Millions of adults and thousands of children have been diagnosed with epilepsy, according to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control. Despite these high numbers, the brain disorder can be difficult to diagnose, and it is estimated that 40 percent of those with epilepsy have not been properly diagnosed.

Enter Robert Yao and Neel Mehta, two Arizona State University students who have created an app called EpiFinder that hopes to accurately diagnose epilepsy at the first point of contact.

Epilepsy is a type of brain disorder that can cause emotional swings, muscle spasms and seizures. There are many different types of epilepsy that range from benign to life-threatening, and not every person has the same type of epilepsy and not every seizure is the same.

EpiFinder started in 2014 while Yao and Mehta were both on the student advisory committee at ASU. The two had cubicles across from each other and one day Yao struck up a conversation with Mehta about their projects. 

Mehta took an interest in Yao’s work with neurology and told him about Seed Spot, a social incubator that would provide office space and business mentorships to startups that were impacting their community in an impactful way.

Founders of EpiFinder: Neel Mehta, right, and Robert Yao, left. (Photo courtesy of EpiFinder)
Founders of EpiFinder: Neel Mehta, right, and Robert Yao, left. (Photo courtesy of EpiFinder)

Mehta told Yao that if he could provide his research paper, he could turn it into a business plan, but the deadline to enter an application for Seed Spot’s venture program was in two days.

Yao gave the research proposal to Mehta that night and the very next day Mehta had completed the business plan and after going over it with Yao, he submitted the application and business plan to Seed Spot.

Seed Spot chose EpiFinder for their venture program and gave them office space and business mentorship for a semester. After six months EpiFinder applied to ASU’s Edson program.

The Edson program started at ASU in 2005 and has helped more than 300 student teams get their startup off the ground. Each year the program receives over 400 applications and only the top 20 applications are chosen for the program. Those selected are given office space, mentorship and seed funding.

EpiFinder was one of the 20 selected  in 2014 and received office space at ASU SkySong and received over $20,000 in grant funding.

This year EpiFinder was awarded the Flinn Foundation Bioscience Entrepreneurship grant that consisted of $30,000 in grant funding from the Flinn foundation, a Phoenix-based grant making organization.

Once the funding was received Mehta and Yao got started on building their product: an app for iPads and iPhones that doctors could use to help accurately diagnose epilepsy.

“It’s very challenging, even for the experts, to make the diagnosis because it’s so complicated and so complex that they really don’t have guidelines as to how to come up with a diagnosis,” said Yao.

To build this, the team that would help doctors tackle the hardest of epilepsy diagnosis, EpiFinder would need skilled and talented people to help bring this app to life. Every researcher, app developer and team member at EpiFinder is an ASU student receiving course credit as an intern.

“When we recruit someone, we not only look at their resumes or what they have done before but how much they are passionate about something because as a startup, we want creative, passionate people to join our team so that they can go the extra mile,” said Mehta.

Passion what got Yao started in biomedical informatics. Yao started medical school knowing that he would never trade in his computer for a clipboard, pen and paper. He took detailed notes, created charts and graphs of his lessons on his computer and those notes would eventually lead to his own diagnosis of an illness that plagued him throughout medical school.

One day after completing rounds, Yao was in a meeting going over his notes when he was tapped on the shoulder by the hospital director of informatics. The director was impressed by Yao’s note-taking system and told Yao that he should either stay with the hospital or get his Ph.D. in informatics. Yao chose to get his Ph.D. and after being accepted into many different schools, he decided to attend ASU.

After hitting some roadblocks with his research, Yao was introduced to the director of neurology at the phoenix children’s hospital. Yao shadowed the director for a year and then presented his work as a research proposal. The proposal was approved and Yao became a Ph.D. candidate.

The app for iPad and iPhone took six months to create and is currently being pilot tested in hospitals in Arizona. Interns are split into teams to gather research information and help develop the app and run the startup. The app uses information from research papers, usually taken from the International League Against Epilepsy.

Currently the app is only available in a beta version that requires the user to go through a checklist type of system consisting of symptoms that are associated with different forms of epilepsy. Once the information has been gathered, the app will give the user the most likely diagnosis of epilepsy. If the user is certain that the diagnosis is correct, they can move on and start treatment, if they are not so sure, they can tap on each diagnosis and ask the patient more questions to help narrow the diagnosis down to the correct one.

“Currently the focus is epilepsy. We want to make sure that the experts love it and it trickles down the healthcare system to nurse practitioners and primary care providers,” said Mehta. “However our objective is to expand to other conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS.”

Mehta states that now is the best time for startups such as EpiFinder. Before there weren’t many resources for startups but within the last couple of years the focus has switched. Arizona has become more friendly for startups as the community creating more events where business owners can meet and discuss ways to help each other out.

Arizona has opened many doors for EpiFinder. Incubators such as the ASU Edson program are unique to the state and being able to retain ASU students and turn them into highly trained employees has helped EpiFinder greatly.

Since its inception, EpiFinder has won over ten awards, including: theBIGi challenge award, Edson Student Entrepreneurship award and The Student Entrepreneur Award at W. P. Carey School of Business.

While there are many apps on the market for medical terms and looking up medications, EpiFinder strives to properly diagnose patients on the first point of contact.

“In terms of diagnosis of Epilepsy, there is no other company that does that,” said Yao.