It's been six years since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti--killing more than 160,000 people and crippling an already vulnerable economy. But that didn't stop a couple of recent college grads from discovering a business opportunity amid the rubble.

Specifically, recent University of Miami graduates Mike Battaglia and Sean Murphy were volunteering with Project Medishare at Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Their experiences helped them realize that a very important medical device--the electrocardiogram (EKG)--wasn't as affordable or portable as it needed to be.

Six years later, their startup, Triomi, is nearly ready to launch its compact, 12-Lead EKG, which is compatible with tablets and smartphones. They envision the product helping medical professionals in settings without access to traditional EKGs: developing nations, home-care situations, ambulances.

Entrepreneurs have staked out new ways to combat problems for ages. However, the story of Battaglia and Murphy is particularly compelling. It's an example of how inspiration can strike when you're in the right place at the right time--and you bring the right mix of skills and talent to the equation. The experience also shows that even amidst destruction--and in an unfamiliar setting--a new and potentially life-saving innovation can take root.

The idea first came to Battaglia and Murphy, both now 28, when one of the volunteers they were working with had chest pains. The hospital's EKG had been broken for weeks, and the institution couldn't afford another one. The staff considered flying the volunteer back to the U.S. for treatment. But that could risk possible death on the flight. To Battaglia and Murphy, it just didn't seem right that you had to put a patient on a helicopter to another country, for want of a working EKG. 

What happened next is what sometimes only happens under nothing-left-to-lose circumstances: Battaglia and Murphy came up with a MacGyver-type solution to fix the hospital's EKG, using guitar strings and duct tape. Battaglia happened to have the strings with him because he's also a jazz musician. His background was in audio engineering, whereas Murphy's was in biomedical engineering. So he knew how medical equipment worked. Together, says Battaglia, "we had the epiphany this was possible."

They also had experience working together under high-pressure, high-tech circumstances. Previously, for their senior-year project, they'd connected a synthesizer to an electromyogram (EMG), a machine that measures the electrical activity of muscles. "The idea was, we took the input from the EMG and transformed it into a MIDI signal, which you could then hook into a synthesizer," explains Battaglia. "So it was an EMG-based MIDI controller. We had it set up to play a consonant chord if you contract the muscle properly, and a dissonant chord if you don't." The idea was to use it to help stroke patients recover, since consonance and dissonance are a non-invasive, universal way to communicate "yes" and "no."

After they MacGyver'd the EKG in Haiti so it was working, they learned that the patient had severe food poisoning, not the heart attack they feared. That night, they chatted with a doctor working in the ER about the situation. The doctor happened to be none other than Sonny Kohli, an entrepreneurial thinker who has since co-founded several startups, based on his experiences in Haiti, including Cloud DX, a finalist for the $10-million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, a competition for healthcare tech startups. Kohli saw the potential in Battaglia and Murphy's idea for a mobile EKG. "We formed [the] company on the spot down there. He became our first investor," says Battaglia. He won't say how much Kohli has invested. 

While their experience in Haiti gave the co-founders the germ of their idea and their first investor, they didn't dive right into creating the Triomi EKG. They worked on it bit by bit for the next four years--intentionally. They wanted to perfect the product first--on their own time and their own dime--before launching a full-fledged business. They also wanted to wait for current technology to catch up with their idea. Triomi would've been early, had it launched an EKG compatiable with apps and tablets in 2010 or 2011. 

In the summer of 2014, both product and the tech environment were ready. They did their market research on prospective customers and sales channels. They learned what their ideal price point would have to be to dent a market which already had plenty of mobile EKG alternatives.

By the spring of 2015, the founders were gaining traction: They were accepted into the 2015 Sprint Accelerator powered by Techstars, receiving $120,000 in funding as a result. Today, their Techstar mentors are helping them through all of the remaining hurdles to their product launch. The steps include submitting their 510(k) for FDA approval; submitting other documents for international approvals; and continuing to set up (and learn from) pilot programs testing the finished product in real-world settings. 

Having already come this far, Battaglia and Murphy hope to start selling products by the middle of 2016. They're yet another example of a startup team which has already run a figurative marathon, only to reach the start of a brand new race. 

Published on: Jan 12, 2016