Last spring, when Ethan Alden-Danforth found a tick on his 2 1/2-year-old son Wyatt, he mailed the dead tick to be tested for Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases.
Then, he and his wife Abby Perlman had to wait 3-5 days to get the results.
“I got scared to death that he was going to get Lyme disease,” Alden-Danforth said.
The tick didn’t have a tick-borne illness, but it got him thinking.
Now, Alden-Danforth, of Shelburne, is one of eight start-up entrepreneurs awarded slots on LaunchVT’s Accelerator Cohort this year.
His start-up, Wylo Biosciences, will manufacture tick-test kits as easy and portable as pregnancy tests. The test will immediately tell if a tick is infected with one of four tick-borne diseases: Lyme disease, babesia, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis.
Fellow Shelburne resident and entrepreneur Meagan Downey was also awarded a slot.
For four years, Downey was co-chair of the Shelburne Community School’s annual catalogue sales fundraiser.
When organizers decided to develop a school catalog featuring local products, Downey, who described herself as “passionate about gift giving,” started looking for gift wrap.
Downey said, “I went on this search for a sustainable, ideally local, alternative to paper.”
Her search led to the Japanese tradition of furoshiki, a fabric gift wrap. She decided to start Shiki Wrap, a local business producing gift wrap made from recycled plastic fabric and based upon furoshiki.
Business expertise for beginning businesses
LaunchVT’s 10-week program is designed to help entrepreneurs develop the expertise to launch successful startup businesses.
This is the ninth year LaunchVT has awarded eight entrepreneurs the opportunity to work with business and marketing experts in developing strategies for starting new businesses, executive director John Antonucci said.
“They will leave the program with a comprehensive go-to-market strategy, dozens of new connections and thousands of dollars in professional services from our partners,” Antonucci said.
The program ends with a demonstration night. At this event the participants will have the opportunity to win $20,000 – $15,000 awarded by the audience and $5,000 awarded by a panel of investor judges.
Antonucci said participants who don’t win either of the money awards still have time with mentors who help launch their prospective businesses.
The money, he said, “is the least important part. What they’re getting is a full 10-week business acceleration program.”
Quick tick test
While Alden-Danforth and Perlman waited to hear whether the tick on their son’s neck was carrying a tick-borne disease, the doctor recommended that Wyatt be given doxycycline, a powerful antibiotic, Alden-Danforth recalled.
He said they were worried about giving such a young child an antibiotic. Instead, they chose not to give Wyatt doxycycline and spend several tense days waiting for the prognosis, which turned out negative.
Trying to find a quick, inexpensive test for tick-borne diseases is a good fit for Alden-Danforth, as he is an organic chemist working in consumer product development.
“This project is a natural kind of hybrid between my academic background and my professional career,” he said.
While Alden-Danforth is creating a company called Wylo Biosciences to manufacture the kits, a company in London, Ontario, is working on the test for the tick-borne illnesses.
“I want to develop this device that can test the ticks on the spot to tell whether they carry any of these four major pathogens,” Alden-Danforth said.
The company in London, Ontario, is going through “billions and billions” of strands of synthetic DNA to find ones that bind with bacteria that cause these four tick-borne illnesses.
Other researchers are trying to use antibodies to detect the presence of tick-borne diseases, but Alden-Danforth believes what he is trying to do, using DNA to detect the presence of the four diseases, is unique.
Using DNA to find the bacteria is a newer technology which was used to develop rapid COVID tests, he added.
When it’s developed, the test will not tell you if you have Lyme or the three other diseases. It will tell you if a tick is carrying the disease and if you are at risk.
“It is just a risk assessment to tell you whether the tick is dangerous, and you should monitor for symptoms” and contact a doctor, he said.
Because of the large number of ticks in Vermont this is a great place for developing a rapid, portable, affordable test for tick-borne disease.
Gift within a gift
Furoshiki gift wrapping is beautiful fabric for wrapping presents, a centuries-old practice on the wane in Japan, Downey said.
While the tradition has largely fallen out of popularity, Downey said in her search for sustainable gift wrapping she connected with a furoshiki study group in Japan trying to revive the practice.
When she began looking for a beautiful way to wrap presents, Downey knew she wanted a stretchy fabric and one that was eco-friendly.
She hit upon the idea of using fabric made from thread woven from recycled plastic. Downey’s start-up, Shiki Wrap — borrowed from the tradition of furoshiki — is intended to be saved, so the gift recipient will then have gift wrap they can repurpose for gift giving.
“The idea is that it is a gift within a gift,” Downey said.
When she organized a soft launch of Shiki Wrap last holiday season, Downey said she sold all of her self-funded inventory.
It might not have been a good idea to have sold all the Shiki Wrap she had in stock, but Downey said she wanted to see if people who were not her friends or family would buy it.
Downey ended up with sales in 21 states across the U.S.
This year with her new-found entrepreneurial skills from LaunchVT, she plans a bigger holiday launch.
Support for entrepreneurs
LaunchVT, which is part of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, takes the eight entrepreneurs through a process of discovering who their customers are, how to talk to those customers and how to build, price and sell their products. The mentors include legal, marketing, financial and accounting experts.
“It is very, very comprehensive,” Antonucci said. “If there is a need you have for your business, we connect you with somebody who can do it.”
If the entrepreneurs need capital for their startups, the program puts them in “a room full of investors,” he added.
The eight business startups chosen for LaunchVT’s accelerator program are selected based upon three factors – the viability of their product, whether there’s a large potential market for their product and if the product could create jobs in Vermont and grow the state’s tax base, he said.
“We select companies we think have the best shot to be successful, grow, create jobs and impact the local company,” Antonucci said.
Currently, 250 people are employed at companies LaunchVT has helped start in its eight years, generating more than $20 million in annual revenue.