2015 Sparking Innovation

Hooked on Entrepreneurship


Joe McDonald has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. In high school, he tried to start your typical teenage businesses — lawn mowing service, disc jockey, whatever other “wacky ideas” came to him.

But it wasn’t until he started at Washington University that he realized he was actually pretty good at making things happen on the business front.

“I came in knowing that I liked science and math. That was really my only starting point,” recalled McDonald, who will graduate in May with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and an MBA. He was able to earn both degrees concurrently through the Olin Business School’s “3+2 Program,” a highly selective program that allows students to complete undergraduate and MBA studies in five years.

“At first I didn’t look at WashU really as an entrepreneurial hub,” he said. “Then around junior year, I realized that I wanted to start bringing together the business and the engineering aspects, and I found that there were so many resources here for students. The university transformed me in a lot of ways.”

Two opportunities really sparked McDonald’s interest in being an entrepreneur — an internship in business development with a St. Louis company the summer of his junior year and his involvement in IDEA Labs, a bioengineering design and entrepreneurship incubator based at the School of Medicine.

“IDEA Labs was kind of my ‘gateway drug’ for getting involved with entrepreneurship,” McDonald joked, “because it introduced me to a lot of start-ups and gave me the confidence to go out and say, ‘I can do this.’ I love getting hands-on experience, and I guess that’s how it started.”

Once he was hooked, there was no turning back. His IDEA Labs teams fared well in top competitions, including being named an Olin Cup finalist in 2014 and taking the top prize in the inaugural IDEA Labs competition the same year.

“IDEA Labs was my first exposure to putting together business plans. It helped cement the idea of why I wanted to come to the MBA program — this was something I was passionate about and wanted to learn more about,” he explained.

McDonald also cultivated another passion while at WashU — his love of running. He trained with the university’s Triathlon Club (which he calls his “fun escape group”) and completed a full Ironman in the summer of 2013. He got the chance to combine his two favorite pursuits when he led the winning team in the inaugural HealthBio Startup Weekend, held in St. Louis in February. The team earned first place honors for pitching an app called “Watt Runner,” which measures a runner’s power output, calculates intensity while running up hills, and provides real-time feedback.

“That was a fun experience,” he said of the competition. “I made a good pitch to make sure I got good developers and technical experts on the team, and they were able to move so quickly, over the course of just 54 hours.”

McDonald has since stepped into an advisory role with “Watt Runner” so he can focus more squarely on his latest project — a digital health start-up called Epharmix, which aims to develop a series of clinically validated text- and phone-based automated communication tools that can be prescribed by physicians to help patients manage chronic diseases.

Following graduation, McDonald plans to venture slightly outside of the start-up scene to a position with a health care management consulting firm in San Francisco. But he plans to keep in touch. Not only will he be staying on as an advisor for IDEA Labs, but he also has already signed on to advise a biomedical engineering faculty member’s start-up.

“WashU has been good to me,” he said, “so I want to stay connected as much as possible.”

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