Axela Biosensors and the University of Toronto last week announced a partnership to jointly commercialize UT-developed laser-based molecular detection technology as clinical point-of-care devices for diagnosing a variety of diseases.
According to Axela, the collaboration differs significantly from typical public-private commercialization partnerships in the US in that the University of Toronto will pay Axela for commercialization expertise and services while Axela will pay UT for basic research that will be incorporated into future Axela products.
Specifically, Toronto-based Axela will partner with UT’s “BioOptics: Transformative Technologies for Life Sciences” project, which was recently awarded a CAN$7.8 million ($7.4 million) grant through the research excellence program of Canada’s Ontario Research Fund.
According to its website, the ORF promotes “scientific excellence by supporting research that can be developed into innovative goods and services that will boost Ontario’s economy.” The fund recently awarded CAN$115 million to 26 projects at universities, institutes, and hospitals in Ontario. Institutes in the greater Toronto area, including the UT BioOptics project, received about CAN$44 million in grants.
The lead researchers on the UT BioOptics project, Dwayne Miller and Cynthia Goh, are developing tools that use laser and other photonic and nanotechnologies to create maps of the chemical composition of a cell and detect trace amounts of specific proteins and other biological molecules to diagnose disease, according to the project’s abstract.
The partnership between Axela and UT is a renewal of a partnership established between the entities in 2003 in which Axela commercialized laser diffraction technology developed by Goh. That technology is the basis of Axela’s flagship platform, the dotLab system, which it launched late last year.
Axela gained rights to the intellectual property developed by Goh and filed by UT in exchange for UT taking an undisclosed equity stake in the company.
The dotLab system is used to accelerate assay development and improve the clinical utility of markers, Rocky Ganske, president and CEO of Axela, told BTW last week.
“This is not to be confused with a discovery tool,” he said. “Post-discovery, we’ve got this nice pile of markers, most of which never get past being a nice pile of identified markers.” The dotLab platform allows researchers to obtain real-time information based on the biomarkers and needed for assay development, “like you would use a Biacore [instrument] for,” and to run multiplexed protein assays on the same platform, “much like you would use a Luminex [instrument],” Ganske said.
Ganske added that sales of dotLab are expected to be approximately CAN$5 million this year, but that Axela will now turn its attention toward the clinical market.
“Axela’s current progression plan will be to move from what is now a healthcare research-centric marketer of these technologies to a point-of-care and physician office lab environment,” Ganske said. “The government has reinvested in this project with a heavy bend towards commercialization, and the physics group at University of Toronto has considerable experience relative to light interaction with molecules.”
Specific terms of the partnership call for Axela to ensure that any applications developed at UT have commercial potential, for which UT will pay Axela an undisclosed amount, according to Ganske. Axela will specifically provide commercialization expertise that “UT doesn’t have” and “advanced development of concepts from a commercial development standpoint,” Ganske said.
A portion of the CAN$7.8 million ORF grant will go toward UT’s contracting of these services with Axela.
This type of arrangement is “a different model than you’d typically find in the US,” Ganske added. “That’s kind of a key difference – a heavy focus on bringing in commercial partners early, and an early commercial mindset, to assure that the technologies are not created for technology’s sake, but are created to commercialize into products that we know would add value into the marketplace.”
Ganske declined to disclose the specific light-based technologies and application areas being developed by UT and Axela for competitive reasons.
“The government has reinvested in this project with a heavy bend towards commercialization, and the physics group at University of Toronto has considerable experience relative to light interaction with molecules.”
Miller and Goh were unable to be reached for comment prior to publication. In a statement, Miller said that the technology being developed under the grant “will offer unprecedented new techniques of seeing what is going on inside of cells.”
Miller also said that the BioOptics project has focused on commercialization and company partnerships from the start in order to more quickly ”get our discoveries out into the ‘real world’”
On the flip side, Axela will also send an undisclosed amount of money UT’s way to fund the basic research conducted by Miller and Goh that Axela hopes to eventually incorporate into future clinical diagnostic products.
As an example of the type of research project that Axela would fund at UT, Ganske pointed to improvements that could be made to Axela’s the dotLab platform, which to this point has been focused exclusively on protein research.
“We actually generate [protein detection] via a diffraction grating, and we have a diffraction pattern that has been optimized for things the size of a protein,” he said. “But when it comes to things like whole cells and small molecules, other diffractive patterns could be more efficient. The university researchers have the skill set and the domain expertise to generate these patterns, and we don’t have to hire it.”
In terms of the newer products, Ganske said that they would not be diffractive-based. Instead, they will be “different forms of lasers, different speeds, and different ways to interact with molecules that could then be used for point-of-care applications.”
It is unclear whether UT will own any IP developed through research funded by Axela, or whether Axela will need to license the IP back for continued product development. UT’s intellectual property and contracts group could not be reached for comment prior to publication.
Ganske said that Axela has a long history of investing in university-developed technologies because of the expertise afforded by most university research labs, and in particular it has decided to conduct a “large share” of its research with UT.
“We will actually help them with commercial planning, but also some of that work that is less ‘R’ and more ‘D’ is work that can be done at Axela,” Ganske said. “We also send money the other way to invest in research projects at the university versus doing that research ourselves.”