Montana State University

MSU alum wins entrepreneurship competition with low-cost lung cancer screening tool

June 21, 2016 -- By Marshall Swearingen for the MSU News Service

MSU alumnus Joseph Azzarelli was part of a team to win a prestigious business plan competition at MIT with a noninvasive, low-cost lung cancer screening technology. Azzarelli played a key role in developing the technology. Allegra Boverman photo.

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BOZEMAN - Montana State University alumnus Joseph Azzarelli has won a prestigious business plan competition with a noninvasive, low-cost lung cancer screening technology that he played a key role in developing.

Azzarelli, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from MSU in 2010, shared the $100,000 grand prize at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 27th annual Entrepreneurship Competition with his teammates, three Harvard University students. The "$100K," as the widely recognized competition is known, was held in May, while Azzarelli was completing his doctorate in chemistry at MIT.

"It's a very intense competition," said Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor in the MIT Department of Chemistry. Azzarelli co-invented the winning technology, called the CARD, as a member of Swager's lab.

"I was very happy and proud," added Swager. "Joe is extremely creative in terms of how he thinks about the world and opportunities."

The CARD is a postage stamp-sized sensor capable of detecting gases that indicate the presence of lung cancer. Similar to a breathalyzer, the lung cancer-specific Chemically Actuated Resonant Device (CARD) measures the quantity of those gases when a patient blows on it.

Azzarelli took a leading role in developing a low-cost interface that allows the detection results to be easily read by a smart phone or other mobile device.

"Ease of access to the technology was really the motivating factor," he said.

Azzarelli and the team won over the $100K's panel of judges, which consisted of high-level entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, by describing how single-use CARD devices could be manufactured for less than $1 each and produce results 10 times more accurate than CT scanning, an expensive process currently used for lung cancer screening. Lung cancer is the leading cancer worldwide, causing an estimated 1.6 million deaths annually.

The $100K prize is a capstone for the team, which won or placed as finalists in 10 other business plan competitions this year.

While at MSU, Azzarelli received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a prestigious national award established by Congress in 1986 to support outstanding students in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. He also developed lasting mentorships with Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of MSU's Honors College, and others, he said, and established a foundational education that has helped him consider the many aspects of developing technology through scientific learning.

"The ability to think critically and holistically about challenges really stems from the form of education that I received at MSU," he said. "While technology can transform how we approach problems, I learned from interactions with my early mentors that ultimately it's only one piece of the solution. When you get to the bottom of it, you really want to be answering the question: 'Will this proposed solution, overall, bring value to society?' It seems there is never a definitive answer to that question. But it’s a key motivating premise on which to iterate and evolve a concept that, hopefully, can ultimately be put into practice.

"Thinking about how to commercialize technologies in a way that is meaningful, that benefits humanity — that has proven extremely fulfilling for me. I am thankful for the many mentors and friends who have helped, and continue to help, along the way," he added.

Contact: Mary Cloninger, (406) 994-3051 or mcloninger@chemistry.montana.edu