How A Car-Hitting-Cyclist Accident Inspired A Startup
Sierra President

While getting her PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill and training for its collegiate triathlon team, Sloane Tilley was hit by a car while riding her bike.

While getting her PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill and training for its collegiate triathlon team, Sloane Tilley was hit by a car while riding her bike. Her experience prompted her recognize a need that she has sought to meet by launching Durham-based DIA.

As a result of her accident, Tilley suffered a broken back and broken leg, plus a diagnosis of PTSD. She said that through her recovery, though, she noticed that the integration of physical and mental health was disjointed, needing a solution.

“I really struggled to come back from that—both in my academic and athletic pursuits—because there just wasn’t a way to measure my holistic health,” she said.

Tilley (as CEO) and co-founders Julio Fredin and Fernando Webb launched DIA Sensor as a platform that non-invasively analyzes sweat and saliva in real time to measure biomarkers, especially the stress hormone cortisol. DIA Sensor will be presenting at CED’s Venture Connect summit on March 29-30 in RTP.

The idea for this startup came to them in 2021, Tilley said, but they didn’t officially incorporate until 2023.

Tilley said that they are a minority-founded team that aims to apply their vision of expanding sensory boundaries. DIA Sensor’s working prototype can measure the stress hormone cortisol within sweat in real time. They are also currently working to isolate other analytes—substances whose chemical composition will be measured—in sweat and saliva.

“Conventionally, humans have been limited by our five senses, but the technology exists and we’re building these sensors to really be able to expand those sensory boundaries,” she said. “Hopefully, the ultimate goal is to also build actuators that can respond to those sorts of expanded senses on the user’s behalf.”

A real-life example of an DIA Sensor product working would be if the cortisol sensor detected a panic attack in real time and then the actuator applied a grounding, cooling sensation to release the person from the panic attack, Tilley said.

Their sensors are rectangular and small, measuring about 1.5 by 5 cm, Tilley said. These sensors are designed to be worn 24/7 and be extremely comfortable and discrete, with minimal notice to the user or those around them. She said their initial prototype sits in an arm sleeve around the upper bicep, like a compression sleeve that an athlete might wear for tendinitis.

Looking to the future, Tilley said that right now they plan to go through the FDA approval process, with the goal of DIA Sensor becoming a prescribed product.

The startup just closed their pre-seed round of about half a million dollars, according to Tilley. With this money, she said they are prioritizing moving their prototype to a minimum viable product. To achieve this, she said they are working to further miniaturize the electronics and sensor. They are also doing validation testing.

Tilley said they are working with some academic partners who are comparing their electrochemical measurements with what is considered the gold standard for measuring analytes right now. This includes high-performance liquid chromatography and Raman spectroscopy.

Through putting such an emphasis on the components of their work, she said that the biggest challenge of the team has been adapting to explaining to people why the tech is important instead of what the tech itself is.

“We love the engineering side, we love the science, but we can get caught up in that jargon, because we’re a very technical team,” she said.

Although they are not raising a seed round right now, Tilley said they are planning to do so within the next 4-6 months, and they plan to use the Venture Connect experience as a way to introduce their tech to potential funding partners.

“We are really trying to cultivate early relationships right now with life science and technology funders that would be interested in our tech and potentially participating in our seed round,” she said.

Having been a part of several pitch competitions, Tilley said it is always nerve-wracking to get in front of people, but she feels lucky to have had this prior experience.

Published on
August 15, 2023