By Ben Butkus
Fresh off winning second place in a University of California, San Diego, business plan competition, a team of graduate students from the school is starting a company to commercialize a low-cost, handheld quantitative PCR instrument for diagnosing hospital-associated infections.
The company, called DevaCell, believes that its instrument, dubbed ScanStream, will cost one-tenth the price of comparable commercial platforms, with individual tests that cost around $20, thus driving widespread adoption and saving hospitals in the US $5 billion to $10 billion per year by curbing the incidence of HAIs.
The company's founders include Ahmet Erten and Corbin Clawson, who recently earned PhDs in electrical engineering and bioengineering from UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering; and Inanc Ortac, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and graduate student at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center.
The trio learned last week that they had been awarded second prize — $28,000 in cash and services — in the annual UCSD Entrepreneur Challenge Business Plan Competition for their plans to further develop and commercialize ScanStream for diagnosing HAIs, and in particular methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, at the point of care.
"Initially … we built this technology basically for early detection of cancer," Ortac told PCR Insider this week. "We didn't mean to make a portable device for cancer detection, but we liked that we could build a simplified [handheld] version of a device we had already built. Then we started looking for applications."
Citing statistics from the US Centers of Disease Control stating that HAI incidence can be reduced by half in the US if every admitted hospital patient receives a molecular diagnostic test, Ortac and colleagues reasoned that the main virtues of their platform — namely low cost, speed, and fast turnaround time — made it ideal for such widespread testing.
"Right now [HAIs] cost hospitals between $5 billion and $10 billion every year, maybe more" Ortac said, relaying the details of his team's business plan. Meantime, the company estimates that it will be able to sell its platform for between $3,000 and $5,000; and individual molecular tests for about $20 each.
If, hypothetically, ScanStream tests were used to test every admitted hospital patient, it would cost roughly $300 million, Ortac said. "But this can save hospitals $5 to $10 billion, and we believe this will drive adoption of the device," he added.
Ortac said that innovations in three major areas will allow the platform to be manufactured cheaply without compromising speed or performance. The first, he said is a "new way of using whole-blood samples in PCR. We have a new chemistry and method of doing that."
Second, the researchers have developed a new thermal cycling method that increases the cycling speed while saving time and power, "which is especially important for handheld devices," Ortac said, adding that ScanStram will be powered by a battery.
Third, the group has developed "a special chemistry to do quantitative PCR detection," Ortac said. "It's basically fluorescence detection, but we have developed our own."
Ortac declined to provide additional details on the technology, citing their early nature and the fact that UCSD has only recently filed patent applications covering each innovation. But the upshot is that DevaCell's platform is expected to enable testing at the bedside in about 15 minutes and cost about a tenth that of current commercial platforms, most of which are benchtop and not truly handheld.
Although the company will target all HAIs, as with many molecular diagnostic startups, MRSA appears to be a low-hanging fruit, with nearly 100,000 infections in the US annually, about 86 percent of which are hospital-associated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ortac admitted that the prize money from the business plan competition probably won't go far — "since the IP is [owned by] UCSD, we need to license it, so maybe some of the money will be used to do that," he said — but noted that participating in the process brought recognition to the company in the form of potential investors.
"Right now we have some money from government grants, but there are already some VCs interested in the company," he said. "Personally I'd like to use government grants for now, but within a year or so I think we will look for VC funds, as well."
Ortac said that the company will attempt to remain in San Diego. He added that the commercial development timeline for ScanStream is about three years.
"By the end of the third year, we can get to the beta stage, I think, and the device can be ready for the [US Food and Drug Administration] approval process," Ortac said. "I think that process won't take much time because there are already some devices that use PCR in the clinical setting, and even though our technology is different, the basics are still there. I think it will accelerate the process."
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