to help,” and X, a symbol of disruption to signify change, the start-up provides a novel way to reduce disease transmission indoors.

“We want to keep everyone safe indoors at all times and make an impact on our future,” says De la O. “We started out with COVID-19. Now we have monkeypox in addition to seasonal illnesses like the common cold or the flu. We reduce the risk of transmission for those diseases as well.”

When De la O and her co-founders were in the concept and brainstorming phase with their start-up, they weren’t sure where to start. They interviewed different businesses, from nightclubs to restaurants to gyms and hotels. The one that appealed to them the most was dentistry because it was an industry with some of the highest risks of exposure simply due to the amount of aerosol generated in dentistry procedures.

“Every time you go to the dentist, you open your mouth,” says De la O. “They do procedures that generate a lot of aerosols. Your microbes are roaming around for many minutes, and then the next patient comes up and your microbes are probably going to land in their mouth. That’s why dentists have a lot of PPE and procedures to prevent cross contamination.”

But the current solutions are part of the problem, according to De la O. Dental air purifiers can be large, bulky, and noisy, detracting from productivity and from the patient experience while also increasing overhead costs for practitioners. De la O points out that the CDC advises up to 15 air changes per hour (ACH) for certain medical facilities, and the most popular air purifiers currently reach only six ACH, so dental operatories must use many different devices to reach the CDC guidelines. IUVOX’s product, on the other hand, can provide the equivalent of 100+ ACH and is twice as energy efficient.

After completion of TechE@SFU, only some of the team elected to move forward with IUVOX as a venture. These co-founders, including De la O, benefited from funded entrepreneurship co-op terms (eCoop) through SFU’s Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship to work on the prototype and identify product-market fit.  The team continues to receive mentorship and startup services through the Chang Institute’s incubator program, Coast Capital Venture Connection. On top of NRC-IRAP funding Michelle and her team have secured to hire staff, IUVOX is also raising private investment to launch into the market in October of next year.

“The support we’ve received from the Chang Institute and Venture Connection has been amazing,” says De la O. “From financial support to advising to office space—it has just been amazing.”

As for the future of IUVOX, De la O sees dentistry as merely the starting point.

“Transmission of respiratory diseases can happen anywhere,” says De la O. “We hope to expand into other markets like long term care homes, for example, where we can help immunocompromised individuals with chronic illnesses so that they don’t have to ever live in isolation.”

Learn more about the TechE@SFU program at SFU’s Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship and register by September 13 to be part of the 2022–23 cohort.