Engage student startup with prototype of their product, SafeShot
Engage student startup with prototype of their product, SafeShot

For two students who did not think much of entrepreneurship a year ago, Emily Willard and Katherine Brandenstein have been making quite a splash in Washington’s biotech startup space.

Their company – Engage – started as a senior design class assignment and evolved into a full time job that they will pursue after graduation.

“We are both more researchers at heart, and had never thought about selling a technology or starting a business,” Willard said. “But if we were going to do it, we wanted our product to mean something.”

And indeed it does – their product, SafeShot, is a cost-effective, easy-to-use medicine vial cap that sterilizes needles so they can be reused without contamination. One of the leading causes of death in developing countries is disease spread by contaminated needles. As bioengineers, conducting the science behind the product felt natural, but creating a business plan and pitch were entirely different hurdles. Like another WSU scientist-turned-entrepreneur did a few years before them, Brandenstein and Willard taught themselves everything they could about business in the past year.

“Emily and Katherine are amazing at taking initiative,” said Marie Mayes, co-professor of the class that launched Engage. “They are really great at finding out what they don’t know, and then researching it like they would to solve an engineering problem.”

Engage student team with advisor Marie Mayes after winning WSU Business Plan Competition
Engage student team with advisor Marie Mayes after winning WSU Business Plan Competition


Mayes, who is also director of WSU’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies (CES), continued to advise them along the way, and keep them connected to resources offered through the center and other WSU groups.

“Entities across campus openly collaborated to support Engage,” Mayes said. “It is a strong example of the success that comes from working across disciplines and units.”

Today we want to highlight the programs and financial support that make that possible:


Engineering and Entrepreneurship Capstone Class
Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture and Carson College of Business

The class that launched Engage combines bioengineering and entrepreneurship, and is a requirement for bioengineers who will be entering a professional world mostly comprised of small companies and startup environments. The class is a mix of bioengineering students, fellows from the Harold Frank Entrepreneurship Institute, Boeing Scholars and students from any discipline who are interested in the class.

“The class is radically interdisciplinary,” said Howard Davis, an engineering professor who co-leads the class, and director of the Frank Institute. “It is more than mechanical engineers working with electrical engineers – it is engineers of different flavors working with communication, business and science students.”

The Frank Innovation Zone is a recent addition to the Voiland College which offers students across disciplines a collaborative space and tools to translate their ideas into designs, build class projects or support club activities. Willard and Brandenstein were able to make a prototype of their product at the FIZ, which helped demonstrate the potential impact at business competitions.

WSU Center for Entrepreneurial Studies (CES)
Carson College of Business

While based in the Carson College of Business, CES is interested in advancing the entrepreneurial activities of students from across disciplines. Through the center, Willard and Brandenstein received the Don and Mary Ann Parachini Scholarship for travel to competitions and filing their patent.

“Thanks to the travel funds, the students could attend pre-competition pitch training for the Seattle events,” Mayes said.

In addition to financial support, CES’ and Mayes’ network of mentors and professionals provides high quality advising for the students. Willard and Brandenstein received pro-bono help to form their company through Lee & Hayes – a law firm founded by WSU Voiland College alumni. One of the co-founders, Lewis Lee, also provides support to the center by serving on the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board. In addition to the legal help, Willard and Brandenstein learned more about the manufacturing process through a connection to a Spokane manufacturer.


Making Statewide Connections

Business Plan Competitions and Office of Commercialization

Through the WSU Business Plan Competition, Willard and Brandenstein made connections to PATH and the Gates Foundation, and through the UW competitions learned about the UW accelerator and incubator space. The WSU Office of Commercialization made introductions to contacts at Life Science Washington, who are now encouraging the team to apply to the WIN mentoring program.

Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors (EFA)

Recently launched, the EFA program is another source of mentoring and connections for the students. The group will be starting a series on Small Business Innovation Research funding that will benefit both faculty and student entrepreneurs. As experienced entrepreneurs, the ambassadors also provide valuable advising and connections to their networks.


“Emily and Katy have taken advantage of every resource,” Mayes said. “They have learned to be extroverted when they need to be. They’ve learned to problem-solve; they have great perseverance.”

The summer shows no sign of slowing down for this small company. UW accelerator and SBIR grant applications are due, and Brandenstein and Willard are looking forward to starting lab work again to continue testing their product. Thanks to a strong network of collaborators, two passionate bioengineers are taking on a challenge they couldn’t have imagined and making an impact along the way.

A special thanks to Lee & Hayes, Don and Mary Ann Parachini, the Raintree Foundation, and The Herbert B Jones Foundation for your support of these entrepreneurial activities. If any others are interested in supporting these efforts, please reach out to the following based on your interests:

Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture
Devon Anderson

Carson College of Business
Jeff Pilcher