By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
They included a topical cream to detect skin cancer, a therapeutic temperature management system to lower and raise the body’s temperature and a protein sequencing technology to easily diagnose cancer and other diseases.
The goal of the StARTup Studio is to identify professor-based startups and help them find funding and bring their products to market, said Bob Metcalfe, professor of Innovation and director of the Innovation Center at UT Austin. The monthly events generally feature three startups with about 50 invited guests. The UT Austin Office of Technology Commercialization, the Austin Chamber of Commerce and WeWork Austin sponsor the events.
“We have identified a gap between research and startups so we are looking for ways to fund people across that gap we’re calling them innovation grants,” Metcalfe said.
Louise Epstein, managing director of the Innovation Center and Metcalfe, match professor-led startups at UT Austin with people who would like to support their work with donations. They will be making some Innovation grants in a month or so, Metcalfe said.
First to pitch, Professor Ken Diller, who has spent 43 years in the UT Biomedical engineering department, founded Mercury Biomed in March of 2015. The company has two thermoregulatory products: SmartCool and WarmSmart.
“We are sitting right on a huge medical market and we think we have really, really unique innovative IP technology that can be disruptive,” Diller said. “We think it’s way more effective than anything that exists right now. We think it is very different from what exists.”
WarmSmart is used to keep the body warm when a patient is under anesthesia during surgery, Diller said. And SmartCool is used to keep the body cool.
During surgery, people tend to get quite cool with very negative consequences if they are not warmed up, Diller said. In the U.S., there are 50 million surgeries a year and the consequences of not being warm are serious, he said. They can lead to infections, bleeding and shivering, he said. The market right now for warming devices is a $1.6 billion market, Diller said.
On the other side, cooling patients is needed in situations where there is low blood flow to the brain such as in strokes and traumatic brain injuries, Diller said. There are 5 million events per year creating a $665 million market.
“The way we do this both for cooling and warming is we recruit the way the body works naturally,” Diller said.
The body has built in high efficiency heat exchangers to stay alive, Diller said. The primary way that happens is the circulation of blood from our core out to the extremities. The heat exchangers are in the palms of our hands and soles of our feet among other areas, he said. The company heats the neck to increase high performance blood flow. Diller came up with the idea after taking a hot shower in the wintertime. He noticed that the hot water on his neck made his palms bright red and warm.
Mercury Biomed’s patent-pending system contains mittens and booties and a device to regulate heat or cooling for the body.
“We have combined a very sophisticated physiology with super simple and safe devices and that’s our hallmark,” Diller said.
Mercury Biomed has created the device prototypes and they are in clinical trials right now. The company has raised $300,000 in seed stage funding is looking to raise a Series A fund in the $3 million to $4 million range, Diller said.
The next presenter, Anna H. Chen, co-founded Proteanseq.
“What genomics does for DNA, we do for proteins,” Chen said. “Everything in your body is done by proteins, diseases, drugs, everything. While DNA is the blueprint for your body, proteins are the actual physical entities that are doing all the work think of them like the brick and mortar, the paint and the plumbing in your house.”
To build a new diagnostic, it’s necessary to know what the proteins are doing, Chen said. Current technology detects only about 25 percent of the body’s proteins. But with Proteanseq’s technology, the company can detect all of the proteins with one blood drop, she said.
Proteanseq sequences each protein – it breaks them down into peptides and further breaks them down into amino acids. It labels each amino acid. It then uses a proprietary database to match the proteins to find patterns to detect diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.
The diagnostics market is projected to be worth $71.6 billion in 2019 with $5 billion in the protein diagnostics industry.
Proteanseq is pursuing Small Business Innovation Research grants to take the product from the research lab to the marketplace, Chen said.
During the question and answer session, someone asked Chen about the comparison of Proteanseq to Theranos, a venture-backed diagnostics company in Silicon Valley. Chen said Theranos’ technology is based on DNA whereas Proteanseq’s technology is based on proteins. The highly-stealth Theranos has been in the hot seat lately with many news stories published about it because it uses proprietary technology with little oversight from the scientific community to do diagnostic tests with just a few drops of blood. Some question whether its technology is effective.
But Chen said Proteanseq’s proprietary technology is effective and vetted by the scientific community.
The last presenter, Dorothy Silbaugh, a graduate student at UT, gave an overview of her early-stage company, Spot on Nano. The company uses silicon nanoparticles that are 500,000 times smaller than a grain of sand to detect cancer. The company’s nanoparticles can be attached with specific tags to them that will bond with cell receptors and aggregate on cells that have a specific characteristic.
Silbaugh gave a specific application of the technology to create a cream that can detect malignant skin cancer cells versus benign cells. The cream can help dermatologists detect skin cancer without doing a biopsy. An estimated 80 percent of all biopsies turn out to be benign, Silbaugh said.
Spot on Nano’s technology eliminates unnecessary biopsies and reduces repeat doctor visits, Silbaugh said. The company plans to pursue some research grants to prove out its technology, she said.