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Founders presenting research

Startup Stories: Creating Diagnostic Tools for Sickle Cell Disease

A conversation with Song Kim ’20, co-founder of KovaDX, which is building technologically advanced tools to increase access to quality healthcare for underserved communities. 

In this series, Karen Guzman talks to student and alumni entrepreneurs about how they are making an impact with their startups.

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

Founders: Song Kim ’20; Yaw Ansong Jnr, physician and scientist; Tim Adamson ’22

What was the moment when you had the idea for this startup?

KovaDx was inspired by Yaw’s work as a doctor in Ghana. He treated children he suspected had sickle cell disease (SCD), but because their parents couldn’t afford diagnostics, he just did what he could to alleviate the symptoms. In the U.S., we learned, SCD diagnostics were universally done at birth. However, there has been underinvestment, both at an individual and systemic level, that has prevented progress in improving care.

We recognized that with our skill sets—Yaw with his clinical and research background; Tim with his computer science expertise; and me with my experience managing programs— we could expand access to services by building a new kind of company that uses innovative technology to transform the way SCD is treated.

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve or the gap that you’re trying to fill?

SCD is a global health problem that significantly impacts life span and quality of life. It’s a genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to become hard, sticky, and sickle-shaped and leads to serious problems all over the body, including infection, excruciating pain, vision loss, chronic organ damage, stroke, and premature death. It affects 30 million people worldwide. In the U.S., where 1 in 18 Black Americans carry the trait, individuals have a life expectancy that’s 34 years shorter than the average American. Average treatment cost has been estimated at more than $34,000 annually. Yet despite its prevalence, SCD remains one of the most poorly funded diseases. Lack of funding translates to lack of research and investment in the health infrastructure, widening the health gap already existing across racial lines. 

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

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

Another of the most important resources SOM provided is the network I’ve tapped into every step of the way. From finding key advisors who were aligned with our values, to helping me learn the nuances of the incredibly complex and fragmented healthcare system, I could not have done this without friends, teachers, and alumni who generously offered their support. 

What’s the biggest milestone your startup has hit since graduation?

We set out to build a point-of-care monitoring tool that can measure the health of patients’ blood in real time. While this can be applied and customized to any number of diseases, we’re obviously excited about our initial application because it will be the first point-of-care tool that can measure blood health for people living with SCD. To put into perspective how transformative this would be, think about the impact glucose monitors have had for patients with diabetes! Our next steps is to test our device and models in a clinical setting.