What is more innovative than a box that can detect cancer cells?
BlueBox is the quintessential example of a startup blazing new paths to a brighter and healthier future.
Last month, Startup Grind & .TECH domains joined forces to host Pitch.Tech, a startup pitch competition that saw hundreds of applications come in from across the United States. Out of all of these applications, votes, and vetting rounds, BlueBox came out on top. Their revolutionary solution replicates the biological process of a dog sniffing out cancer on the breath of a lung cancer patient — so it’s no surprise they were the winners of the $10k cash equity-free prize.
We were able to catch up with Judit Giró Benet, Co-founder, and CEO of BlueBox, to discuss what this monumental victory has been like for them.
Such a big win can be overwhelming to say the very least. What was the first thing that went through your mind when your startup was called the winner, and how did you feel about it?
Judit: Despite it being an online event, the atmosphere was absolutely amazing, and the day of the competition was so exciting. Competing with such high-level fellow startups was an honor, I learned so much from every other founder! I remember clearly when it was my turn to pitch, the judges called my name and I was so ready. I highly appreciated all the questions that I received from the judges after I finished, and I had a good feeling about it, but I knew that it was a very competitive award. Even if I did not win, the day was still so full of valuable learning opportunities. When the judges called the name of my startup, I felt incredibly thankful for their trust in me and my project. I also thought of my team, each and every person that has worked day-in and day-out to bring Blue Box closer to the market daily.
The tech industry is a monolith and seems to feed on new ideas so fast we cannot come up with them soon enough. Where do you see BlueBox going and growing over the next five years, and how did winning this competition affect that trajectory?
Judit: The advances in AI and its interactions within the medical field have revolutionized the diagnostic power of medicine. The limitations of traditional medical practice have been surpassed, and new technologies can now see what the human eye simply cannot. Our proposal is a disruptive idea, a new concept that aims to bring medicinal technology closer to everyone.
The Blue Box may be only a box, but it can offer an early diagnosis of breast cancer that didn’t exist before. Through its simplicity, we intend to bring AI to every home… We want to make AI sexy. The future of AI remains unpredictable, but many researchers agree that the best is yet to come. As some say, “big data is the new oil.”
“That being said, for an early-stage startup like ours (founded just 6 months ago), being awarded the Pitch.Tech award is definitely game-changing. Not only will we invest the monetary prize in adding new talent to the team, but the social media exposure has already opened up some new and exciting opportunities for us.”
Even small moments have the potential to create waves in our lives, rippling impact regardless of how seemingly minor the source may be. What is the greatest takeaway from this experience you’d share with another founder or aspiring entrepreneur?
Judit: I personally believe that an unbeatable team is one that enjoys all the way until success. Having a strong team is one that works hard not because they have to, but because they want to. As founders, we typically work extra hours, encounter many difficulties, and are faced with multiple -and oftentimes scary- decisions every day. To survive is not enough, but to enjoy the process is the way. My piece of advice would be: in the end, emotions are what will drive your product to the market, what will bring customers to purchase your invention. Emotions are what will help you pitch your idea while really connecting with your audience.
No one comes up entirely on their own, there are trials and tribulations, and mentors are an invaluable resource in the pitching process. What was one piece of game-changing advice that shaped how you approached pitching BlueBox? Additionally, what advice would you give another startup developing their pitch?
Judit: One piece of game-changing advice comes from a book by Xesco Espar, a former Barcelona football coach. I learned that “a challenge cannot get the most out of you if thinking about it doesn’t make you tremble a little.” This is how the world of entrepreneurship and innovation makes me feel. Right before pitching, before I entered the stage, I felt this excitement that Espar mentioned. The key point here is to harness that nervousness for good and not let it take over your feelings. I believe that when pitching, one needs to think of the audience as an ally. The audience is standing there, waiting to be surprised, eager to feel and discover new things. Try to enjoy communicating, because your pitch is what you’re offering them.
A great pitch is a well-told story, a story originating in frustration, driven by the motivation to create a change. That change ends with the generation of a product, an emotion, or a disruption. In my case, I pitch my startup by explaining what happened during my studies in biomedical engineering at the University of Barcelona. This is how I was presented with the case of Blat, a dog that could detect lung cancer by smelling its owner’s breath.
This discovery set a new goal in my career: use my engineering knowledge to reproduce the physiology of the dog on my Arduino microprocessor and a couple of sensors; and translate the olfactory cortex of the brain into a snippet of Python code. Driven by this passion, I asked many physicians about any requirements of a hypothetical future standard for breast cancer screening. Since 2017, these have been remodeled and modified in pursuit of one ultimate goal: to change the way we, as a society, fight breast cancer. Now, every time I am asked to pitch my project, I simply need to communicate this idea- how the frustration of being a woman biomedical engineer in a scientific field is too often disregarded. The female population ended up materializing into a drive to change how things were done.
Each founder has their individual inspiration, the “rosebud,” that encouraged them to continue regardless of obstacles and challenges. What has been your driving force to moving forward with such a unique, innovative, and life-changing idea?
Judit: The American Cancer Society predicted that breast cancer will account for 30% of all cancers diagnosed in the US by 2020. However, the research devoted to it is not proportional to its incidence. In reality, the US National Institute of Health recognized that women are underrepresented in medical research. This trend can be observed in the field of oncology, specifically regarding prevention programs based on mammography. A Center for Disease Control study indicated that only 65% of women attended the program in the past two years, which could lead to ⅓ of breast cancers being detected too late, leading to women having a worse prognosis and lower chance of survival.
According to the Journal of Women’s Health, there are multiple reasons women skip mammography-based screenings: pain, difficulty missing work, and poor insurance coverage. Furthermore, according to the Catalan Health Department, a mere 6.45% of breast cancers diagnosed by mammography are actually cancer. In other words, the sensitivity of mammography is dramatically low, and exposure to it every two years increases the risk of breast cancer in general. There is a need for a non-invasive, inexpensive, sensitive, and at-home breast cancer screening. This is an urgent need for a novel, breast cancer screening solution that is more sensible and user-friendly.
Startup Grind is honored to work with so many driven innovators across multiple industries. Can you leave us with a final piece of advice you’d like to share with other startups from the membership?
Judit: One of the most important and impactful lessons I’ve learned in my career is: I will never pretend to achieve the degree of perfection and design of biology, but biology is what I will observe and study every time I want to design a solution. Having said that, my one piece of advice would be to know your focus, know what drives your creativity, and stick to it.
After hearing all that Judit has experienced and where BlueBox derived from, it’s no surprise that her pitch won the Pitch.Tech competition. This is a biomedical engineer that oozes innovation with every step she takes. Judit and her team are the brains behind an operation that is sure to take off, completely revolutionizing the breast cancer screening process. From a dog sniffing out lung cancer, all the way to pitch competitions, it’s very clear that the BlueBox team is going places.