To diagnose patients with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), an inflammatory disease that disrupts the esophagus, current medical knowledge requires anesthesia and an endoscopy. This time-consuming and invasive process, combined with the low likelihood of a patient having EoE leads doctors to sidestep testing for it.
However, Dr. Christopher Gregg’s lab at the University of Utah didn’t think these difficulties should stop patients from getting easier, faster diagnostics. He founded Etched DNA, a startup focused on measuring RNA, rather than DNA, to streamline the process. The company is cutting out the need for an endoscopy altogether with a partnership with students at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
“Most personalized genomics companies analyze your DNA sequence,” Gregg said. “But, throughout your life, you’re going through all kinds of changes with your diet, sickness and stress, and your health fluctuates. Your DNA doesn’t respond to physiological changes in your body that tell you about your health. Our idea was instead to measure RNA. When RNA molecules are generated, they create a real-time measure of what’s going on in your body. We wanted a simple way of getting RNA samples, and so we developed a way to do a swab of the mouth. We’ve learned a lot of new things about how that controls the expression of our genes, and we wanted to find a home for this new knowledge in the real world.”
Gregg and the students in his lab wanted to find a way to translate the work they were doing in the lab to clinics and patients around the world. When applying for a small seed grant through the U’s Center for Medical Innovation, the team was faced with creating a business model. That’s when they first got involved with the Lassonde New Venture Development Center in 2017.
For each member of New Venture Development team, every step of the process was new. For some, the science research methods were something they had never encountered. Insurance billing codes and the legal realm of health sciences were new for some, and for many, the business world was entirely out of their comfort zone. Still, the team was able to teach each other, and learn new skills, too.
“I thought that the transition from thinking about science to learning about the business world was not bad at all,” said Andrew Taibi, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate and member of the New Venture Development team. “I’m learning a lot. Things like billing codes, reimbursements, money, that all scares me, it’s out of my element. But, that’s why I was interested in New Venture Development. In our (science-based) training, we don’t get these communication exercises. We don’t learn anything about the business side, or communicating with non-scientists, which is very hard, especially if you’re ingrained in something 23 hours a day: you forget how different you sound to the rest of the world until you talk to someone and they look at you like you have two heads. We’re learning skills here that are incredibly valuable.”
“It’s incredible to be working with people from all kinds of backgrounds,” said Danny Powell, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate and second-year New Venture Development student in Etched DNA. “Being able to work with other established researchers as well as lawyers and businesspeople who all have expertise in one area has widened my understanding of the field that I’m in.”
In New Venture Development’s first round with Etched DNA, the team started with market validation.
“We wanted to see if anyone else was already doing work like this, so we looked for other companies that were focused on RNA or other breakthrough technologies that revolutionized the diagnosis of EOE,” said Powell. “Everything in the space was all about changing the way that the endoscopy was performed or some difference in the pathology, all reinventing the current process as it exists right now. In the genetic testing space, the only companies we found doing RNA testing were focused on cancer, not on these autoimmune diseases, which are much harder to diagnose. We saw no competitors in the market space for the types of tests we were developing, and knew we had a huge value proposition for doctors.”
In Gregg’s lab, Stephanie Kravitz, a graduate student, Elliott Ferris, a bioinformaticist and Wei-Chao Huang, a postdoctoral fellow, wanted help honing in on a focus for their research.
“The partnership with the New Venture Development team helped us refine our product, focus in on the aspects of it that were marketable, like the application to EOE,” said Ferris. “Lassonde helped us to crystallize business ideas. The team helped us to estimate total addressable market (TAM) and use a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis to understand our strengths and weaknesses in our target market,” Huang said.
Now, Etched DNA is currently in its second year of the New Venture Development program, which is unique for startups at the U. The partnership’s focus is creating a business model and getting the technology into a clinic. All sides of the project are faced with the challenge of taking a promising, creative idea and turning it into a successful business.
Working with the Lassonde New Venture Development team, though, did more than simply accelerate the project for Gregg and his lab: it kept them going.
“Working with the New Venture Development team motivated us to keep working on our research,” Ferris said. “In the lab, we’re focused on the technical, scientific, laboratory side of things. Knowing not only that the market for what we’re working on exists, but also getting a business model that we can use to approach that market, gives us a goal. It really lights a fire under us.”
“We didn’t know what to expect from the partnership, but any help was greatly appreciated,” Kravitz said. “Understanding what questions to ask, what things to be aware of and even the language surrounding these kinds of business ventures can be a little bit elusive to scientists, so it’s been a really positive experience to be able to use the New Venture Development team to expand our knowledge base.”
Learn more about hte Lassonde New Venture Development Center here: lassonde.utah.edu/new-venture-development.