Newormics, Cogitai and Opticlean Pitch at UT Austin’s Startup Studio

Professor of Mechanical Engineering Adela Ben-Yakar pitched her startup, Newormics, a biotech company at the Startup Studio.

By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Pharmaceutical researchers have file cabinets filled with information on potential drugs that have not yet been thoroughly tested.

A cure for Parkinson’s disease, ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Alzheimer’s disease, may be in one of those files.

Those untested drug compounds linger because the process from drug discovery to the marketplace is a long and onerous one that can take up to 15 years for a drug to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Initially, the drugs go through an expensive vetting process which includes laboratory and animal tests to check for toxicity and how well they work before the drugs gets to human trials.

The high cost of those initial laboratory tests is the problem Professor of Mechanical Engineering Adela Ben-Yakar is tackling with her startup, Newormics, a biotech company that offers precision drug discovery and toxicity analysis using small animal models such as roundworms.

The roundworms are contained in a large-scale chip. With the technology, drug researchers can screen potential drugs faster and cheaper.

Newormics was one of three professor-led startups to demonstrate its technology during the monthly Startup Studio hosted by Bob Metcalfe, the director of the Innovation Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Metcalfe also announced $200,000 in gifts for Innovation Grants that will go to professors working to commercialize their technology.

The Newormics screening platform includes the microfluidic chip, storage device, camera and microscope. It has raised $5.5 million to date, primarily through grant research funding.

Computer Science Professor Peter Stone is president and COO of Cogitai, an artificial intelligence startup.

Next up, Computer Science Professor Peter Stone presented Cogitai, an artificial intelligence software company.

The startup, founded in 2015, is developing and commercializing core artificial intelligence technologies that learn continually from their experience. The company received a strategic investment from Sony Corp. earlier this year.

In addition to Stone, Cogitai’s founding team members include Mark Ring, CEO, Satinder Singh Baveja, a professor at the University of Michigan and Chief Technology Officer. Stone is the company’s president and Chief Operating Officer. Cogitai has 15 employees.

DeepMind, which was bought by Google in 2014, is also in this space, Stone said. There are small number of other companies that are trying to do this, Stone said.

Cogitai is going beyond reinforced learning in the artificial intelligence industry and going to a continually learning model, Stone said.
People build up skills by learning through experience, Stone said.

“The way to get artificial intelligence is not to program it in but to enable the computer or the robot to experiment to experience actions and learn about the effects,” Stone said.

“We believe this is the next wave of artificial intelligence,” Stone said.

The goal is to create machines that understand the world like humans do, he said.

The company is building a platform to capture general knowledge and skills from experience and create a global database, Stone said. The company’s initial markets are household robots, autonomous vehicles and Internet of Things applications. It has had conversations with people in healthcare and personal fitness industries to commercialize the technology, Stone said.

“This is not a small ambition,” Stone said.

Cogitai is aiming to become the world leader in knowledge about actions that can then be transferred to robots and machines, Stone said.

UT Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Chris Rylander and Dr. John Uecker associate professor of surgery and perioperative care at the Dell Medical School, presented Opticlean.

Lastly, Chris Rylander, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering, presented Opticlean, a laparoscopic cleaner along with Dr. John Uecker associate professor of surgery and perioperative care at the Dell Medical School.

Dr. Uecker explained the problem surgeons encounter when doing laparoscopic surgery, the scope can become obstructed with blood or tissue and a surgeon generally must remove the instrument and clean it and then re-insert it into a patient. These can happen several times during a procedure. The problem takes time and can lead to complications. Opticlean’s laparoscopic cleaner solves the problem inside the patient. A claw like device scrapes across the lens and removes debris while the instrument is being used in surgery. Other devices have been created that attempt to address the problem, but none of them have been effective, Uecker said.

The Opticlean device, created by graduate students in the Medical Device Laboratory at UT Austin, saves surgeons time and money, Rylander said. One device fits multiple scopes, he said. It is also disposable. They have received a provisional patent on the device.

The researchers may license its technology to existing medical device makers or it may manufacture the device itself, Rylander said. It is classified as a type one medical device which is the easiest one to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, Rylander said. They would market the device in the areas of urology, gynecology and gastrointestinal tract, he said.

Surgeons perform three million laparoscopic surgeries a year. They incur an estimated $1.5 billion in economic loss from the scopes becoming impaired and needing to be cleaned, according to Opticlean.

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