Mesa startup Desert Valley Tech awarded NSF SBIR grant for mobile blood banking system

SBIR grant

Mesa-based Desert Valley Tech was awarded a competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to fund research and development of a smart container for use in cold blood storage and transport in extreme environments.

The company, founded in 2018, began after a chance meeting between co-founders Travis Witzke and Burt Skiba. The two were meeting about a trademark for one of Witzke’s other brands, when Skiba shared an idea for a humidor with Witzke. 

Witzke responded that they could put something like blood in there and charge 10 times more for the container — what he now describes as “a very good off the cuff remark.”

SBIR grant

Witzke has a very personal connection with the mission of Desert Valley Tech. He was a Sergeant in the Army from 2001 to 2007, and completed a couple tours in Iraq. On his second tour, Witzke was the only medical professional on site, even though he only had a two-week medical training.

“During an attack, one guy ended up taking a round [and] got shot in the face,” Witzke said in an interview with AZ Tech Beat. “I cared for him the best I could, and stabilized his airway and popped some saline solution into his arm, so that we could try and prevent blood loss. Unfortunately, he ended up dying.”

“What we discovered is that, in my scenario in Iraq in 2006, if I had a full blood transfusion instead of saline, the guy that I worked on would have had a much better opportunity to live than what we had available to us at the time, or even still,” Witzke continued.

After his meeting with Skiba two and half years ago, they began looking at what was currently on the market. There wasn’t a great solution to the problem yet, so the pair came up with a user-friendly model.

They’ve worked through prototypes of the model for a few years. The military hadn’t picked up their model for a grant, so they came up with another way to brand it.

“What if we model it for humanitarian and disaster medicine, rather than military medicine?” Witzke said. “Even Doctors Without Borders is performing combat medicine, even though they’re not a military force.”

This landed Desert Valley Tech with the NSF SBIR grant, which validated the product and brought up questions of development and implementation.

“We started thinking that blood banking in general is a very hospital-based archaic system. How can we incorporate our technology, with cold chain transparency, to start moving that blood bank?,” Witzke said. “[We could] essentially link a bunch of our units together in an easy to break apart system, so that you can just throw a blood bank out of a very large aircraft, and air drop it into a natural disaster zone or combat scenario, whatever the case is.”

“Or you can just drive it in on the truck and start breaking off units and sending them all over a specific area,” Witzke continued. “Now you have a blood bank that you can move around the city.”

The grant award will go to the modularity of a blood banking system and conceptualizing trauma medicine with a mobile blood bank.

Desert Valley Tech is still 12 to 18 months from having a product ready for market, but fully expect to change how traumatic injuries are treated in the field, whether in a combat zone, natural disaster area, or refugee camp.

“For me, it’s the opportunity to give back, because when you’re a soldier, you have a negative impact on the country when you invade it,” Witzke said. “I’d like to be a positive change in those areas where they’re afflicted most.”