What does a winning business idea look like these days?
It’s an inexpensive adhesive patch no bigger than a quarter that monitors your sweat and sends an alert to your phone if it senses the onset of a medical condition, such as a diabetic complication.
It’s a new family of antibiotic and agricultural products that can kill drug-resistant germs and stop fungal diseases that ravage food crops, but with no toxicity to human cells.
And it’s a low-cost blood test that can detect the first stages of pancreatic and ovarian cancer, and potentially many others, allowing early treatment of these devastating killers.
All three of these futuristic-sounding biomedical ventures took a key step closer to becoming commercial realities this month, winning top honors at the "It was a patent that came out of UMass, and they are looking for a real world commercial application to leverage that in the marketplace.” final of the 2017-18 Innovation Challenge, the annual cross-campus entrepreneurship competition run by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at the Isenberg School of Management. The student-led teams behind the start-ups—eBiologics, Phytos Therapeutics, and Kinase, Inc.—were awarded seed money of $30,000, $20,000, and $15,000, respectively, by a seven-judge panel of area business leaders.
Seven student teams had advanced through the semifinal round in February to get to the final, a fast-paced, Shark Tank-like event held on April 5th amid cocktails and appetizers in the Campus Center’s 10th floor Amherst Room. Each team had three minutes to make its pitch, followed by a five-minute period for the judges’ questions. The $65,000 in prize money—made possible via gifts by the program’s philanthropic partners and sponsors—could be distributed any way the judges saw fit.
In the end, two factors proved decisive to the judges in awarding the $30,000 prize to eBiologics, whose health-monitoring patch uses diagnostic protein nanowires, a sensing technology discovered and developed at UMass. “First, the impact was enormous,” noted judge Tom Heiser, a former technology CEO and now an executive coach (for more on the panel, see below). “If they can do this, that’s tremendous. And number two, it was a patent that came out of UMass, and they are looking for a real world commercial application to leverage that in the marketplace.” It didn’t hurt that presenter Alexander Smith, a biomedical PhD student, made such a strong impression. “He did a great job,” Heiser added.
“I was definitely prepared,” Smith said afterward, noting in particular the support and mentorship he received from Isenberg’s MBA fellows in conjunction with UMass’ Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS). “I didn’t want to mess up. I just wanted to recreate my practice, and I did.”
Smith noted that while he is the business-oriented “hustler” on the eBiologics team, the ground-breaking science is the work of an impressive roster of experts: UMass microbiologist Derek Lovley, an authority on nanowire technology; Peter Reinhart, director of IALS; and Jun Yao, specialist in nanowire-based biosensors and medical devices.
The eBiologics skin patch harnesses the unusual properties of protein nanowires— microscopic filaments extruded by bacteria—whose ability to conduct electricity varies in response to biomarkers in the sweat. A small power supply and wireless transmitter allow the patch to communicate with a phone app and send an alert if it detects changes in body chemistry. With the seed money from the Challenge, and other investments, the team plans to develop a prototype that can track biomarkers associated with diabetic ketoacidosis, a common and potentially expensive complication of Type 1 diabetes. The group hopes to eventually create sensors for other common diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
“Phyto X will penetrate these infections within seconds and kill these germs, and we have seen no accumulated resistance over time.”Second-place winner Phytos Therapeutics was represented by co-founder and chemistry doctoral candidate Ryan Landis, who together with UMass chemistry professor Vincent Rotello, has developed a family of products that use plant-derived phytochemicals—natural extracts modified through nanotechnology—to combat common pernicious pathogens, such as drug-resistant bacteria and crop-destroying fungi.
“Our gold-standard products cannot effectively treat these anymore,” Landis told the judges. “That’s where we come in. During my PhD (work) I have developed and patented a few nanotechnology platforms, and by combining them with powerful plant extracts, I created Phyto-X, a phytochemical-infused nano-emulsion made from natural food grade materials that is easily applied through a water-based spray application.” In contrast to traditional antibiotics and fungicides, which are becoming increasingly ineffective as their target organisms develop resistance, Phytos’ products attack germs through membrane disruption, Landis explained. “Phyto X will penetrate these infections within seconds and kill these germs, and we have seen no accumulated resistance over time.”
The Phytos team sees opportunities for licensing their products in the biomedical market, specifically for fighting multi-drug resistant bacteria, and in agriculture, where the products hold promise as combination insecticide/fungicides, pest deterrents, and feed additives. Their first field trials will focus on treating diseases in turf grass and apples.
With the $20,000 in seed money, Landis says he plans to secure new laboratory space. “From there, I can purchase the equipment to do my formulations and do preliminary tests, and have that as our breeding ground, so we can reach out to companies and get licenses. That’s the strategy.”
The third seed-money winner was Kinase, Inc., a cancer-detection venture represented by mechanical engineering PhD student Nariman Banaei and Amir Jazayeri, a Hofstra University MBA candidate. The team also includes UMass mechanical engineering professors Byung Kim and Yubing Sun.
“Every ten minutes one person dies in the United States because of pancreatic cancer,” Banaei told the judges. “Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all types of cancer. The main reason is that pancreatic cancer doesn’t have any early symptoms. Existing diagnosis methods are inaccurate and cumbersome, so patients are usually diagnosed when it is too late for effective therapy. We are a game changer here.”
Unlike the expensive CT scans, ultrasounds, or MRIs currently used to detect tumors, Kinase’s biomarker-based test requires only a blood sample. The group is now able to detect pancreatic and ovarian cancer at their early stages, Jazayeri said, but Kinase plans to extend the technique to test for six other types. By using machine learning to build their sample size, the team notes that its tests will become even more accurate as more results come in.
The team’s findings were recently published in the Journal of Nanotechnology, and selected as a highlighted article of 2017. “There is no company in the market right now that can detect pancreatic cancer with this level of specificity and sensitivity,” Jazayeri noted. The estimated cost of this potentially life-saving test: $200.